Coping disasters beyond the border : Nepal-India cross-border flood early warning system

September 12th, 2017

Saving lives from flood disasters beyond the border is possible through early warning systems. It is demonstrated successfully in three river basins between India and Nepal. Bilateral cooperation at government level could make greater changes.

By Dinanath Bhandari, Buddhi Kumal, Lok Narayan Pokhrel and Kamal Tripathi

While many governments are sharing information on cyclones and are helping in taking preventive measures, south Asian countries are yet to root their efforts in working together to save their people. However, civil society collaboration between Nepal and India has saved lives and assets from flooding. The governments in both countries can do better if they realize the importance of cross-border flood early warning systems. There are already evidences from good practice on the ground inspiring authorities to upscale efforts.

Different countries, changed names but the pain is the same

People living along the banks of Karnali (Ghagra in India) and Babai (Saryu in India) share the same exposure to floods. Both have lost relatives, assets and face drudgery brought about by the floods. Nepalese communities have less time to escape as they are in the upstream catchment and the flow is fast with less lag time to prepare and respond to particular flood. On the other hand, communities downstream in India didn’t have any information about impending floods until a few years back.

NDRF Rescue Team Shifting people to safe shelters, Bahraich. Photo: PGVS

Volunteers rescuing people to safe shelters in Bardiya. Photo: Nepal Flood Resilience Project

For last few years flood frequency has been getting higher with record floods in West Rapti and Babai Rivers. Babai had devastating flood in 2014, when 32 people lost their lives in Bardiya, Nepal. In India, the flood broke the Saryu barrage dam and 13 people lost their lives. West Rapti has crossed the danger level several times since 2012, up to six times in some years. Loss of lives, assets and livelihoods was an common phenomenon for the people living in flood plains in Nepal and India.

Changing floods: changing coping strategies

However, the situation is changing now. In Nepal Practical Action has been working with communities, civil society organizations and relevant government agencies at local to national level to set up and advancement of community centered flood early warning systems in West Rapti (since 2008), Babai (2008) and Karnali (2010). Since 2016 Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) has started sending text messages directly to the people in flood prone areas based on their rainfall and flood forecast in addition to informing related authorities of Home Ministry at center and sub-national level. This has helped to evacuate people at risk to safer places to prevent loss of lives and movable belongings. An institutional mechanism of community disaster management committee (CDMC) has made the EWS operational thanks to efforts of Practical Action together with the DHM and other many institutions for over a decade.

In India in the downstream, Poorvanchal Gramin Vikas Sansthan (PGVS) has established community based flood early warning system in Gonda, Baharaich and Gorakhpur districts since 2012 with technical support from Practical Action along with its long time partners Nepal Red Cross’s Bardia District Chapter, Center for Social Development and Research (CSDR) and Radha Krishna Tharu Jana Sewa Kendra (RKJS). A generous information sharing by the DHM authorities for humanitarian purposes has made this possible. PGVS has been working together with Nepali NGOs and Red Cross to improve collaboration for information sharing to saving lives in the downstream. Following Nepal’s alert, warning and danger level of floods in the flood forecasting stations in Kusum (West Rapti), Chepang (Babai) and Chisapani (Karnali), calibrations have made to different Indian communities along with lead time calculations. Indian communities receive information via SMS sent by community individuals in Nepal built on informal linkages and watching DHM web pages that display real-time flood and rainfall situation. In the communities, trained volunteers take lead to communicate by hand operated sirens, mega phones and door to door visits.

The Nepal, India, Bangladesh Floods 2017

Strong monsoon winds in the second week of August dumped a lot of rainwater in parts of Nepal, India and Bangladesh resulting in huge floods in these countries. Almost every river originating in Nepal enters India. Huge floods in Nepal often cause similar situations for people in parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar in India. On 12-13 August 2017, there was an unprecedented flood in the Babai and West Rapti rivers in Nepal which soon crossed the border and reached India in few hours. Real-time river level sensor of the DHM recorded that the highest level of flood of Babai in Chepang flood gauge station was 9.98m on 13 August 2017 and of West Rapti in Kusum flood gauge station was 8.87m on 12 August 2017. Both were the highest level of flooding on record.

Babai Flood Rating Curve. Source: DHM

West Rapti Flood Rating Curve. Source: DHM

Cross border cooperation saved lives

In the August 12-13, 2017 floods, information sharing in between upstream and downstream communities demonstrated its significance. Indian communities and the organizations take care of potential rainfall in the upstream and frequently watch the DHM real-time information. Indian communities also call to upstream communities in Bardiya and Banke, hydrology stations in Nepal and request to inform them about the level of flood and rainfall status in the upstream. The network members brought this collaboration to a new height in this year. They used internet applications and social media to exchange flood information [insert cross border SMS or WhatsApp]. This enables communities to get timely information about potential risk of flood and authorities to help communities. People and authorities in Bahraich, Gonda, Shravasti, Balrampur, Siddarthanagar and Gorakhpur received flood information in advance through different media. The mechanism proved a success to saving lives of many people in above districts in India. The information was generated in Nepal and shared with members in India. “It helped people to save their lives, movable properties and important belongings”, said Krishna Kumar of PGVS in Bahraich.

Once the flood crossed warnings these three rivers in Nepal, members shared information actively. Nepali people relayed flood forecasts and updates from the DHM to their Indian counterparts. The network members made use of social media. These media were also used to inform communities in India. “PGVS sent rainfall and flood risk information using WhatsApp, Facebook and group SMS that helped save lives in this severe flooding”, Kamal Tripathi of PGVS shared. “We sent them to task forces at community level, relevant government officials, media and inter-agency groups and it proved a success”. They reached 2500 key persons instantly through these channels helping over 2,000,000 flood vulnerable people in 6 districts in UP prompting them to evacuate in time.

Screen Shot. WhatsApp

The Civil Society Network

These initiatives taken by civil society organizations have received support from journalists, advocates, and members for chamber of commerce and industries – the business sector in Nepal and India to strengthen the cross border flood EWS. In 2016, they formed Indo Nepal cross border flood early warning network. The network is Co-chaired by Krishna Gautam – President of Nepal Red Cross Society, Bardiya District Chapter and Krishna Kumar Tripathi – Additional Director of PGVS in India as a member secretary to the network. The network aims to demonstrate successful EWS mechanism beyond border to saving lives from floods and influence authorities to collaborate better between two countries.

“We are doing this for saving lives, assets and livelihoods from flood disasters”, said Krishna Gautam of Nepal Red Cross Bardiya, “It is based on our humanitarian principles and the collaboration is on humanitarian ground.” According to review in the communities, loss of lives has been brought down to minimum possible in Bahraich, Gonda and Gorakhpur despite unprecedented immense flooding thanks to cross border cooperation. This has demonstrated an example to take up by governments.

Disasters extend beyond borders warranting cross-border cooperation on prevention, preparedness and response to flooding at all levels to helping each other. There are reasons why governments should invest, collaborate and cooperate with each other in preventing disasters; a shift is required in approaches and practices to address the risks of changing floods. The technology is advancing, access to flood risk information has been possible prompting preventive measures by the communities and authorities beyond the border. Governments should tap the opportunities created by civil societies.

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