In flood-prone South Asia, early warning systems buy precious time

Irwin Loy

IRIN contributor

Early warning can save lives. Knowing something horrible is about to happen gives you a chance to prepare or get away — a painful lesson that is slowly being learnt across flood-prone South Asia.

Three years ago, the Karnali and Babai rivers in mid-western Nepal overflowed, sending floodwaters rushing through downstream flatlands, killing dozens. There were 31 deaths in the single district of Bardiya alone.

In August this year, monsoon rains again caused the waters to swell — part of massive regional floods that surged across Nepal’s southern plains. This time, though, only four people in Bardiya died.

One key reason for the difference was that eight to 12 hours before the floods swept in, people received text messages warning of the impending danger, says Nepal’s chief flood forecaster, Rajendra Sharma.

"We know the flood is coming, but where to go?"

The messages were part of an SMS alert system put in place just last year. Paired with real-time river and precipitation sensors and education programmes in vulnerable communities at the start of this year’s monsoon season, the SMS alerts gave residents precious hours to try and secure their possessions and flee to higher ground.

The damage has still been extensive, but advance warning saved lives. “It was very valuable in the rivers where we have this system,” Sharma told IRIN. 

Large parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and northeast India have been debilitated by floods since mid-August. Triggered by monsoon rains, the floods have affected an estimated 40 million people and killed more than 1,200 in the three countries.

In recent days, floods have also inundated the Indian city of Mumbai, and Karachi, the sprawling capital of Pakistan’s Sindh Province.

What happened in Nepal, where automated flood forecasting tools and early warning systems are relatively recent, is an example of how the region has tried to better prepare for the yearly monsoon season.

But it’s also a sign of the vast gaps that remain in one of the world’s most densely populated flood-prone regions.

‘We weren’t prepared’

Sharma says even in areas where the new SMS alert system was employed, some residents still struggled to use the lifesaving information. In some cases there was a crucial missing link: a clear plan and a safe evacuation centre on higher ground.

“We issued the forecast, we sent out the mass SMS,” Sharma said, “but then people told us, ‘Okay, we know the flood is coming, but where to go?’” 

In each affected country, the magnitude of the floods has sparked questions about why authorities were seemingly caught unprepared.

In India, op-ed writers called for a “radical rethinking” of flood preparedness. “The floods that kill hundreds of people across South Asia year after year… can be forecast, prepared for, engineered and insured against and managed, but are not,” an editorial in The Economic Times stated.

“We weren’t prepared for this,” lamented Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune in a series of editorials. “Bangladesh is not new to the problem of floods, but year after year, we find ourselves woefully unprepared.”

Shared water, shared problems

That the severe August flooding inundated parts of three countries in quick succession was no coincidence: river systems in Nepal, Bangladesh and large parts of India are intertwined over a vast basin known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra.

When the Karnali River swells, its waters don’t stop at Nepal’s border; it splits and flows into India’s Uttar Pradesh State as the Ghaghara River — itself a tributary of the Ganges. Likewise, the Brahmaputra River rushes into Bangladesh only after curving through India’s Assam State. Most of Bangladesh’s land mass is a river delta for the basin.

All three countries are among the most flood-exposed nations in the world. More people in India and Bangladesh are affected by river floods than in any other country, according to the World Resources Institute.

In socio-economic terms, inhabitants of this river basin are also among the world’s most vulnerable — more of the world’s poor live here than in any other regional river basin, according to a United Nations University publication.  

That means people here are more likely to live in exposed areas, and less likely to be equipped with the means to rebuild their livelihoods after the floods have retreated. 

And this population is growing rapidly. A World Resources Institute analysis estimates upwards of 9.9 million people in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin are exposed to river floods each year.

This number could double or triple by 2030 to between 22.5 and 31.4 million people each year, factoring in projections based on climate change and economic and urban development predictions.

A heavy burden

This underscores a problem that South Asia and other flood-prone regions have grappled with for generations. Regular, small-scale floods are a vital aspect of the ecosystem in lowland river areas: they can replenish nutrients in the soil and are essential for certain crops.

But as populations swell and urbanise, life amid the floods becomes increasingly difficult.

“It’s a blessing and a burden,” said Azmat Ulla, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies country head in Bangladesh. “It’s not just Bangladesh, it’s a large part of Asia: South Asia, Southeast Asia. How to live with floods?”

Disaster risk reduction is a key part of that balance. Risk reduction represents a sweeping set of priorities — from smarter land use and urban planning that takes environmental realities into account, to helping populations become better prepared for hazards, to enabling more effective response and recovery efforts.

But on the ground, there are very human reasons why even well-designed early warning systems can fail.

For some, leaving is a luxury

When researcher Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, a project manager with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, interviewed survivors of 2007’s Cyclone Sidr in coastal Bangladesh, one thing became abundantly clear: some people did not evacuate, even though early warning systems had been activated.

For some, cyclone shelters were too far away, or they feared they might be full and chose to try and protect their possessions instead. Others told her they received SMS warnings — but couldn’t read them.

One man said he didn’t evacuate because he couldn’t leave behind his cows. To him, losing his only income source seemed a greater risk than the looming storm.

“I think more effort is required to understand why people don’t move,” said Ayeb-Karlsson, who researches human responses to climate change and disasters.

“Most of the time, it doesn’t have too much to do with not getting warning signals, or not knowing the flood is coming,” she said.

“It’s a question about not being able to move, or maybe feeling that there’s a risk for them to move. There are a million different reasons.”

These reasons have important implications for policy. As a result, Bangladesh is exploring ways of making evacuation shelters more accommodating — built with space to keep cattle on a bottom floor, for example, said Ayeb-Karlsson.

Smaller, closer shelters could draw more evacuees than larger structures kilometres away. And automated phone calls, rather than text messages, could reach people who are illiterate.

For many people, time simply ran out: they couldn’t secure their possessions before the cyclone hit. “It’s all a question of time,” said Ayeb-Karlsson.

(TOP PHOTO: An aerial photograph shows the extent of August 2017 flooding across Bangladesh. Raqibul Alam/IFRC)

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