Rural women find relief with flood early warning system

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Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

In the fertile floodplain area of Sarpallo Village Development Committee (VDC), 270 kms east of Kathmandu, life is back to normal for local villagers in the waning days of monsoon. As a flood-prone area, Sarpallo villagers have faced summer floods for decades. Their experience dealing with floods has made them indigenous experts in disaster preparedness. And, the efforts are typically spearheaded by young and adult women.

Sarpallo lies on the Nepal side of the transboundary 88,000 sq. km Koshi river basin. The Koshi basin provides parts of China, India, and Nepal with significant and essential ecological services. However, for the 40 million people who draw on these services, they are also subject to regular natural disasters, especially floods.

Local farmers Rinku Singh (far right) and her peers share experiences on how the new flood early warning system has been a good help in villages where women play a key role in disaster management
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

“Floods have become part of our lives and most female residents have gained much knowledge on how to be better prepared for the disaster,” says 30-year old Rinku Singh, a local woman farmer who has first-hand experience guiding villagers to rescue, and making provisions for food and materials after the floods. Singh is also one of the few educated women in a predominantly lowly literate adult community in Sarpallo.

With over 1,000 households, Sarpallo VDC has a close-knit community where a large number of women bear responsibility for disaster preparedness. Even the elderly women are adept in disaster-related emergency aid. This reliance on women in times of disaster has become even more pronounced in the past two decades due to heavy outmigration of men seeking work abroad.

"Partnership with local communities and encouraging their ownership helps  to make an initiative effective and sustainable."

Local women including elderly members engage actively in disaster preparedness in Sarpallo
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

“For a long time, women stopped depending on men for many things and this is the same with disaster management,” says Singh.Although access to information technology is still minimal in rural areas like Sarpallo, there are efforts underway to expand flood information network systems.

In 2014, Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM)/ Community based Flood and Glacial lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project (CFGORRP), with support from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and the Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaborated to install the first community-based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) in the Koshi basin.

Institutional partnership with local community encourages ownership of an initiative. CFGORRP/DHM and  ICIMOD KBP  have been actively promoting the same in their CBFEWS project areas
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

The system was based on a similar initiative in Assam, India as part of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Program (HICAP), and its success earned an international award from Momentum for Change 2014 Lighthouse Activity Award of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This CBFEWS gives early warnings swiftly and accurately. An automatic water level sensor in the Ratu River — a key source of floods—communicates through a wireless tower, which sends digital information directly to a receiver positioned in the potentially-affected community. Once the water level reaches the level of high alert, an audio signal informs a local caretaker to trigger a siren loud enough to cover a large area of households. The caretaker also communicates with other villages upstream and downstream to insure that all have maximum time to prepare for the impending inundation.

Local CBFEWS caretaker Mahendra Bikram Karki of upstream area Lalgadh checking the flood information received from the transmitter installed on the bank of Ratu khola
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

“Times have changed and the way we communicate has improved a lot for the villagers, especially the women,” says Singh. She explains how until a few years ago, villagers had to keep their eyes open to monitor each and every flood. During heavy rains, local villagers took turns going to the river to check levels, even in the middle of the night when it is difficult to make such readings.

A heavy flood reached Sarpallo in July 2016, but the early warning system enabled all the villagers to relocate to higher ground with their children, elderly, important documents, and livestock. The success of the flood information system in Sarpallo has made quite an impact for some local communities in the Koshi basin. For many women like Singh, the system has been a source of relief that helps them to get the right information at the right time. Singh hopes that systems like theirs will find support to produce larger-scale flood warning infrastructure to prevent unnecessary loss of life and possessions.

A CB-FEWS transmitter installed on the bank of Ratu Khola helped to constantly update on flood information
Photo: Mahendra Bikram Karki

“Times have changed and the way we communicate has improved a lot for the villagers, especially the women,” says Singh. She explains how until a few years ago, villagers had to keep their eyes open to monitor each and every flood. During heavy rains, local villagers took turns going to the river to check levels, even in the middle of the night when it is difficult to make such readings.

The system has worked at the micro level but there is a need to scale up the project with the support of the government and donor partners to reach more flood-prone areas across the region.

Local caretaker Rajkumar Mahato of downstream Sarpallo demonstrating how to use the siren to alert the local villagers to warn them of an approaching flood
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

Naresh Newar


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