COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Weather experts in South Asia say they need a more effective system for sharing meteorological information, as the current monsoon season leaves a trail of destruction from Sri Lanka to Pakistan.
Losses began when the South Asia monsoon first made landfall in early June. On the night of June 7, heavy rains and high winds left 55 dead along Sri Lanka’s south coast. Most of the victims were fishermen who found themselves trapped in dangerous waters.
Less than ten days later, the monsoon reached the Uttarakhand region in north India, where floods and landslides marooned over 100,000 pilgrims and disrupted the lives of 2 million people. Two months on, the final death toll is still not known. Over 1,000 bodies have been recovered but some 6,000 people remain missing, presumed dead.
Two weeks after the Uttarakhand floods, the monsoon hit Pakistan. As of August 14, 93 people had been killed across the country and more than 84,000 affected, mainly in Punjab and Sindh provinces, according to the National Disaster Management Agency of Pakistan.
“We knew the monsoon was going to be bad this year, but what we could not be really sure of was how bad it would be,” Gulam Rasul, chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Department of Meteorology, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Colombo, weather officials were also in the dark about the monsoon’s ferocity. S H Kariyawasam, head of Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department, said the low level of technology available on the island makes it extremely difficult to give detailed forecasts, especially for fast-moving weather systems.
“Weather patterns are changing quite drastically, but we don’t have the capacity to keep pace,” he said.
Regional weather and disaster experts say one of the most effective ways to overcome national forecasting deficiencies would be to share timely weather data across national borders.
“An effective end-to-end early warning system could have certainly reduced the damage that occurred in Uttarakhand in India,” said Mandira Singh Shrestha, a senior water resources specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Sharing of real-time hydro-meteorological data could enable timely and reliable flood forecasts by national agencies that could allow officials like Rasul and Kariyawasam to issue warnings to populations at risk with ample time to take action, she said.
“Timely information on the monsoon and detailed weather forecasts can result in better preparedness for disasters, as well as agriculture,” she added.
Some cooperation and information sharing already takes place in the region.
ICIMOD, in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and national hydro-meteorological agencies in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan, has initiated a regional flood information system in the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan region.
The programme covers the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra basins, and has installed 24 real-time hydro-meteorological stations so far, with plans to expand the network.
South Asian countries have also participated in the South Asia Climate Outlook Forum since 2005, an annual meeting held before the monsoon begins.
The forum was set up with the WMO’s assistance and has “an overarching responsibility to produce and disseminate a regional assessment of the state of the regional climate for the upcoming (monsoon) season.”
The latest meeting - with participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - was held in Kathmandu in April.
Kariyawasam from Sri Lanka said information is exchanged at the forum and forecasts discussed, but follow-up activity is limited to sharing weather bulletins.
Pakistan’s Rasul said an agency or a mechanism is needed through which reliable information can be regularly transmitted.
“If countries like Sri Lanka can share information when the monsoon kicks in, then countries that lie north of it can get a better assessment of what is coming their way,” he said.
The Pakistani expert also stressed that information should be circulated at least on a monthly basis and not only when extreme weather events threaten the region. “All of us need to get a handle on changing weather patterns,” he said.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.