Nepal Floods 2017: ‘We had the forecasts but not the system to link them with our preparedness and response’

Madhab Uprety, Disaster Risk Reduction consultant, and Sumit Dugar, Research Associate at Practical Action Consulting South Asia, reflect on efforts to improve disaster preparedness in Nepal.

Southern flood plains of Nepal have always experienced a varied degree of flooding during the monsoon.  Whilst humanitarian responders and district level agencies have always relied on a general level of preparedness based on average levels of risks leading to periodic preparedness interventions across these flood prone districts.

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Portion of the Lal Bakaiya dam that was swept away by a flood in Rautahat during August 2017. Source: The Himalayan Times.

So far most of the major river basins are equipped with early warning systems and there are existing protocols and mechanisms to communicate early warnings and plan for emergencies. Yet we seemed hardly prepared for the recent Terai floods that claimed hundreds of lives and rendered tens of thousands of people homeless.

The scale and extent of flooding was huge as incessant rainfall for two days and across the Churiya range unleashed floods across entire southern belt inundating 26 Terai districts.

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Picture credit: Discussion between community members during flood response exercise, by Sumit Dugar.

But the rainfall event was not off the radar of prediction and was indeed forecast several days in advance. The events were captured 10 and 3 days in advance by the global flood and weather forecast models. Though the flood alerts were issued by the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) 24-hours in advance, disaster managers hardly move beyond their customary response approaches of rescue and relief.

Existing early warning systems in major river basins were instrumental in saving assets, lives and properties, but warnings and actions merely based on the real-time situation of rivers and rainfall were not adequate enough to cater every contingency, particularly in case of flash floods from small monsoon (intermittent) streams.

There is dire need of paradigm shift towards forecast-based emergency preparedness. Unfortunately, there is not any mechanism that links scientific forecasts within the existing humanitarian landscape.  And also it is largely unclear among the humanitarian actors and government stakeholders about what levels of forecast probabilities and magnitude are worthy to react.

Globally there has been a recent increased shift towards anticipatory preparedness and early actions based upon weather forecasts under the remit of Forecast-based Financing (FbF), a niche concept which envisions humanitarian agencies and government stakeholders making use of credible scientific information to anticipate possible impacts and mobilise resources automatically before a hazard event.

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Picture credit: Community member using hand siren during flood response exercise, by Sumit Dugar.

Practical Action together with support from the World Food Program have been advocating this approach in Nepal and the idea has already been put-forth across national Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) platforms for discussion. FbF is currently being piloted in six flood prone districts of West Nepal and there is an intention to upscale these initiatives across entire southern flood plains of Nepal. Forecast thresholds and triggers have been identified and Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) that includes science informed anticipatory actions have been developed and integrated in the local disaster preparedness plans.

However, regular communication of the forecasts and their effective interpretation among the end users constrains FbF implementation. The aftermath of recent floods in August 2017 have certainly increased relevance of FbF in disaster preparedness and response, and the pressing question now is whether the recent floods will act as a wake-up call and we start making forecasts part of our readiness or simply plan response and recovery in a normative business as usual manner.

Improving Community Flood Resilience in Areas Remaining at Risk

Dan Matthews is a Senior Resilience Consultant, with experience in flood incident management and planning.  Dan reports on FRM2017 and work on improving community flood resilience.

“Would you like to speak at the SNIFFER Flood Risk Management conference in Edinburgh?”

I’ve learnt to see some of these ‘development opportunities’ approaching, but on this occasion opted to grab it with both hands. I’m glad that I did! SNIFFER bring people and ideas together as ‘knowledge brokers for a resilient Scotland’ and their annual Flood Risk Management Conference in Edinburgh has promoted learning, sharing best practice and shaping next steps throughout the sector. With the 2017 event titled ‘Managing Flood Risk in the Context of Change’ it was a chance to share some of my recent work on improving community flood resilience.

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Temporary flood barriers protecting communities along the River Severn. Source: Panoramio

I’ve been working closely with a team at the Environment Agency to develop a national capability to provide support to communities throughout England using temporary flood barriers. Whilst this has involved significant financial investment in equipment, it also requires significant time investment to develop the plans, procedures and importantly the people to deliver the capability.

I have been fortunate to be involved in many elements of this work, from developing deployment plans for specific communities, through to embedding new ways of working with incident response staff. It was challenging to get the critical parts of this operational for the winter of 2016, but also amazing what can be achieved when people are motivated by new and innovative ideas.

