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A flood of challenges

David James Molden

2 mins Read

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The ICIMOD family has been working from home since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides the deluge of news about the virus and its impacts across the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, we have also been witnessing rain – and lots of it. April and May are normally dry, but here in Kathmandu we had an unusually wet pre-monsoon period, and monsoon has brought torrential and unceasing rain.

In many ways this has been a blessing. The skies look beautiful and clear, peppered with soaring clouds, and we are treated to occasional glimpses of the snowy Himalaya. We are surrounded by lush greenery, biodiverse forests, and beautiful, productive agricultural fields. But the rainy season also spells danger, especially during intense heavy rainfall events. Our colleagues had pointed out that we could be facing “double trouble” – floods and a zoonotic disease pandemic – and discussed our preparedness. Unfortunately, we are already in the thick of combating this dual challenge.

Climate change predictions point to higher and more uncertain rainfall in the HKH region, with periods of intense rain and drought. Whether this is due to climate change is hard to say, but it does give us a sense of what climate change-induced impacts could look like. Moreover, with the way our cities and waterways are managed, the urban population is highly vulnerable to floods. Our work on cities has shown that better management could reduce the damage by floods.

We need to be better prepared for floods, and ICIMOD has been working on several dimensions for preparation. First, we need to make data readily available to concerned authorities and to communities. We have been able to prepare a regional picture of what is happening. We have been working with hydromet departments to create flood outlooks to provide some kind of early warning.

Second, early warning systems and community awareness are essential. We work on climate services in collaboration with communities and government departments, and we recognize the importance of communicating clearly and quickly with users. We have been developing technologies useful for keeping people healthy during floods, like raised eco-san toilets. Plus, we are testing and promoting water harvesting and recharging runoff for spring rejuvenation using monsoon rains.

Over my time at ICIMOD, I have been very inspired by our work with community-based flood early warning systems. We have collaborated with our partners to develop a low-cost technology and then worked closely with communities to deploy these. Our first experience was in Assam, where the approach is successfully saving property and possibly lives from floods. In a successful case of transboundary cooperation during a flood event, we also worked with communities in Nepal and India who came together to provide transboundary early warnings. We tried the approach in the mountains of Pakistan where flash floods and glacial outburst floods are common – and it worked again. Now, we are working with communities and governments on sustainability of these systems.

ICIMOD acts as a vital cog in flood preparation, warning, and response mechanisms, sharing experiences and information among different stakeholders in our Regional Member Countries and beyond. An important role next will be acting as a regional hub for climate services. For this, we are working with governments and communities to share information and data, co-develop approaches for climate services, and build capacity to apply the latest approaches and make these accessible for the communities most in need.

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