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.

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