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Nepal boosts early warning system for climate hazards

Source: Wed, 3 Jul 2013 16:15 GMT
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A local community on the Rapti River of west Nepal checks the depth of water in the river during training on early warning alerts. Photo: Practical Action
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KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Floods and landslides have hit Nepal hard this monsoon season, bringing high casualties in just the first few weeks.

More than 40 people were killed in 17 districts during the second half of June, mainly in the hills of the mid-west and far-west regions, according to the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS), the country’s largest aid agency. There are mounting fears the country will see more disaster deaths during the monsoon season, which lasts until September.

Most fatalities have been caused by landslides sweeping through villages, but floods have also exacted a heavy toll, killing livestock and washing away farms, experts say. Most families have had little or no warning of impending disaster.

“One way or another, both landslides and floods have an immense impact on both lives and livelihoods,” said Pitamber Aryal, director of the NRCS disaster department.

The problems are in part the result of unexpectedly heavy and early rainfall. In April, the South Asia Climate Outlook Forum of the World Meteorology Organisation (WMO) predicted that Nepal, northern India and Bhutan would see higher monsoon rains than normal – but few saw the monsoon coming early.

Annual rainfall in Nepal averages 1,920 mm. But the South Asian nation received 20 percent of this amount in the past few weeks alone. Data from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) shows that 300mm of rain fell over just three days, from June 16-18.

NEED FOR NEW TECHNOLOGY

Disasters caused by too much or too little precipitation have become much more frequent and widespread in Nepal. Yet very little has been done to develop a system that can provide people with early warning. The country does not even have an effective weather-forecasting radar.

“The radars are very expensive but the need is very crucial for the nation,” Rishi Ram Sharma, director-general of the country’s meteorology department, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. One of the best-known devices, the Doppler Radar, is priced at over $3 million, and is costly to maintain.

That lack of preparedness for the effects of extreme weather may now be set to change, however, as non-government players and a multinational bank step in to help Nepal reduce its disaster risk.

The country’s meteorology department has been working on a small-scale early warning system with international development group Practical Action, testing it in four major river basins in the east and west.

The initiative includes hydrological monitoring and risk warning, followed up by communication and disaster response. When the latest flood from the Karnali River hit Bardiya and Banke districts, there were no reported casualties and local communities were alerted in good time.

“There is technology today which is more affordable and accessible, and we should take advantage of that to improve our early warning system,” said Dinanath Bhandari, disaster risk reduction and climate change programme coordinator for Practical Action.

INTERNATIONAL FUNDING

In April, Nepal’s Ministry of Finance and the World Bank also signed off on a $31 million project to strengthen the country’s ability to withstand climate-related hazards. The project aims to modernise its existing hydro-meteorological observation network and improve the accuracy of weather and flood forecasts for vulnerable communities.

The money is being channeled as part of the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience of the multinational Climate Investment Funds (CIF). The $7.6 billion funds aim to help developing countries pursue low-carbon and climate-resilient development. The finance is disbursed by multilateral development banks, with 48 countries benefiting so far.

In Nepal today, weather is monitored in most places through an observation network that is mainly manual and has limited real-time data collection, transmission and storage.

“This limits the government's capacity for improving the lead time and accuracy of warnings and forecasts for various hydro-meteorological hazards and events,” said Poonam Pillai of the World Bank’s special disaster risk management and climate change unit for the South Asia region.

Nepal has 280 rainfall monitoring centres located across the country. But it still lacks a system for issuing authoritative alerts about weather and climate hazards to government authorities and other key groups. And it has no way to issue timely and targeted warnings to at-risk communities.

That’s one reason Nepal, widely judged one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, was selected to receive backing from the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR).

 “We urgently need to upgrade our manual stations so that the information can be used effectively for climate services to improve our agriculture, water resources and disaster reduction, and prevent health hazards caused by disasters,” said the meteorological department’s Sharma.

The project also plans to develop an agricultural management system to help farmers cope with climate-related production risks.

Accurate weather forecasts “will be valuable to give early warning to the farmers so they can plan their harvest, choice of crops and irrigation,” said Shib Nandan Prasad Shah, under-secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture Development (MOAD).

Shah’s team will work closely with scientists from the Nepal Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) to develop an advisory package in language ordinary farmers can understand.

While weather forecasts consist of data that farmers may struggle to understand, scientists will help translate that information into everyday language for the field workers. They, in turn, will advise farmers to harvest early if heavy rains are expected, or to prepare irrigation systems if droughts are predicted.

“Last year’s drought ruined a lot of farmers because we couldn’t forecast the disaster, and didn’t have a good agricultural information management system,” explained Shah.

HELP WITH FARM PLANNING

The 2012 drought destroyed much of the country’s maize crops and was financially devastating for Nepali farmers.

“We lost all our maize last year because we didn’t know there would be drought,” said Jit Bahadur Tamang, a 40-year old farmer in Sanga Chowk village, 50 km from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.

“People come from the government and NGOs to educate us about climate change and alternative methods, but they don’t tell us anything that could help us plan our farming and harvesting,” he added.

Tamang believes the government’s plan to launch an improved agricultural information service for farmers like him will make a big difference.

Farm advisory services are not new territory for the NARC or the agriculture ministry. But the CIF project should help bridge the gap between researchers and field extension workers – something the NARC has long aspired to do.

NARC’s chief agronomy scientist, Anand Kumar Gautam, said the new links between weather forecasters, scientists and extension workers should enhance Nepal’s agricultural information system, bringing major benefits for farmers.

“It is a great idea to start an early warning system for the farmers who usually do not get any support and are basically on their own during times of disaster, unsure of what steps to take next,” Gautam said. “I hope that will now change for the better.”

Naresh Newar is a Kathmandu-based writer with an interest in climate change issues. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.

           

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