In Search of More Time

Community-based flood early warning systems will help communities in the Koshi basin better prepare for a flood

During much of the year, the rivers that cut through Mahottari District in southern Nepal are small trickles on dry, stony beds. Children play amongst the rocks, and nearby residents easily ford the water on bicycles. However, during the rainy monsoon months, the rivers swell into torrents, coursing swiftly downstream, often breaching the banks. On this part of the Gangetic Plains, where the land is flat for hundreds of miles around, rising water during this part of the year has the potential to mean dangerous flooding. Many of the villages nearby these rivers have constructed embankments to keep out the water, but this is not always enough. It is often the poorest individuals who live closest to the river, in weak houses made of bamboo and mud. For them, floods can mean disaster.

The residents of Suryahi, a village near the Indian border, expect a flood every year. “Last year, the floodwaters came up to our chest”, said Sunita, a woman in a magenta cotton sari with a ready smile. For days, this flood also blocked the highway that connected this part of the country with the rest of Nepal, bringing people, food and other goods to a standstill. When a flood happens, neighbours gather on one another’s roofs, which are usually safe from the water. If they have enough time, they also collect valuables like seeds and bedding from their homes and move their livestock, which otherwise drown, to higher ground. 

”We usually hear about a coming flood from the milkman.”

The problem, however, is that no one is certain when a flood will happen. “We usually hear about a coming flood from the milkman”, said Sunita. Each morning, a milkman from a neighbouring town crosses the river on his way to Suryahi. If the river seems unusually high, he calls people in the surrounding villages and tells them to prepare for the coming water. While men often worry about losing official documents like land deeds, Sunita and other women in the village are especially concerned about floods because they do not know how to swim, although they have to assure their children’s safety. Growing up, boys swim and bathe in the river or nearby ponds, girls usually stay inside. Because of this, for the women and other residents of Suryahi, knowing that a flood is coming two or three hours in advance can make all the difference. If a flood comes during the night, residents of Suryahi do not know a flood is coming until it is already too late.

In response to these yearly floods, ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme, together with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology’s Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project, is currently piloting United Nations Development Programme-supported community-based flood early warning systems along the nearby Ratu Khola river in an effort to give flood-prone communities like Suryahi the extra time that they need prior to a flood. The systems, which were improved based on community feedback and successfully implemented at a few selected sites in the Indian state of Assam in 2012 under ICIMOD’s HICAP initiative, work on the notion that upstream and downstream communities along rivers are inexorably linked, and can work together to provide each other with vital, life-saving, and nearly real-time information. The systems are simply and domestically built so that locals can take charge of operation and upkeep, and find maintenance tools and equipment in their own villages. From the start, the project works closely with local governments and communities so that the early warning systems can continue even after the Koshi Basin Programme ends.

The mechanics of the system begin with a sensor rod that is calibrated in consultation with the local communities to the specific conditions of the landscape and river, and installed in an upstream section of a flood-prone river. When water levels begin to rise during the monsoon season, the sensor sends a message in the form of a light and a loud buzzing noise to a receiver located at a nearby house of the system’s local caretaker. When the water is rising to dangerous levels, the caretaker calls or sends a text message to the numbers on a contact list of individuals downstream as well as the adjacent community and government institutions to inform them of the potential for floods. This programmes aim to install at least three of these systems on the Ratu Khola in locations that give vulnerable downstream communities enough time to evacuate if necessary.

The establishment of community-based flood early warning systems in the Koshi basin is still in the initial stages, but it is moving forward. In early June 2015, ICIMOD held a five-day training session in Kathmandu with 16 participations from Afghanistan, India, and Nepal to show how to use the warning systems. Four of these participants were the selected caretakers of planned installation sites in Mahottari District. Over the course of the session, the participants learned how to monitor the sensors while also building a closeness and trust with one another that will be indispensable in the event of a flood. When the time came to put together the sensor for the first time, participants were eager. “This system is easy to understand and use”, said Rajkumar, one of the participants from Mahottari District. “Before, we never used to know for sure how high the water was, but now there hopefully won’t be problems. This will be good for our villages.”

Back in Mahottari District, residents are enthusiastic about the project’s potential to help them improve their response during a flood. “Even an hour advanced warning gives us enough time to save most of our animals,” said Prem Chandra, a resident from Suryahi. Often, floods in this region last seven to 15 days, and are only the start of problems. Sanitation frequently becomes an issue in the days following a flood, particularly for women: “It’s hard to find a proper place to go to the bathroom after a flood”, said Sunita. “Women have to be much more discrete than men.” One man who lived by the river has lost his house five times over the course of his life. Others lose their crops and other forms of livelihood. Mitigating these challenges requires long-term effort and planning. In the short-term, however, the installation of community-based early flood warning systems are a small but fundamental step in helping communities cope with the floods.

The community-based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) project is being implemented in Ratu River in Mahottari District in the Koshi River basin under the Koshi Basin Programme. This technology was first developed as part of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) in collaboration with local partners AARANYAK and Sustainable Eco Engineering. HICAP is implemented jointly by icimod, CICERO, and GRID-Arendal and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). ICIMOD has piloted CBFEWS in the catchments of two rivers – the Jiadhal River in Dhemaji District and the Singora River in Lakhimpur District – in the eastern Brahmaputra River basin. Another system is being considered in Baghlan province in Afghanistan.


Photo credits: Kanchan Shrestha, Santosh Nepal, Udayan Mishra