In January 2017, this was called into action as over 8000 metres of temporary flood barriers and 25 high volume pumps were deployed in advance of significant flood risk on the East coast of England. One deployment stretched for over a mile, reducing the risk of flooding for residents at Ferriby on the River Humber in Yorkshire.

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Testing temporary defence deployment plans with the Environment Agency.

I found it really interesting to reflect upon this and share some of what I’ve learnt with those at the conference. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform’s keynote speech provided some great context. Climate change is expected to potentially double flood risk in some areas of Scotland before the end of the century. Surely there is a role for this kind of capability, perhaps on a local authority scale, in Scotland?

The 2007 Floods: ten years of thinking big and acting early

Russell Burton is an expert in flood risk and incident management, Managing Director of RAB Consultants and a former flood warning team leader in the Environment Agency.  Russell looks back at changes in flood resilience since the 2007 floods.

I read John Curtin’s blog Flood risk management 10 years on – a journey of high and low tech improvements with great interest this week and found the list of improvements and the progress made impressive, especially against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and austerity.

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Tewkesbury is situated in Gloucestershire and was one of the worst affected parts of the county when the floods hit in July 2007. Source: Panoramio

It also got me thinking back to my own experiences and how the changes are not only in the tech we use but also in the way we think and respond to floods. Like John, I have my own story of what I was doing on the day of the 2007 storm. In July 2007, RAB was one year old, so it was a time of optimism and hard work for me to get the company off the ground. On that day in July I had a meeting with Environment Agency Wales (remember them!) in Cardiff, to start planning a flood exercise of all things. I planned to drive from Lichfield to Cardiff via the M50 with RAB’s first ever employee as a passenger. To be fair the Met office issued severe weather warnings for the west midlands up to 2 or 3 days ahead of the storm but it would only be on the homeward journey for us and who was to say it would be that bad and in that location anyway? I blush at the thought of my gung-ho attitude but I think I reflect the mindset of the times, “Think maybe, act if we have to”.

So off we set and had a great meeting, but by the time we were heading home reports were already coming in of flooding and travel disruption. Nevertheless we made pretty good progress on the M50 till we were approaching the junction with the M5 at Stroud. By now the downpour was a monsoon, the motorway came to a standstill and gradually the road became a river as torrents of water flowed off the fields. The hard shoulder and lane one were impassable but after a two hour delay we were able to crawl past in the “fast lane”.

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Strensham Services on the M5, July 20th 2007. Source: flickr

To be fair I wasn’t the only one “thinking maybe and acting if we have to”, at some point I probably passed the lorry full of flood barriers bound for Upton upon Severn but stuck on the other carriageway of the flooded M5.

So what’s changed? Personally, I take Severe Weather Warnings very seriously now and adjust my travel arrangements to suit. But 2007 was also a watershed in mindset for flood risk managers in the UK. For the Environment Agency, it was the birth of the mantra “Think Big, Act Early”. This simple phrase has stood up to challenge (Think big, Act Appropriately was one watered down suggestion I recall) and I believe it’s helped drive the high and low tech improvements listed by John. It’s made us ask questions like, how big, how shall we act and when is early enough? The Flood Forecasting Centre  quantify the scale and timing of the impacts through the Flood Guidance Statement, which now gives flood managers up to 5 days notice to decide how and when to act early. The new extended flood outlook offers a 30 day window for flood risk managers to prepare and plan the response. The 2013-14 floods (amongst others!) highlighted that Thinking Big didn’t always result in Act Early. There was a need to plan what early actions could be done with this extra lead time for unprotected communities, and so came Temporary Defence Deployment Plans and Major Incident Plans to set out the strategic and tactical actions flood managers have at their disposal. Although these are just a couple of examples, the other improvements in John’s list are also driven by the need to “Think Big, Act Early”.

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July 2007 floods at-a-glance. Source: BBC

So in summary, the high and low tech improvements that have been made over the last 10 years are all fantastic but for me the biggest change is in our mindset, to “Think Big, Act Early”. To bring this into sharp contrast, this week the Met Office predicted that Britain is heading for “unprecedented” winter rainfall after their new super computer predicted records will be broken by up to 30 per cent. Time to “Think Big, Act early”.

Resilience through disaster risk reduction in Nigeria

In April, Michael Clark reported on work to improve disaster management in Ghana. This month he reports on a new project in disaster risk reduction in Nigeria.

