Reaching the most vulnerable across the border: Community-based flood early warning systems
By Neera Shrestha Pradhan
The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is prone to natural hazards. Climate change and its impacts exacerbate this susceptibility. Floods and flash floods are major natural hazards in the HKH and are catastrophic to downstream communities. Many rivers and tributaries flowing from the mountains and hills of Nepal enter the plains of India forming flat, flood-prone, and partially waterlogged areas. Light to heavy rainfall in the Shiwalik Hills of Nepal can cause flash floods and huge losses of lives and livelihoods. Though early warning systems have been developed at the global, regional, and national levels to provide flood information, there are gaps -- identified by the Hyogo Protocol and the United Nations Forum Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters (SREX 2012) -- in getting this information to communities that are most vulnerable. To address this challenge, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is piloting a community-based flood early warning system (CBFEWS), an integrated system of tools and plans in which upstream communities, upon detecting flood risk, disseminate the information to vulnerable downstream communities for preparedness and response to save lives and livelihoods.
Why a community-based flood early warning system?
The objective of a community-based flood early warning system is to facilitate local communities to utilize local resources and capacities to prepare and respond to and enhance their resilience to flooding risk. This system is installed in the river tributaries that have high flood risks making downstream communities extremely vulnerable. The upstream community generates the flood information using a simple low-cost instrument and disseminates the real time early warning to the downstream communities, providing them sufficient lead time for preparedness. The system consists of a transmitter unit, which is placed on the river bank (at a point where water level reaches during the flood), and a receiver unit which is placed in a house of the nearest village. The house owner (known as caretaker) will monitor the unit and disseminate information received from the instrument to the downstream communities, local government line agencies, and other relevant stakeholders through mobile phone/SMS.
CBFEWS in Ratu River
Ratu is a transboundary river between Nepal and India, which originates from the Siwalik Hills, while the lower reach is in the Terai, the northern extension of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. The transboundary nature of the river provides an opportunity for the two countries at the local level to inform the vulnerable communities about flood risk and help prepare them for the coming danger. In this regard, a CBFEWS with telemetry is installed in Lalgarh, Bardibas in Mahottari District, Nepal and in Bhittamore, Sitamarhi District in Bihar, India, and jointly implemented by the local communities, partner organizations, and the respective government line agencies with support from ICIMOD.
The telemetry-based early warning system provides early flood information to 6,685 households with a population of 35,804 in four villages in Mahottari District, Nepal and 12,500 households with a population of 59,600 in six villages in Sitamarhi District, India.
Cross border local level information flow
The installation of a community-based flood early warning system across the border in Nepal and India triggered the start of local-level efforts to share information on saving the lives and livelihoods of downstream communities vulnerable to flash floods. The system uses a low-cost technology, which is locally manufactured in Kathmandu. The concept of a flood early warning system generated by upstream communities and disseminated to the downstream communities was discussed with approval by the Principal Secretary, Disaster Management Department, Government of Bihar for the implementation in Bhittamore, Bihar, India, and the Director General, Department of Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Government of Nepal for the implementation in Bardibas, Nepal.
On 31 July, a stakeholders’ consultation was conducted in Bardibas and Sarpallo under the leadership of Dr Rishi Ram Sharma, Director General of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Speaking on the occasion, Dr Sharma mentioned that this is the first time DHM has installed a community-based flood early warning system to monitor and provide flood early warnings in small flash flood-prone rivers, which are vulnerable to flood risks. With the success of this system, he also emphasized that it will be replicated in other flood-prone rivers and tributaries in Nepal.
The consultation included a discussion of the community-based flood early warning system and its significance to the downstream vulnerable communities. The level of commitment from the representatives of local vulnerable communities, the caretaker from the upstream community, and representatives from district government offices and other organizations working in Ratu to support the implementation and sustainability of the system was encouraging.
The cross-border upstream-downstream interaction of the Ratu River in Sarpallo, Nepal and Bhittamore, India provided an opportunity for the caretakers in the two countries, as well as representatives from local communities and partner organizations, to exchange knowledge and information. The scoping and risk assessment, installation of the instrument, and mock drills for preparedness were jointly conducted to enhance the resilience of the vulnerable populations.
“Yes, we will!” was the strong voice from the communities in Sarpallo when asked whether they will share the information to the downstream communities in Sitamarhi.
One of the women participants from Bhittamore, Patna said, “We have family relations across the border in Nepal and we are excited to share knowledge and information which benefit both the communities”.
This bond will strengthen when the caretakers, representatives from local government line agencies, and vulnerable communities gather at ICIMOD for the regional hands-on training on community-based flood early warning systems from 11-15 September 2017. This will be an opportunity for them to interact with participants from Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and share their experiences while gaining hands-on experience for instrument installation and maintenance.
Sustainability of the community-based flood early warning system depends on the ownership of the communities and the financial and technical support for the continuous operation of the system. Taking this into consideration, the local government line agencies, local institutions, and community members were involved in the conceptualization, risk assessment and scoping, installation of the system and regular monitoring, and preparedness. A network of key informants with their mobile numbers was established to share and disseminate the early warning to the relevant stakeholders. The long-term goal is to integrate this system with the annual district disaster management plans for sustainability and ownership at the local level.
Does it work? – Evidence from the field
On 12 Aug 2017, the flood waters from Ratu River reached Shrikhandi village in the Sithamarhi district of Bihar. The people residing in this Indo-Nepal bordering district were prepared and thus expected to have a different experience. The early warning tower that was set up by ICIMOD-Yuganter in the Ratu River near Shrikhandi bhitta village is different from the early warning that they had been getting from the government.
Unlike previous years, when the flood waters gushed into their homes, the people had moved their cattle and other important and expensive property to safe places. The women, along with children, had prepared themselves to move to safer places. The local administration of the Sursand block and Sithamarhi district had been warned about the impending floods. Thanks to the community-based flood early warning system, they had seven to eight hours of lead time to prepare themselves for the coming flood. This miracle happened because we did not depend only on the modern technology but gave a “human face” to the early warning system by involving the local communities and government line agencies from conceptualization to implementation of this initiative.
Ranjeet Kumar, the caretaker at the Shrikahandi village, had been keeping constant watch on the receiver that was telemetrically linked to the tower at the nearby Ratu River bank. At the same time, he had been in constant contact with Rajkumar Mahato and Mahendra Karki, the caretakers of the similar systems at Sarpallo and Badribas in Ratu River, Nepal. Kumar was able to inform the community not only in his village but also in the adjoining six villages and provide time for preparedness. This is the beauty of a local-level cross-border effort using a community-based flood early warning system.
Today, Ranjeet Kumar is very proud to be a caretaker of the instrument, as his information was able to provide sufficient time to the vulnerable communities to save themselves and their precious cattle. Kumar and vulnerable communities are happy that they have beaten the first phase floods and are confident this flood has not knocked them down. Compared to communities located on other rivers which do not have this system, they feel lucky to get the information on time and now realize that “information is power”. They hope that this system will be installed in other rivers to save more lives and livelihoods.