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Ranjit Kumar Jha
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Disasters are an unavoidable aspect of life in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). Floods account for a third of these disasters and cause great loss to lives and livelihoods, destroy infrastructure and disrupt basic services. Community based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) is an integrated system of tools and plans to detect and respond to flood emergencies. It is managed by communities and acts as a powerful buffer between nature and communities in areas at risk of flooding. ICIMOD has worked with partners and local governments to safeguard over 223,000 lives from flash flood damage by installing eleven CBFEWS in nine tributaries of the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Koshi rivers in Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan over the past eight years.
Zarnash Bibi, a teacher from Pakistan says that flood early warning systems have put vulnerable communities at ease: “Earlier, we had no way of knowing when a flood would hit. Most men have migrated for work, so we women have to be constantly alert as we are responsible for safeguarding our children, property, and belongings. In 2010, the floods came with no warning one night. We awoke as water entered the village and we scrambled to get our children to safety. This has changed after the installation of the CBFEWS. We can now get on with our lives, go to school and work knowing that the system will alert us before the flood hits”.
The systems have also helped establish goodwill between upstream and downstream communities, previously unknown to each other, helping save lives and property by relaying information about impending floods. Likewise, in the transboundary Koshi river system between Nepal and India, the community got eight hours lead time to evacuate to higher ground before water reached the floodplains.
Since 2010, ICIMOD has refined both the technological as well as community integration aspects of CBFEWS to enable vulnerable downstream communities respond to climate change related disasters. ICIMOD worked in close collaboration with a private Nepali manufacturer, Sustainable Eco Engineering (SEE), to customize systems as per river conditions, as well as optimize system efficiency and effectiveness. Through this partnership ICIMOD was able to build SEE’s competency in system manufacture as well as in pre- and post-installation activities, including scoping, which is an integral aspect of system effectiveness. ICIMOD also works closely with development partners at grassroots level to strengthen pre- and post-flood community and government response mechanisms, which are integral to the proper functioning of CBFEWS.
Over time, ICIMOD has responded to the need for affordable and accessible flood warning systems by mobilizing partnerships around four key CBFEWS elements: risk knowledge and scoping, community based monitoring and early warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability and resilience. SEE led innovations in system functionality, continually upgraded across four generations of CBFEWS, have become more durable, user-friendly, and scalable. Switching from the national grid to solar-panels has made the system viable throughout the HKH, while telemetry and radar-based systems enable wider stakeholder support and safer data-collection conditions. The continuous improvement in wireless systems has expanded coverage to a 3 km radius from the initial 100 m.
An integral aspect of the CBFEWS rollout has been to build on various government, development agency, and multilateral efforts in disaster risk reduction (DRR) to foster efficient preventive and response mechanisms. Implementation partners in Nepal, India and Pakistan have initiated efforts to outscale it to other flood prone areas, as well as upscale it through integration in local and national policies. An upstream-downstream CBFEWS in the Nepal plains has been extended across the international border downstream into India, generating solidarity and brotherhood across borders.
CBFEWS help communities understand that they are not completely at the mercy of natural forces. The instrument innovations developed by the private enterprise serve as a fulcrum in successfully implementing CBFEWS and the system as a whole serves as a natural entry point for DRR workers to orient communities about the abstract concept of resilience. ICIMOD started working in early warning systems in Assam, India (flash flood project) in 2010, integrating the community-based aspect in 2012 as a vehicle of change for community resilience. Communities are quick to attest to the value of these systems.
Raj Kumar Mahato, caretaker at Sarpallo CBFEWS in Nepal says: “Ten houses collapsed in the 2017 floods, but no people or animals drowned. Our cows remained standing for two whole days because of the waters, but we are thankful that we still have the cows. In the hour we got after the warning from the upstream CBFEWS in Bardibas, we managed to get all 3500 heads of livestock to safety. They alone are valued at around NPR 1,34,000,000 (USD 1,288,461), not counting fish or poultry. It would have been a disaster if we lost even a fraction of our animals. In contrast, the previous flood swept away two people, ten animals, 6500 kilograms of grain, and ten houses in a flash.”
Floods immediately following installation of CBFEWS in all four countries have demonstrated their effectiveness, gaining the trust of communities, and reinforcing to governments the cost-effectiveness of investing in these systems rather than in post-flood compensation for lives and property lost. The government of Bihar provides INR 400,000 per person (around USD 6,279) in case of accidental death during natural disaster. In the 2017 floods, compensation to the families of the four deceased amounted to around USD 24,000. The loss of property and livelihoods that goes uncompensated amounts to much more. The CBFEWS instruments and community mobilization costs USD10,000, so CBFEWS clearly saves lives and money that governments can invest in improving disaster preparedness and/or response.
This message resounds across the HKH. On 3 August 2017, at 4:30 am, the radar based wireless CBFEWS instrument in Sherqilla, Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan – especially improvised for the region by the private enterprise – generated a flood warning activating a siren that woke up 2,800 people from 350 households. The community got an hour to evacuate, taking around 2,000 heads of livestock and precious belongings to higher ground before the flash flood hit the village. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) acknowledged that if caught unaware many families and livestock would have been swept away. In comparison, a similar flood in 2016 swept away six households, and destroyed 250 acres of cropland and some 600 fruit and wild trees. This system was established in June 2017 based on the success of ICIMOD’s previous experience in implementing CBFEWS in Nepal and India.
ICIMOD seeks to strengthen networks and partnerships for efficient functioning of CBFEWS along river basins towards a no-lives-lost approach. In addition to integration into national DRR planning mechanisms, CBFEWS serves as an entry point to build institutional capacity in disaster response. In Gilgit-Baltistan, CBFEWS has enabled the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA) to transition from a response-based approach to a proactive one. ICIMOD provided technical inputs to update the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Risk Management Plan. In India, the CBFEWS in Bhittamore, Bihar is being piloted as part of a village disaster management plan, and has been integrated into the Bihar State government’s DRR roadmap support unit where the state has invested 50% of the system cost, and is exploring outscaling to other flood prone areas. Similarly, two systems each are planned for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming years. Following the impact of the CBFEWS in Sarpallo, Nepal’s Department of Hydrological Management (DHM) has contributed to the cost of the CBFEWS instruments in the Gagan River. SEE has installed three CBFEWS with development agencies, and is in discussions to outscale cross-border CBFEWS in different river tributaries in Nepal and India.
Marring this overall positive momentum, parts of the system in Bhittamore went missing just before the rains began in 2018. Thankful for the timely warning that the CBFEWS gave them in 2017, the community and local authorities rallied together with support from ICIMOD and SEE to replace the missing parts just before the rains came.
ICIMOD and SEE have worked together to achieve many milestones through the implementation of CBFEWS in various contexts. Working closely with communities and ICIMOD, SEE has continually delivered on the technology and innovation front and also increased its capacities to apply the four fundamental elements of CBFEWS. The successful implementation of CBFEWS in the past eight years bears witness to this.
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