Way back in January 2005, with the world still in shock following the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake & tsunami and with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina still 8 months away, the United Nations was setting out how we would go about making the world safer from natural disasters – it’s timing could not have been more significant.

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The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Picture credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images via CNN.com

The 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was the first time a global plan had been developed to detail the work required from stakeholders across the public, private and charitable sectors to reduce disaster risk. Thanks to the HFA, governments, intergovernmental agencies, international and national NGOs, disaster experts and at-risk communities were starting to work together to coordinate their preparation for disasters.

The HFA was the first significant step taken towards placing an emphasis on mitigating and preparing for disasters; the essence of resilience. It moved away from the traditional disaster management methodology – simply focussed on dealing with the aftermath; response and recovery. The subsequent Sendai Framework built on this and placed an even greater emphasis on mitigation and preparation through disaster risk reduction. It is the Sendai Framework that will shape how we go about disaster management and building resilience up until 2030.

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The seven global targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

In many facets, the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is seen to be a regional spearhead in disaster management across West Africa. The scale and scope of the hazards experienced across Africa’s most populous nation are vast – from flooding to oil spills and infectious disease outbreaks to an Islamist insurgency, the demands placed upon NEMA are significant.

The ongoing Afri-Gate project, which is led by the Bournemouth University’s Disaster Management Centre (BUDMC) and supported by RAB Consultants aims to support the growth of disaster risk reduction and resilience across West Africa. Much like my work in Ghana, the initial phase of the project sought to identify where there are challenges for disaster management and disaster managers in Nigeria in their attempts to improve disaster risk reduction.

I spent 5 days in the federal capital of Abuja, working closely with NEMA’s senior team to understand the disaster management structure and the strategic direction of the agency. Despite being in its infancy, a dedicated department to advocate and coordinate disaster risk reduction efforts across the country has ensured that Nigeria is making huge strides in the right direction.

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Michael Clark is a resilience consultant who has worked across West Africa over the last 7 years. He is pictured at NEMA Headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria.

Despite the best efforts of NEMA, recent flooding events in Oyo State have highlighted the challenges faced by the agency in their promotion of disaster risk reduction. Dredging operations undertaken by the state government to reduce the risk of flooding are being negated by the persistence of communities building homes on water courses. This is one of the areas that the Afri-Gate project will continue to explore as we investigate how NEMA can better engage communities to highlight the importance of disaster risk reduction.

The Afri-Gate project continues to grow in its impact and significance across West Africa.

Building good practice to support engagement with flood risk communities

Paul Laidlaw, Community Resilience Manager with the Scottish Flood Forum, reports on efforts to support engagement with communities at risk of flooding.

The Scottish Flood Forum (SFF) recently launched a pilot Good Practice Framework (GPF) to support engagement with flood risk communities. The work is being developed in partnership with the National Centre For Resilience in Scotland (NCR) who were established in 2016 to ensure communities across Scotland are fully and adequately prepared for natural hazards such as flooding and landslides.

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Stonehaven (pictured) is a community where examples of good practice can be used to support others involved in engagement with flood risk communities. Source: Metro

The GPF is made up of lots of useful information to support organisations think about the different ways they can engage flood risk communities such as case studies, information notes, check lists, templates and more. The four case studies outline a range of successful methods to engage flood risk communities to take positive action and work in partnership. These case studies include examples of the SFF supporting partnership working with flood risk communities and concrete examples of communities working to increase their resilience to flooding in Stonehaven, Edzell, Aberfeldy and Menstrie.

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Launch of the new good practice framework, a partnership between the Scottish Flood Forum and the National Centre for Resilience.

Our work at the Scottish Flood Forum is committed to supporting engagement with flood risk communities and the GPF offers a range of soft guidance to support local authority staff and others with an interest in high quality engagement. The GPF offers information on starting community flood resilience groups, setting up a flood warden scheme, partnership working, developing community flood plans and a set of draft principles that can help to provide a strong foundation to develop engagement with flood risk communities.

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Paul Laidlaw (left) pictured with others involved in engagement with the community of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire.

The framework can be viewed at Resilience Direct under the NCR page and by accessing working groups. The SFF would love to hear feedback from those involved in community engagement on its usefulness and any suggestions to improve the GPF. For more information contact paul.laidlaw@scottishfloodforum.org

Being prepared for flood emergencies: behind the scenes of a major exercise

Daniel Eldson, assistant resilience consultant, reports on his experience in supporting a major flooding exercise in England.

