After a disaster, people talk about build back better. The flood disaster in the second week of August in Nepal told us to do better preparedness and ‘bring back better’.
Disasters test our response capacity. The floods have revealed our strength and weaknesses. It was an exam for decade long interventions by numerous agencies on flood preparedness – District Disaster Preparedness Plans, pre-monsoon workshops and so forth that happened every year in every district for many years. The reduced number deaths and losses despite extent of the disaster is one strong indicator of success. This is significant progress in saving lives. However, not a systematic one.
The flood early warning system is a last mile solution to saving lives. We should not perceive wrongly that it should do all of preparedness. Introduction of rainfall to run-off models have enhanced risk forecasting and monitoring to let authorities know about the potential risk of floods. Localized mass SMS through NCell and NTC have improved communication of flood risk updates to communities, social media are other means connecting people globally. The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) confidently issued flood alerts to flood vulnerable communities at least 24 hours before a flood event. It was not imagined few years back. Models have increased lead time of real-time flow (also known as gauge to gauge) based early warning as well by 2-5 hours. These all improved flood risk forecasting. Had authorities taken meaningful response actions in time soon after they got flood risk information; we could have prevented losses significantly. However the recent flood event showed efforts on preparedness are yet to payback and the cost of negligence reduced the gains. The floods in 12-13 August, 2017 are real time test of our long investment on disaster preparedness, not EWS alone.
15 years on: EWS to saving lives, properties, and livelihoods
Flood EWS is an integrated system of interdependent systems. We have been working with concerned government, non-government agencies and flood prone communities, too many to name, in respective river basins in setting up and advancing the system. Some components of the systems are equipped with modern technologies – risk monitoring and communication. There are institutional set up down to community level built in last 10 year or so. More people are trained and our security personnel are better organized and equipped to respond.
Since 2002, we in Practical Action have reached flood prone communities in major (9) river basins and have worked in national mechanism of government for EWS with the DHM. We worked together with partners, allies, vulnerable communities and their concerned government agencies. In some river basins the EWS has been extended to further downstream communities in India to saving their lives. It has set successful example in Karnali (Ghagra in India), Babai (Saryu in India) and west Rapti. Saving people should be mission beyond borders.
Nepal floods 2017, a Real –time test of EWS
In this year flood, some components demonstrated success but ultimate response actions had limitations. The weather and flood risk forecasting happened in time, communication were improved but could not generate actionable advisories for particular communities in time. The human and governance parts of the systems are yet to graduate. It lacked specific risk knowledge to take proper actions in right time. As the result there were differentiated flood response actions. Flood early warning should mean people at risk zone are evacuated before flood reaches their location. It’s all about taking people to safety before hazards come. But many people waited flood to arrive at them after they got alerts and warnings. Is it adequate? EWS is part of DRR and preparedness, not a stand alone system.
Intense rainfall on from 11 to 12 August resulted into big (worst inrecord in many river basins) flooding from 11-13. Immediate effects lasted for about a week. Government’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) had issued alerts and warnings of the potential disastrous events in advance from 8th August and they issued alert for rivers in the east.
Flood alert for the eastern Terai on 8th August
There were normal rainfall on 9th August but the cloud got dense on 10th. The DHM informed the potential intense rainfall and flood. The active monsoon rains since 8th August but much intense from 11th in Tarai, Siwalik and some of the mid-hills generated highest level of flood in second order rivers (Kankai, Bagmati, West Rapti, Riu, Babai) and the third order rivers/rivulets that originate from Siwalik and Tarai. Considering the potential off intense rain and potential cloud burst situation the DHM issued special bulletin in the afternoon of 10th August and informed EOC of the potential risk. By afternoon of the day, they issued special bulletin and sent to authorities through National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC). It was at least 24 hours ahead of flood event on 11 evening.
More effect was inundation from local rain. In the rivers – Babai, Rapti, Bagmati, Triyuga-Khando, Budhi Ganga, Kankai, Biring (from west to east), it accumulated tributary input and hill catchment rain as well. Flood alerts were issued considering the rainfall in the downstream catchment as well but authorities do not have proper knowledge of rainfall inundation relationship in specific areas. Throughout the event, the DHM sent SMS texts to the communities when flood reached warning in the flood forecasting station of particular river. The SMS were sent in Kankai, Rapti, Riu, East Rapti (Chitwan), Babai.
However, response actions on the ground were not taken effectively as anticipated. Many people and agencies did not know about the extent of flood in their locality, neither authority were confident of potential consequences. People shifted their goods in the upper stairs, gathered in home but did not leave it. The system was strong in looking at atmosphere but not generating proper actions on the ground. Many deaths could have been prevented if authorities were serious in taking respective decisions and people were forcefully evacuated in time. Following DHM alerts and warnings, DDRCs and security forces informed the flood risk to the communities but they were not actionable instructions. One survivor said, “We got the information in time but where to go?”
Where there are community based institutions (CDMC, task forces), preparedness on the ground and people had experienced bad flood within last 5 years or so; they were less negligent, moved to safer places nearby. An example is Babai river flood plains in Bardia. They faced flood in 2014 and sustained huge losses. A ware house of Nepal Red Cross in Tikapur municipality in Kailali eased the relief processes’ after the event. However long-distance and timely evacuation did not take place; many response actions were not in time.
Government and communities have realized that early warning helped saving lives to a great extent. However, it is also realized that preparedness as a whole was not adequate and people and stakeholders could not take anticipated action after receiving the flood risk information. According to DRR portal of Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) as of 21 August, 157 people died and 29 are missing in these different events from 11 August. About 70 among them are from landslides. Over dozen people died while pulling logs from the flooded river or crossing them without safety measures. As per the records 43433 houses have been reported fully damaged and 100481 people of 20888 families are displaced.
What it tells to us
The flood events have been real world test of community centered approaches we worked and discussed for last 15 years. It is been success in totality to reduce deaths but there are numerous things to do. There are weaknesses and disconnects in interventions and are issues around sustainability. The government has supported the efforts but is yet to take in their responsibility and accountability. The preparedness was almost limited to stakeholder meetings; not any actions upon. The current deaths are the cost of that negligence. Flood maps need to be updated. Rivers have changed the dimension; we? Current warning and danger levels should be reviewed.
Nonetheless, appreciating the value of EWS, we need to take opportunity and build disaster preparedness on this success. It shows the private sector should be in the core team for preparedness. The text messages made differences. Once we connect the dots in the system, raising confidence of actors, authorities and communities to become accountable to disaster preventive practices. A long march it is, therefore, to walk together better. The floods will come one day again and they will come worse.
After a disaster, people talk about build back better. For an integrated approach on disaster prevention and EWS for flood preparedness, it should be also ‘bring back better’.
Madhukar Upadhyaya http://www.onwardnepal.com/opinion/understanding-nepalfloods2017/