South Asia Needs To Enrich Regional Flood Information System Urgently – Analysis

Feb 17th, 2014 | By | Category: Advocacy, Disasters and Climate Change, Flood, News

Satellite-image-of-the-Indus-River-basin-in-Pakistan-India-and-China-672x371Since a significant percentage of people are exposed to recurring riverine flood disasters mostly during rainy season an effective regional flood information system is needed urgently in South Asian heavily effected countries. People working with flood mitigation and climate change adaptation programs lay emphasis such a system which will avert flood catastrophes of transboundary scale effectively. The Pakistan floods of 2010 killed about 2000 people and affected 20 million. A breach of Koshi embankment in Nepal and over 4 million in neighbouring India. Every year flood waters inundate a large swathe of China , India and Bangladesh displacing millions of people, with local damage estimated at billions of dollars.

The overall vulnerability of South Asian people living in and around the river basins is exacerbated by trends such as increased migration of the poor to flood-prone lowlands, growth of dense settlements along the river banks, fueled in large part of urbanisation and industrialisation, and effects of climate change, particularly increased frequency and intensity of monsoon precipitation. It is to be mentioned that the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers originate the Hindu-Kush Himalayas (HKH) and support the lives and livelihoods of over 700 million people living in their basins.

The bilateral treaties treaties and data sharing arrangements that are currently in force among South Asian countries are not sufficient. On both humanitarian and development grounds, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)’s regional member countries considered it timely to adopt a regional approach- for example, a mechanism for multilateral exchange of flood data and information to alert people living in flood-prone areas with sufficient lead times to evacuate. So ICIMOD has established the HKH Hydrological Cycle Observation System (HKH-HCOS).

The World Meteorological Organisation(WMO), ICIMOD and partner countries developed the HKH-HCOS project to enhance regional cooperation in hydrometerological data collection and sharing for flood forecasting to support disaster prevention and flood management at the regional level. The project is establishing a regional flood information system (RFIS) to facilitate transboundary exchange of real and near-real time data, best practices and knowledge in support of flood management. It also seeks to build the technical capacity of the national hydrological and meterological services of partner countries.

The overall objective is to minimise loss of human lives and property damage though timely exchange of flood data and information between and among partner countries.

The wide variation in capacities of partner countries with regard to flood forecasting and management offers a tremendous opportunity for bilateral and regional technical cooperation. The project initially includes about 28 hydrometeorological stations, most of which requires upgrading, selected in consultation with partner countries.

When the RFIS is fully operational, real and near-real-time river level, rainfall, and related data from these selected hydrometeorological stations will be measured using instruments meeting international standards produced by Ott Hydromet, Vaisala, Hydro Services Private Limited, and Stevens. The data will be transmitted through direct telemetry (GSM/ CDMA or sattelite) to the national hydrometeorological services of partner countries. It will be delivered simultaneously to the regional server at ICIMOD for development of regional floods outlooks. About 216 Global Telecommunications System (GTS) stations under the auspices of WMO in HKH will contribute synoptic data to the RFIS. It is envisaged that more and more hydrometerological stations will be added to the HKH-HYCOS network over time in order to improve both the accuracy and lead times of flood forecasts.

According to ICIMOD experts the RFIS will essentially comprise effective data and information transmission and reception capabilities, adequate national and regional database and data management systems, and the requisite technical expertise. The regional and national flood information systems are visualised as web-based systems. It is planned that satellite products will be integrated into RFIS. Field technicians will be trained in operation and maintenance. Training and regional exposure visits are also envisaged for administrators and national database managers in partner countries. training will be jointly coordinated by ICMOD and WMxO training sessions as well as awareness-raising drives in local communities, will address the social dimensions of flood disaster preparedness, including gender aspects.

As the implementing and co-coordinating agency, ICIMOD hosts the project Management Unit and coordinates with the partners to implement the project according to WMO’s WHYCOS guidelines. As the apex body of the project policy, strategy and implementation, approves revisions to the project document, work plan and budget and advises on future direction and financing. It is expected that ICIMOD, WMO and the partner countries will strive to upscale the project by expanding the network real-time hydrometeorological stations and the use of data for development of flood outlooks and flood forecasting products to contribute to saving lives and livelihoods in the HKH.

Community-based early warning systems in Bangladesh:

The community-based early warning systems in Bangladesh save lives of millions of people, livestock and property. The country is reducing vulnerabilities to floods and cyclones by making information accessible to those to whom it matters most. Cyclones monitoring technologies continue to improve significantly, the information rarely reaches communities in time to enable them to evacuate vulnerable areas.

It is achieved bringing institutions, science and communities together. Scientific information was generated at international level and the CPP became active from the moment the information reached the national threshold. Besides Ministerial and state level, there are various disaster management committees at field level in the district, sub-district(upzilla) and union councils headed by a deputy commissioner, Upzilla Nirbahi officer and chair of respective areas.

More importantly community members acts as volunteers for the CPP to mobilise people in the event of cyclones.

