Forecasting system to help Pakistan manage floods

Jul 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Adaptation, Development and Climate Change, Disaster and Emergency, Pakistan, Weather

Alertnet: A two-year project to upgrade Pakistan’s flood forecasting and early warning systems will enable the South Asian nation to cope better as climate change brings more extreme weather, according to a U.N. expert leading the initiative.

The effort to improve Pakistan’s disaster preparedness – a partnership between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Japan and Pakistan – was launched this week, as the 2011 monsoon season gets underway.

Pakistan was hit by the worst floods in its recorded history last year, triggered by heavy monsoon rains in late July. They killed more than 2,000 people and affected 18 million – more than a tenth of the population. A massive cascade of water swept through the Indus River basin from north to south over a period of several weeks, submerging one-fifth of the country and washing away homes, roads, bridges, crops and livestock.

In many areas, warnings were either not issued or did not reach vulnerable populations in time. The new programme, funded with a $3.5-million grant from Tokyo, will install a flood-forecasting system using satellite-based rainfall data at government agencies, including the Pakistan Meteorological Department. It will also carry out risk mapping of flood plains along the Indus River.

“Floods in Pakistan will become more frequent because of climate-change impacts and changes in land use,” said Shahbaz Khan, project leader and head of UNESCO’s water and sustainable development section. “This project will help the government, the disaster management authorities and ordinary people manage floods in a more informed way.” They will understand better where to build protection dykes, and how to manage floodgates and dams to control floodwaters without losing stored water, he added.

The Pakistani-born Australian scientist said at-risk communities will receive forecasts and warnings they can trust, making them much more likely to take steps to protect themselves and their livestock. It will be a huge quantum leap for them,” Khan told AlertNet while on a visit to Islamabad.

The system that will be rolled out in Pakistan has been developed by the Japan-based International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management to improve flood forecasting in developing countries that don’t have the means to gather enough rainfall data from the ground. Pakistani officials will be trained to use the system and communicate warnings to residents of the Indus River basin.

According to UNESCO, the project aims to reduce the human and economic impacts of flooding and encourage safer settlements close to flood plains, while using floodwaters to benefit the environment and the economy. It will also develop a regional platform for sharing hydro-meteorological observations, as nearly all the headwaters of the Indus River’s main tributaries originate in neighbouring countries.


One reason why last year’s damage was so severe – with the cost exceeding $10 billion – is that the Indus has rarely experienced flooding on that scale, with most previous big floods occurring on Pakistan’s four other major rivers, Khan said. In 2010, the floods began in an upstream catchment area of the Indus river system that does not have a warning system and has not been well studied, making it very difficult to monitor.

To remedy this lack of information, the new forecasting system will combine data sourced from satellites and ultrasonic radars as well as measurements from the sparse network of gauges on the ground to calculate the risk of flooding. Processing takes several hours, and the analysis can be updated on an hourly basis, Khan said. The system will be able to predict floods one to 14 days ahead of time, once rain has started to fall. It will also track storms and forecast the probability of heavy rainfall up to 10 days in advance.

Pakistan’s upgraded system will not be fully operational for another two years. But Khan said work already in progress would be helpful in providing better information to the government should major floods happen again this year. The Pakistan Meteorological Department expects this year’s monsoon rains to be 10 percent below normal for the country as a whole. But in Pakistan’s northern areas and Kashmir, which drain into the Indus River basin, they are predicted to be 10 percent higher than last year.

Environmental conditions such as increased snow melt in mountainous areas have led to high water levels in rivers, while groundwater levels are already high after last year’s deluge, reducing the ground’s absorption capacity.

2011 FEARS

Manuel Bessler, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Pakistan, told AlertNet in late June that Pakistan’s authorities and the aid community have learned lessons from last year’s disaster, and are better prepared for any flooding this year. He said the most anticipated scenario is that two million people could be affected by floods in 2011 and the worst-case scenario is five million.

Last week, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said up to two million people are at risk this year, partly due to a lack of funds for reconstruction after the 2010 floods. More than $600 million is still needed to support early recovery activities, she noted.  “Major efforts are needed immediately to reduce the vulnerability of these families and implement urgent recovery and flood preparedness work on river banks, irrigation channels and other infrastructure,” Amos said in a statement.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said this week it had distributed emergency shelter, water cans and kitchen items to 54 families (some 300 people) displaced by flooding in four villages in northern Sindh’s Jacobabad district after an embankment was breached on July 2.

In preparation for any new emergencies, including floods, IOM has prepositioned relief supplies in operational hubs in Sindh and Punjab, and is helping local authorities develop contingency plans, including an early warning system in Sindh province. In Punjab, it is conducting disaster response and preparedness training in flood-prone districts, and has handed over life jackets to the district government in Muzzaffargarh.

UNESCO’s Khan warned that if flooding on the scale of 2010 occurs again this year, the negative consequences would be much greater because the authorities are struggling to reconstruct dykes and embankments, and people are still rebuilding their homes. “If floods like that come, there could be colossal damage,” he said. “I sincerely hope there will be no floods of a similar magnitude this year, and we have time to build Pakistan’s capacity to cope before they happen again.”

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis) Source>>



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