Without sufficient warning the provision of emergency supplies, training and evacuation materials can become worthless. The greater the time communities have to prepare, the greater the savings in human life, household assets, livestock and stored provisions.
Early warning systems are made up of, and rely upon, four main elements:
- Observation and recording
- Risk knowledge and recognition
- Warning and dissemination
- Appropriate response
There nothing new under the sun
One of the most important elements in setting up an EWS (early warning system) is to keep expectations realistic and to try to use existing, indigenous experience as much as possible.
Early on in the project the message was communicated clearly, and repeatedly to communities, that the 'technology' on the EWS alone would not protect them and that they already possessed all the skills required to operate it.
As an example it was pointed out that 'machan' watch towers were used extensively in the area already, to guard and protect crops against the destructive foraging of wild animal, and that the new system would build upon this approach.
Due to limited local communication possibilities and the frequency of 'flash floods' local observation was identified as the only reliable source of information early on in the programme. To this end a standard design of watch tower was agreed upon, its design being influenced by the learning of a previous pilot project carried out by Practical Action nearby, in 2001.
Towers not only give a greater filed and distance of view but provide greater range to sirens and act as a focal point for all 'watch & warn' activities.
Recognising the signs
The view from the tower in Kolhuwa. 6th September 2007.
As rivers rise those tasked with carrying out observation have been trained in making regular communication to communities, informing them of levels and trends, and whether rivers are rising or falling.
Knowing specific risks
Flood gauge in Pithauli. 7th September 2007
During high water periods observers use historical data and specific measuring indicators to gauge the degree of threat.
The rate of rise of the river can be as important to note as the actual level for example, as can the rate of rainfall irrespective of current river level.
In all locations electrical siren systems were established, reliant on battery and 'inverter' systems due to the unreliability of mains power supply during periods of heavy rain.
The output and range of the sirens was a compromise, as the systems have to be sustainable long term. While more powerful sirens were available, the cost of batteries and other equipment required to support them would have been beyond the capacity of communities to replace long term, as all batteries ultimately require.
Discussion of this issue was also used as an opportunity to re-emphasize that the sirens were not the system themselves, merely the first stage, and that what ever power of siren was used there would always be households beyond a sirens range which would need warning through a 'social system'.
Beyond the range of the siren communities have established different dissemination systems in each location, dependent on settlement patterns and geography. In all location however, cheap, simple hand microphones have been provided so that information can be broadcast. These enable specific messages to be communicated, as the tower system can only transmit a siren.
A warning is useless unless people know what it means, know what to do and know where to go. As such the community response plans developed are at the heart of the EWS system.
A measure of success?
On 6th and 7th September 2007 the EWS in Kolhuwa and Pithauli were put to the test. While large scale loss of land was unavoidable, in Kolhuwa in particular, villagers were warned in adequate time resulting no loss of life, livestock, or household assets.