Looking Forward to Bounce Back Better from Floods

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Monsoon season in South Asia has become a mixed blessing of late as heavy rains are needed for crop production, but also trigger floods and landslides that often negate the gains made through agriculture. August 2017 proved to be an especially challenging month as rain, floods, and landslides incited considerable havoc in many South Asian communities.

The Nepal government has reported 160 fatalities, 29 missing, and thousands more affected by the flood, with crop damages totalling an estimated 8.1 billion Nepali rupees. Across South Asia the numbers are equally troubling. Estimates from India put the death toll at 781, and more than 32 million people affected. In Bangladesh, 150 people were killed by floods and landslides across five districts.

The statistics about the damages of the 2017 floods are endless and compelling. The images of the flooding even more so.

And so national governments are again rebuilding local communities throughout the region affected by floods and landslides. In the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), floods have become a more regular occurrence and increasingly devastating in terms of human and economic loss. As populations continue to rise, and climate continues to change in unpredictable ways, heavy rains in high gradient areas, like the HKH, are likely to continue bringing devastation that affects vulnerable communities the most.

So what can be done to protect these communities, to lessen the potential damage wrought by heavy rains? How can they anticipate these potential calamities in order to rebuild their communities more quickly, more strongly? 

Local Action 

Community-based flood early warning systems, or CBFEWS, employ local people living in upstream areas to signal downstream communities about impending flood waters. CBFEWS consist of a transmitter placed on a river bank upstream of a community at a point where flood-level waters can be observed. When the water reaches a certain level, a designated operator activates a signal to warn downstream communities and transmits flood information via mobile phone.

Flood in Ladakh, India. 
Photo: HimalDoc File Photo

With cooperation from several government agencies in Nepal and India, ICIMOD helped to install a CBFEWS in Bardibas (upstream) and Sitamarhi (downstream). This system saved numerous lives and significant property for people living on both sides of the Nepal-India border.

On 12 August, when the Ratu River had reached flood levels, Mahendra Karki, the CBFEWS caretaker in Bardibas, tripped the system to sound an alarm and picked up his mobile to send text messages to his counterparts in Sitamarhi across the border in India who informed local residents. The caretaker in Sitamarhi then informed seven other villages that lie on the Ratu or in nearby flood plains. All told, residents had a 7-8 hour head start to prepare for the rushing waters. 

As a result, thousands of men, women, and children were able to evacuate the village, taking with them valuable possessions and livestock. Just that small amount of warning enabled them to prevent massive, possibly unrecoverable losses, to their families.

Early consensus is these locally-run systems are effective. For example, in the Babai River Basin in western Nepal, a CBFEWS system was installed last year. In 2014, 33 deaths due to flood were recorded; in 2017, only five.

Disaster Preparedness Drawing More Attention

As the HKH is home to some of the world’s most challenging landscapes and most impoverished communities, disaster preparedness is receiving more attention at national levels. And CBFEWS is just one form of a low-cost technology that improves the region’s overall portfolio for disaster preparedness.

Rescuing flood victims in Terai region during the Monsoon season, Nepal. (August 2008). 
Photo: Chandra Shekhar Karki.

Recognizing the imminent threats of natural disaster, particularly for their impact on low-income communities, Nepal has begun to address disaster management in proactive fashion. The country has contributed to several important disaster risk reduction programmes, including the Hyogo Framework for Action 2000-2015, and the Sendai Framework 2015-2030. These documents provide guidance and best practices to areas that are susceptible to damage natural hazards.

The Nepali government is also adapting principles from CBFEWS and applying these to a national framework. Working in collaboration with private telecom companies, the DHM uses real-time monitoring of rainfall and flood levels to send early alerts to vulnerable communities. More than 600,000 mobile subscribers in vulnerable downstream areas received text messages this past year with relevant information about threat levels.

Using Satellites in the Sky to Guide Us on the Ground

At ICIMOD, scientists in the SERVIR programme have used their expertise to prepare flood inundation maps covering Bangladesh, India, and Nepal with satellite imagery from a variety of sources. These maps enable governments and organizations to increase the effectiveness of their relief and rescue efforts. 

Community based flood early warning instrument installation and interaction with local government in Bhittamore, Sitamarhi District, Bihar, India.
Photo: ICIMOD.

On the ground level, ICIMOD is working with local communities and officials to see how these maps may be further developed to help estimate loss, damage and infrastructure needs, and to create scenario assessments for future planning. Overtime these maps may be used to chart monsoon flood progressions and patterns – another feature that will aid national and regional efforts to improve disaster risk reduction.

Natural hazards are a fact of life, in some ways unavoidable. However, how communities can prepare for these calamities can make incalculable differences in their ability to bounce back from these disasters and resume their daily lives. Interventions like CBFEWS, national disaster plans, and satellite mapping are not the whole solution, but they do offer effective tools to minimize risk and create the foundation for resilience in the HKH.

Please see these ICIMOD features for more information on our disaster risk reduction work.