Forewarned, forearmed

Sep 7, 2017

Caretaker of the CBFEWS in Lalgadh, Dhanusha, Mahendra Karki shows the upgraded telemetry-based equipment. Photo: CFGORRP

With the installation and operationalization of Community-Based Flood Early Warning Systems at strategic locations along the Ratu river by the Community-Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project, vulnerable communities in areas at high risk of floods have been able to better prepare themselves against disaster

Sarpallos Indal Mahato, who lives in Sarpallo in Mahottari district, knows the value of a well-timed warning when it comes to floods. “We used to have to always be ready to run with our families when the flooding was at its peak—the uncertainty was the worst part,” he says. “Being pre-warned makes a huge difference in how you are able to cope with disaster both physically and mentally.”

This was confirmed in July 2016, when the Early Warning System (EWS) installed in the area alerted Indal and his fellow villagers to a heavy flood that was about to hit the VDC. “It meant that we were able to evacuate with our children and elderly, as well as save important documents and livestock in advance.”

These Early Warning Systems are therefore key to improving communities’ preparedness with regards to floods and reduce the impacts of such events on individuals and families—prior knowledge of disaster, and the means afforded by such information to put in place mitigative measures, or allow escape at the very least, can mean the difference between life and death for the many at-risk groups living across Nepal. Sarpallo in Mahottari is one such areas that is highly susceptible to the effects of flooding from the nearby Jangha and Akushi rivers, tributaries of the Ratu River, which has caused much loss of life, injury and damage to property over time.

It was thus, to lessen the vulnerability of the locals in the VDC, that the Community-Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project (CFGORRP)—a joint undertaking of UNDP, Government of Nepal and the Global Environment Facility (GEF)—had installed and operationalized Community-Based Flood Early Warning Systems (CBFEWS) in collaboration with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) at three strategic locations along the Ratu.

CBFEWS comprise semi-automated systems that generate flood warning signals so that flood-related data and information can be manually disseminated via telecommunication channels, hand-operated sirens and megaphones. The operationalization of these systems will also serve to link upstream and downstream communities through the sharing of real-time information about floods. One of the primary factors that makes the mechanism effective, and of particular relevance to rural Nepal, is the simple, low-cost and low-tech semi-automated design.

In July 2017, the system was upgraded to a telemetry-based version, and further replicated in the Gagan River in Siraha. In the same month, ICIMOD also extended the system downstream of the Ratu at Bhittamore-Sitamarhim, India, and trained local caretakers to operate the same.

Flood sensor installed in Upstream  of RatuFlood censor installed upstream of the Ratu river. Photo: CFGORRP

Mahendra Bikram Karki is the caretaker of one of the CBFEWS installed in upstream Lalgadh, Dhanusha, and he is the first to receive the warning signal when water levels go up. He explains: “This gives us a lead time of about 2.5 hours to make necessary precautions to minimize the potential impact of the flood on downstream communities. When the floods cross safety levels, I pass on the information to the community-level taskforces and disaster-reduction committee members in risky areas for further dissemination of the information by using handmikes, sirens and mobile phones.”

The CFGORRP has also constructed an embankment of about 4.2 kilometers in length along the river, to further prevent overflow. In addition to this, six elevated tube-wells and a safe evacuation center has also been constructed in the area.

All these mechanisms were put to rigorous test during the recent flooding in Ratu triggered by the torrential rainfall that battered the area on 11 August this year. And the results were encouraging: caretakers in Sarpallo, Lalghadh, and Bhittamore were all in constant touch with each other throughout the night, and information was shared across the villages, both downstream and across the border.

Mahendra, for instance, recalls how he was able to coordinate with local government line agencies in Bardibas during the flooding, right until the point where he himself had to evacuate because the floodwaters had reached his house. In Bhittamore, the caretaker, along with volunteers from the local NGO, worked similarly to disseminate warnings and were able to provide a window of almost eight hours for vulnerable communities to ready themselves and for line agencies to extend support. 

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