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27 Sep 2021 | For mountains and people

Community-operated warnings: Way to minimise flood damage

Atul Bhattarai

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Local management of CBFEWS can be highly advantageous: the whole community may be involved, residents can hold their representatives accountable for the system’s functioning, and local knowledge tailors the system to communities’ particular needs and circumstances – such as where to install sirens and how to communicate alerts to the most vulnerable

This year, like past years, has seen devastating floods across the country, especially in the Tarai. Over three months, disasters triggered by the monsoon have left 119 dead, 3,180 homes inundated and 5,924 people displaced.
Every year, floods kill nearly 150 people in Nepal, which ranks 40th in the world in terms of its affected population. According to one study, they may cost households in affected areas about Rs 120,000 each on average. But as in past years, the response to these disasters will not go far enough: beyond managing crises that have already wreaked havoc to preventing and mitigating their effects in the future.

This is especially concerning because many of the losses caused by floods are avoidable.

Early warning systems (EWS) are an attractive way to mitigate such losses. By lengthening the lead time communities have to prepare for a disaster, they help save lives and mobile assets. However, EWS are difficult to implement widely. Though the government has made flood forecasts and alerts available along many of the country’s main rivers, it is nearly impossible to do so for all rivulets. Of 6,000 tributaries, which are highly prone to devastating floods, there are about 1,000 that are longer than 10 km and which would be suited for EWS installation – already a daunting project. But this means that communities rarely receive localised and relevant information.

Women, children, the disabled and other vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected.

Challenging as it may be, it is important to monitor these rivers, too. A number of development agencies, including Practical Action, Oxfam and ICIMOD have tried over the past years to address the lack of EWS by piloting community-based flood early warning systems (CBFEWS).

These are designed to make communities self-sufficient in the area of flood risk mitigation. CBFEWS use technology that is affordable to buy (Rs 400,000) and install (Rs 500,000), as well as to maintain and operate (Rs 130,000 annually, including maintenance of the instrument, awareness workshops and caretaker salaries).

With the right arrangements, and collaboration with and support from relevant stakeholders, communities are able to budget for their system and its management, and to operate them independently.

CBFEWS are an interactive system. Once a warning is triggered, upstream caretakers communicate with downstream communities’ focal persons, who in turn contact a range of stakeholders – village leaders, security forces and local government officials – until alerts reach everyone through word of mouth, messaging apps, SMS, phone calls and sirens, giving people anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours of lead time. Each community connected by a CB- FEWS is in regular touch with everyone involved in the system’s operation. This means that there is a sense of trust and ownership that only solidifies with time.

Already, beneficiaries across Nepal testify to the relief that CBFEWS bring.

Their adoption and expanded use could be transformative in the Tarai. During the monsoon season, which sees 80 per cent of the year’s precipitation, residents must be perpetually on alert to ‘watch and warn’ for potential floods.

Installing CBFEWS sees not only fewer losses but also allays the consuming stress that people face at the prospect of suddenly losing lives and assets.

Expanding CBFEWS to these communities would require the participation of local and provincial governments, NGOs and the private sector. Because it is difficult for the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology to provide forecasts for tributaries, municipalities could buy and maintain CBFEWS themselves. Indeed, Nepal’s Disaster Management Act (2017) encourages such a move. Local management can be highly advantageous: the whole community may be involved, residents can hold their representatives accountable for the system’s functioning, and local knowledge tailors the system to communities’ particular needs and circumstances – such as where to install sirens and how to communicate alerts to the most vulnerable.

However, this presents a set of challenges. It is not enough that the system is purchased and installed; it must also last. Municipalities must find a way to pay for the CBFEWS’ annual operating and maintenance costs in the face of a limited budget, most of which is ordinarily devoted to post-disaster operations and embankment construction.

They must manage the system in a participatory way, and take into account shifting vulnerabilities within their communities, such as seasonal migration of men, which leaves households with only women, children and the elderly. They must find ways to integrate local groups and organisations into operations. And they must see to it that warnings are useful to the most vulnerable, who must be equipped and prepared – through, say, mock drills and awareness campaigns – to respond to warnings promptly and effectively.

Some stakeholders of piloted CBFEWS have taken steps to improve its sustainability.

For example, three municipalities and rural municipalities along the Khando River in Saptari, along with NGOs and private sector partners, have come together and pooled money to create a basket revolving fund worth Rs 1,300,000, the interest from which is able to meet the system’s yearly costs. For CBFEWS to stick, more communities must take such steps, and provincial governments must encourage and enable them.

In the Tarai, floods are a common phenomenon.

Climate change makes them ever more unpredictable.

Too often, the response is limited to rallying to compensate those who are suffering. CBFEWS is forward-looking: It offers a sustainable and affordable way to reduce the risks floods pose to the benefit of the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable communities.