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Even as communities reel from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of floods is omnipresent. Koshi River drains a large area that sustains biodiverse ecosystems and agricultural production and is the lifeblood of communities from China, India, and Nepal. But it is also highly destructive particularly during the monsoon, with floods and flash floods terrorizing communities in southern Nepal and adjoining areas in Bihar.
Our award-winning community based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) relays vital, near real-time information about the water level upstream to downstream communities, but the effectiveness of this system largely depends on the involvement and preparedness of communities and other stakeholders to act on the warnings received. This requires periodic trainings and maintenance of CBFEWS, which now have to be conducted virtually, and field preparedness activities (like mock drills and orientation trainings), which have been shelved.
Pre-monsoon is a critical time for flood preparedness. Since 2015, we have been partnering with local government line agencies, partners, and local communities to conduct flood preparedness activities along Ratu, Gagan, and Khando rivers in the basin, which are flash flood-prone rivers that straddle India and Nepal. We have set up three CBFEWS stations upstream of these rivers (in Nepal) and one downstream of Ratu River (in India).
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put these activities on the back-burner, CBFEWS stations in the basin still need to be properly maintained to prepare for the looming threat. This year, through online orientation trainings, we have still managed to expand the CBFEWS network downstream of Gagan and Khando rivers in Bihar, India, providing lead times of almost 3.5–4 hours.
We collaborated with SABAL Nepal, Community Development & Advocacy Forum Nepal (CDAFN), Yuganter, Sustainable Eco Engineering (SEE), local caretakers of the CBFEWS stations, and local information recipients to conduct a series of online orientation activities from May to July 2020 on the maintenance of the instrument and updating of communication charts (using our resource manual). WhatsApp groups have been created for each river for constant communication. We also provided training on using a flood event logbook (which can record impacted households and livestock and complement the system in estimating flood levels and lead time). Stakeholders involved in CBFEWS implementation in both countries attended these activities: partner organizations, CBFEWS station caretakers (who relay early warning), and information recipients (who receive and relay early warning to their communities). We also provided follow-up support as per specific needs via video calls.
On 25 May 2020, we also conducted an online orientation (with technical support from SEE) for partners on annual maintenance and communication channels for CBFEWS and shared a list of measures to deal with the double trouble of floods and the pandemic. Participants included representatives from different municipalities from the Terai region of Nepal – Tilathi Koiladi Municipality, Rajbiraj Municipality, and Rupani Municipality – and staff from Sabal Nepal and CDAFN. With lessons learnt from the orientation, partners and caretakers were able to successfully complete the annual maintenance of the instrument before the flood season, and all four of our CBFEWS stations in the Koshi River basin have been transmitting flood information to downstream communities in Nepal and India.
For the CBFEWS to work efficiently, the instrument needs to be maintained, communication channels need to be clear, and communities need to assume ownership of the system. The system needs to be operational, even during other crises such as the ongoing pandemic.
These orientation trainings are therefore part of a long line of workshops, visits, and information-sharing exercises on flood warning among transboundary communities in the region. We have been exploring the community component of CBFEWS to ensure its sustainability, working with representatives from these flood-affected communities to tailor practices of information sharing among villages.
And we have experienced considerable success over the years. Life-saving early warning information was relayed by an upstream communities in Nepal to downstream communities in India living along Ratu River in 2017. A similar case of transboundary cooperation occurred along Khando River in monsoon 2019, following which a basket fund was set up to cover the maintenance and operating costs of the system. In December 2019, community representatives living along all three transboundary rivers in both countries met to share experiences and improving early warning communication.
All these are positive signs for the sustainability of community-based disaster risk management. Local governments have come to realize the importance of these systems and are more invested in their installation and maintenance today. This year, they have also had to deal with compound risk, which provides a good experience for anticipating and planning for possible pandemic–natural disaster hybrid scenarios and the implications for a wide range of preparedness as well as post-disaster activities.
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