Storm Desmond caused an estimated £1.3m of damages when it struck on the 5th and 6th of December 2015. Disasters such as this provide context as to why agencies involved in emergencies must continually improve their readiness for major natural hazards, and in the case of the Environment Agency, being able to ‘think big, act early, and be visible’ which is core to their role. Exercise CERTUS was an example of flood planning and preparation with an exercise to test winter readiness plans, incident management, command and control, communication and reporting arrangements.

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Picture credit: Carlisle was one of the worst hit places during Storm Desmond with rescue teams evacuating many people from their flooded homes, BBC

The exercise involved 1,000 participants across England, including the Environment Agency’s National Incident Room, National Operational Incident Management Team, Executive Directors and operational field staff.

Part of my role while developing the exercise was to consult all the area teams and develop unique scenarios for their area to respond to, depending on the level of response they wanted to simulate. This was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project for me, with the steepest learning curve, building realistic incident scenarios that we could work into the overall exercise. These ranged from simulating media interview requests, to managing damage to major flood assets. We then worked these scenarios into the larger CERTUS exercise. All of this area level information would then need to be managed at a national level, testing the EA’s command and control, communication and reporting arrangements.

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Incident management teams taking part in Exercise CERTUS.

During the live exercise, I provided telephone support to our facilitators and managed injects to each of the 16 areas from the Environment Agency’s National Incident Room with over 500 emails and supporting documents being sent to participants via an exercise messaging system.

The exercise allowed us to test the deployment of temporary flood barriers, pumps and other mobile incident response equipment to support communities remaining at risk of flooding. This activity in turn allowed the new Major Incident, Temporary Defence and Pump Deployment plans to be tested. What struck me with this exercise was the ability to effectively test winter readiness and being prepared for the next major flood. In particular, making sure everyone is prepared to respond when the time comes: 10% of those who took part in CERTUS were new to incident management, and almost all reported that they felt more confident in their role as a result.

How can we learn to live with floods?

Fiona Cuthill, assistant flood risk management consultant and editor of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Young Geographer magazine, reports on a recent conference which looked into learning to live with floods in Scotland.

In March 2017, the Royal Society of Edinburgh  hosted an event which brought together flood resilience experts to discuss how we can learn to live with floods and the associated challenges for science and management. Speakers from academic institutions, government bodies and private consultancies discussed their research about how resilience to flooding can be achieved.

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Picture credit: Northern England, Scotland battered by floods tied to Storm Desmond, Newsweek

One of the themes explored at the conference was the use of engineering approaches to create flood resilient communities. Professor David Balmforth (MWH Global) explored the benefits of creating blue-green cities as a way to manage surface water runoff and allow urban areas to become more resilient by preventing damaging flows occurring. Dr Mark Wilkinson (James Hutton Institute) advocated the use of Natural Flood Management techniques in catchments to reduce flood risk, while highlighting their non-disruptive nature to current land use practices, as exemplified in the case of Balruddery Farm, Dundee.

Community engagement was another key theme presented at the conference with Michael Cranston (RAB Consultants/University of Dundee) discussing research undertaken into the effectiveness of SEPA flood warnings. Following a series of workshops and questionnaires with community groups, it was found that most customers are happy with the service and do take action when a warning is issued. However, customers would like more information provided in the warnings to help improve their preparedness and resiliency to flood events.

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Picture credit: Twitter @iskraunam

Professor Ioan Fazey (University of Dundee) discussed his community engagement work in the Solomon Islands, and explained the necessity to tackle issues that weaken social cohesion to allow communities to build resilience. He also indicated the growing need for practitioners to enhance their facilitation skills to work through tensions within community groups to help build a greater resilience capacity, referencing the climate resilient communities work in the Scottish Borders.

Finally, Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell (Universities of Oxford and Middlesex) discussed the Flood-Re insurance scheme which helps people living in high flood risk areas to afford premiums. However, Penning-Rowsell argued that subsidised premiums mean those living in high flood risk areas may be less inclined to pay for measures that will prevent their homes or businesses being flooded in the future. As a result, other ways of increasing the number of insured households will have to be tried.

Overall, the conference highlighted the need for continued improvement to our understanding of flooding and the best methodologies to build flood resilience. With flooding listed as the top environmental risk to the UK over the next century, this conference was a timely reminder that we need to continually update our knowledge and understanding of flooding to enhance the resilience of flood-prone and flood-affected communities.

The full report from the conference can be found here.