The cyclone preparedness programme (CPP) uses a warning mechanism made up of signal systems that warn communities in the coastal districts of Bangaladesh of impending cyclones in time for them to evacuate to safe places before an impending hazard becomes a disaster. The effectiveness of the CPP was demonstrated for the first time in 2007-08 during Cyclone Sidr. News about the cyclone was relayed from the World Meterological Organisation to the Indian Meteorological Office in New Delhi which relayed from the World Meteorological Office in New Delhi (India) which relayed the message to the authorities in Bangladesh then alerted local Red Cresent office which mobilized 40,000 volunteers to relay the message to vulnerable communities using cyclones and megaphones. Two million people had been shifted to cyclones shelters by the time the cyclone landed. Cyclone Sidr killed 3,500 in 2008, less than 1% of the fatalities in 1970. In 1970, ‘Cyclone Bhola’ killed over 500,000 people in Bangladesh. CPP was launched by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and Bangladesh Red Cresent Society (BDRCS) and later institutionalised in 1973 by the Government of Bangladesh.

Similarly, although flood-forecasting observation systems have improved with time, information on impending floods is sent mostly to government and other agencies and fails to reach vulnerable communities in an understandable form. Even when the information is  disseminated, the messages are often sophisticated and transmitted through technologies that are either inaccessible or incomprehensible to many vulnerable populations. Efforts are needed to make information accessible and understandable if is to have a life-saving impact.

The Flood Forecasting Warning Centre of Bangladesh Water Development Board prepares weather reports such as daily monsoon bulletins and river status reports, river level forecast maps. This information, however, is confined to institutions and does not reach communities.

So, to address this, the Asian Disaster Prevention Centre (ADPC) is
implementing a ‘Programme for Hydrometerological Disaster Mitigation in Secondary Cities in Asia’ (PROMISE) in Jamalpur Bangladesh. The city is on the bank of the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and prone every year to floods, cyclones, soil and river erosion and water logging. Of the city’s 12 administrative wards, there are in low lying areas and densely populated by poor, landless and vulnerable communities. Arvind Kumar of ADPC says the PROMISE project brings science and society together by adopting a people centric end-to-end flood early warning system. The city level water development board (WDB), municipality, and community are the stakeholders in this system. The city level water development board (WDB), municipality and community are the stakeholders in this system which has a technical working group chaired by the municipality chairperson and includes government department departments such as the local government and engineering department (LGED), water development board, agriculture, town planning elected representatives, NGOs working on floods and Red Cresent Sociey and community volunteers.

The PROMISE project focuses on simplifying the information generated by FFWC by using rainfall and river-level data to determine which areas will be inundated to what depth within the city. According to Arvind Kumar under the project, the Jamalpur Water Development Board has installed 14 community level sub-stations where trained volunteers from the community collect information on river-level data by reading flood gauges located upstream and downstream at strategic locations in the city.

Flood-gauge readings are based on WDB measurements observing increasing water levels along the river of different intervals during the monsoon season. Volunteers collect river-level data and provide them to WDB and emergency operating centre (EOC). The WDB then forwards data to the Flood Forecasting Warning Centre and in return receives inundation maps. The WDB has developed indicators or danger levels for the flood-gauges to make them easy to understand. After collecting the information from community substations and the FFWC, the WDB provide flood forecasting information in terms of inundation and water depth and also the time to evacuate to the EOC operated by the municipality. The EOC then mobilises its trained volunteers and elected representatives from the respective wards to inform the community through display boards.

The project has provided the community, the end user with access to the scientific knowledge. This early warning facility has bridged
the gap between central level government institutions and the municipality and enabled them to coordinate to save the lives and property of the most vulnerable in the floodplains of Bangladesh.

But there is a great need to consider the limitations and external factors that determine the success or not of such models. Flood prediction models have improved significantly in recent years, the tools for prediction are not accurate enough. As a result there have been occassions when false alarms have been triggered, leading to loss of faith in the information and systems in the community. Besides lack of accuracy, it is insufficient to provide flood warnings and information alone. The system must be holistic and provide the necessary resources such as evacuation centers and adequate training about how to respond to flood warnings. Mobilisation of volunteers and management of logistics are other areas for which good prctices can be shared region-wide. The reluctance of community is another factor.

Frequently communities prefer to stay back in vulnerable areas in the hope of saving their limited processions. These communities need assurance about rebuilding rather than access to information. However, information sharing is a means, not an end, and must be integrated into a warning system. The effectiveness of a warning system depend on a holistic community based disaster preparedness program which prepare people to act in a particular way during emergencies. Experts agree that regular drill are needed to check on the preparedness aspect as well as keeping people’s knowledge and priorities up-to-date. The initiatives are noteworthy for making information accessible to communicate which enables them to save lives and property. Hopefully the idea of community early warning system may be replicated in those places vulnerable to such disasters.

Floods in basins of rivers originate in the Himalayas, cannot be totally controlled and therefore the limited resources are better directed towards reducing flood vulnerability and mitigating flood impact through improved flood management. So it needs a meaningful regional cooperation of the countries sharing the basins, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

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