Communicating flood early warning in the Ratu watershed

   TwitCount
Mandira Singh Shrestha
Ujol Sherchan

What happens when flood early warning is communicated from district level to vulnerable communities, the end users of that information? 

A HYCOS User Phase project team from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) visited the Ratu Watershed in the Koshi River basin in eastern Nepal in May. The objective of the visit was to better understand the communication of flood early warning to the end users and figure out how to ensure last mile connectivity. A second objective was to understand how local-level early warning systems support flood risk reduction. 

A solar-powered radar sensor for measuring the water level on the Ratu River in Bardibas

The team’s first stop was Bardibas, where ICIMOD has set up a community-based flood early warning system (CBFEWS) on the Ratu River. This system has a communication link with the flood-vulnerable village of Sarpallo downstream. The CBFEWS was set up in partnership with Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) and the United Nations Development Programme under the Community-Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project.

Ratu River originates in the Siwalik range. It becomes a mere trickle in the winter but can be life-threatening during the monsoon. A radar sensor set up on the Ratu bridge, on the East West Highway, sets off a siren at a designated CBFEWS caretaker’s house any time the water level rises one metre above the river bed. Mahendra Karki is the CBFEWS caretaker in Bardibas tasked with confirming that the siren is not a false alarm and communicating the flood early warning to the first responders and his counterparts downstream. He is happy to have been instrumental in communicating flood early warning to communities downstream during the August 2017 floods, which saved lives and livelihoods not only in Nepal but also across the border in India. However, he and other stakeholders would like to see the early warning systems formally institutionalized. This would require the local government to make a budgetary allocation for CBFEWS operation, including salary for the caretakers. Without institutionalization, the system is at a risk of collapsing once the project ends and there is no one to maintain and operate it.

Women of Sarpallo during a group mapping exercise on flood early warning and response capacity

The HYCOS team visited Sarpallo next. This is a settlement of around 11,000 people located about 30 km downstream of Bardibas, on the banks of the Ratu. Here, focused group discussions were held with 28 villagers, including the caretaker Raj Kumar, and key members of four Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMCs): Badal, Tarakeshwor, Sankatmochan and Jhingesthan. CDMCs are the first responders in flood emergencies as they are trained to help move people to safety with their persons and belongings intact. The CDMC is a voluntary group formed at the community level and comprising of task forces such as first aid, search and rescue, early warning, and relief. The focused group discussion concluded that CBFEWS caretakers should issue early warnings to ensure one to two hours of lead time for effective response. It was also agreed that all CDMCs must be registered with the Manara Sisuwa Municipality so that they are linked with the local government and that a safe shelter must be established in each tole in Sarpallo so the people know where to go in the event of a flood.

ICIMOD team with Sone Lal Shah (far left), Chairperson of Ward 7 and Sunita Mahato (third from left), Municipality Member outside the office of the Mayor, Manara Shisuwa Municipality, Sarpallo, Mahottari

The ICIMOD team also visited the office of Manara Sisuwa Municipality in Sarpallo to meet Mayor Sanjay Kumar Singh. Singh is very familiar with disaster management operations in the district, as he was part of the District Disaster Management Committee (DDMC) that put together a Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan (DPRP) for Mahottari district a few years ago. The Mayor assured the ICIMOD team that they would allocate budget for disaster preparedness along with funds for flood response and relief. He said the best way to address disaster risk reduction (DRR) at the municipality level was to raise these issues at the ward level for the municipality to address. However, human resources for DRR seem to be lacking within the Municipality as Nepal transitions to a federal governance structure.

Sone Lal Shah, Chairperson, Ward No 7, Sarpallo, said that Jhingesthan, his constituency, is extremely vulnerable to floods. His office would like to do more on the disaster preparedness and response front but has no financial resources of its own to do so as its budget comes from the municipality. In a very matter-of-fact manner, he pointed out that they do not have adequate human resources – particularly technically qualified people – at their ward office and would need support in terms of capacity building from organizations like ICIMOD.

ICIMOD team with Babu Lal Shrestha (seated), Chief District Officer of Mahottari, and security personnel in Jaleshwor, Mahottari

At the district level, the team met with Babu Lal Shrestha, Chief District Officer, Jaleshwor, Mahottari. Shrestha stated that his office activated relief and rescue operations during the August 2017 floods with the help of Red Cross, the army, police, and relief agencies. He said he was not aware of the CDMCs in Sarpallo as they don’t come to the District Disaster Management Committee (DDMC) meetings chaired by him and wondered if they have any linkage with the Local Development Management Committee (LDMC) at the municipality level. He underscored the need for better coordination amongst all entities (including the CDMCs based in Sarpallo) working in early warning communication, disaster preparedness, and response during flood emergencies in his district.

Hem Bahadur Karki, who was involved in disaster management at the district level during the August 2017 floods that claimed some 169 lives across Nepal, noted that the new Disaster Management Act calls for the establishment of a disaster management committee at each level of the government. There is none so far at the provincial level in Province 2, where the Ratu watershed is located. He said that the need of the hour is to reach the maximum number of flood vulnerable people through location-specific SMS early warnings, and underscored the need to mitigate disaster risks by establishing flood control measures such as embankments and spurs, and relocating settlements situated on flood-prone river islands or riverbanks. For effective coordination, he suggested building/updating a database on FEWSs in Nepal, on who is working on what aspects of disaster risk reduction (DRR), and where the flood hotspots and safe shelters are.

Some of the key takeaways from the Ratu field trip were:

  • Institutionalization of FEWS: Many project-built FEWSs across Nepal need to be linked with District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC) and the local government, especially municipalities and wards. CDMCs should be registered with relevant municipalities.
  • Better coordination in disaster preparedness and response: The district-level and local governments do not have a database of FEWS and various entities working in disaster management in their respective jurisdictions, which is a prerequisite for effective coordination.
  • Institutional capacity building of recently elected local governments: Although the local government’s mandate is disaster management, it does not yet have adequate capacity and resources for disaster preparedness and response planning and implementation.
  • Empowering flood-vulnerable people to monitor flood risk information on their own: As formal channels of flood early warning dissemination take time, more emphasis should be placed on directly reaching a maximum number of flood vulnerable people with location-specific flood early warnings delivered through mobile/SMS. In addition, the first responders and end users should be given an option to monitor real-time rainfall and water level data, including the likelihood of flood occurrence in their area, with reference to the warning/danger level, on their computers/smartphones during the monsoon season.