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2 Apr 2020 | CBFEWS

Sounding the bell: How the Community Based Flood Early Warning System is saving lives in Gilgit-Baltistan

Ajaz Ali

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Early warning equipment installed at Passu Glacier (Photo: WWF-Pakistan)

The Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, particularly water-induced hazards. ICIMOD surveyed 250 villages in the region in 2017 and found that 46% of the population is at risk from natural disasters including flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods, and earthquakes. In Khaplu and Shigar villages in Baltistan, about 90% of the respondents indicated that climate- and water-induced hazards (of which around 82.2% are flash floods) have increased in the last 30 years.

Given the lack of adequate early warning mechanisms in the region, the intense and rapid floods cause considerable loss of lives and property downstream. Around 26% of the survey respondents attributed the lack of coping mechanisms as a key factor in the vulnerability of the villages to disasters. Additionally, the survey found women to be the group most vulnerable to disasters. The local and indigenous methods of warning and preparedness are not sufficient to cope with the changing flood patterns in terms of frequency and magnitude. Almost all respondents stated that there was no technology-driven coping strategy or mechanism for monitoring hazard events in Khaplu and Shigar villages.

Natural disasters cannot be avoided, but their impact on local communities can be managed using indigenous, regional, and global knowledge and experiences. Early warning systems have been developed globally to provide flood information. However, there is a huge gap in disseminating this information to vulnerable communities, as identified in the Hyogo Framework for Action, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2012 special report on extreme events and disasters.

ICIMOD with its local partners piloted the Community Based Flood Early Warning System (CBFEWS) for the first time in 2010 in Assam, India, then in the Ratu River along the border between India and Nepal, and also in some tributaries of the Kabul River in Afghanistan. The system has proved its efficacy during flood seasons and attracted the attention of numerous stakeholders in the region. Since the first pilot, the CBFEWS approach has undergone a number of test and trails to make it more compatible and effective in saving the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable communities across Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognized the impact of the CBFEWS, awarding ICIMOD with its Momentum for Change: 2014 Lighthouse Activity Award in the ICT category.

CBFEWS functions through the human-technology interface. The technology is managed by communities and detects rising water levels upstream through its sensors, following which it triggers a siren to alert vulnerable communities downstream to move to safer locations. Though CBFEWS relays warning during flood emergencies, it is also imperative that the communities are well prepared to respond to such flood warnings.

Various components of the CBFEWS technology

Various components of the CBFEWS technology


Taking lessons from the CBFEWS approach piloted in Afghanistan, India, and Nepal, ICIMOD together with its partners – the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority, Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) and WWF-Pakistan – piloted in 2017–18 the CBFEWS in five locations  (see Figure 1) most vulnerable to water-induced hazards in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Vulnerable households in Gilgit-Baltistan villages with CBFEWS pilots
Fig 1. Vulnerable households in Gilgit-Baltistan villages with CBFEWS pilots


These pilots will generate evidence of the effectiveness of CBFEWS in reducing vulnerabilities of communities to water-induced hazards, particularly floods. The information acquired can be used for informed decision making and to support disaster management policies. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) recognized success of the CBFEWS for Sherqilla village, where an early warning relayed by the system during a flood event at around 4 AM on 3 August 2017 helped communities in Sherqilla evacuate safely. Fida Ali, a local resident of Sherqilla, expressed the community’s satisfaction with the system: “Before we installed the system, we would spend entire nights at the point of origin of flash floods so that we could provide situation updates to downstream villages. Now we can all sleep in peace.”

Instead of reinventing the wheel, it would be wise to adopt the already tested and piloted approaches and replicate these solutions throughout the disaster-prone areas in Gilgit-Baltistan. ICIMOD organized roundtable policy meetings in Gilgit to share lessons from these interventions with relevant stakeholders, including government agencies, members of the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly, heads of federal and local government departments, civil society organizations, and communities, through policy forums and different knowledge products including issue briefs, process documentations, and fact sheets. These technological innovations could be upscaled and outscaled to improve the adaptive capacities and resilience of mountain communities to the effects of climate change.

It is encouraging to see that the relevant government agencies, particularly the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA), are taking a keen interest in adopting such innovative disaster management solutions. In an ICIMOD-organized roundtable policy meeting in Gilgit on 26 July 2019, the GBDMA signed a memorandum with partners including WWF-Pakistan, AKAH, and ICIMOD to assume ownership of the five pilot CBFEWS interventions and ensure its sustained functioning once the project phases out. “With the success of the piloted system, the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan is working towards upscaling the CBFEWS in other disaster-prone areas of the province”, declared Shehzad Baig, Assistant Director, GBDMA.

GBDMA signing the agreement with partners
GBDMA signing the agreement with partners to assume ownership of the CBFEWS piloted in five different sites in Gilgit-Baltistan (Photo: WWF-Pakistan)


The CBFEWS equipment for the pilots in Gilgit-Baltistan were imported from Nepal. To help the GBDMA gain easy access to the technology for upscaling purposes, ICIMOD has identified and is supporting local vendors to manufacture the units in Pakistan itself. ICIMOD has also supported the GBDMA, NDMA, WWF-Pakistan, AKAH, and local communities to build their capacities for the sustainability and potential upscaling and outscaling of the CBFEWS.

Cross-learning and collaboration among stakeholders is critical to build the resilience of communities in Gilgit-Baltistan to natural disasters, particularly water-induced hazards that are being aggravated by climate change. Organizations like ICIMOD not only conduct research and provide evidence-based support to policies and practices but also provide a common platform for the sharing of relevant knowledge and experiences among stakeholders within the HKH region. The CBFEWS, in particular, has demonstrated its suitability in the HKH context and needs to be adopted in disaster management strategies and upscaled in disaster-prone areas for the enhanced resilience of vulnerable mountain communities.

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