Snags afflict India’s early warning systems for natural disasters

·3-min read
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A lack of impact-based forecasts that can identify risks and lack of localised action plans to follow warnings are some issues that plague India's Early Warning Systems (EWS).

IndiaSpend, the country's first data journalism initiative, along with climate experts, say that despite India's sophisticated early warning systems for floods and cyclones, end-to-end connectivity needs to be improved.

This year alone, it is increasingly clear that India is among the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change.

Disaster risk reduction

In March, intense heat waves swept through north and central India, with some regions in Delhi reporting temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius – a first for the city. In all, 15 states were affected.

The north-eastern state of Assam witnessed an unprecedented 327 percent more rainfall than normal in May, impacting over 4.5 million people and leading to nearly 180 fatalities.

Elsewhere, a period of intense rain in June triggered the flooding of Brahmaputra and other tributaries.

“Early warning systems have consistently improved over India, and we have been saving lives during extreme weather events like cyclones," Roxy Mathew Koll climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told RFI.

"We may have a tough time tackling very localised events like cloudbursts which have now increased due to climate change – the forecasting ability is limited here.

“But we can lead research and map cloudburst and landslide prone areas, and take long-term precautions. Early warning systems can save lives but we need policies with long-term vision to save livelihoods too.”

Early warning systems

Early warning systems (EWSs) are widely considered to be one of the most important mechanisms to prevent disasters around the globe.

Investing in EWS to forecast cyclones can save six times more by preventing damage, according to a study. EWS are tools for local, national and regional institutions to manage disaster risks and reduce damage and casualties.

But as disasters continue to impact countries where EWSs have already been implemented, this has pushed disaster management systems to reflect on the focus, architecture, and function of warning systems.

India’s early weather warning system has been effective for tropical cyclones. As a result, the country has seen a substantial decline in the number of deaths over the last two decades.

Mitigate impact of disasters

“However, the warning system needs to become more robust for other meteorological events such as thunderstorms, heatwaves, and heavy rainfall events during the monsoon season, for which the weather surveillance system needs to improve and critical alerts must be sent directly to citizens’ mobile phones,” Akshay Deoras, a meteorologist and researcher told RFI.

Deoras, who has accurately forecasted several high-impact weather events including deadly tropical cyclones such as Phailin, Hudhud and Nisarga, says when an outbreak of a high-impact weather event is expected, doppler weather radars must scan more rapidly than the current rate, which would improve the surveillance.

“This information must then be converted into lucid alerts, and disseminated straight away in the case of a hazardous outbreak. Besides, a lot of focus must be given on creating weather literacy among citizens,” adds Deoras.

A recent study of seven vulnerable cities by the ministry of home affairs, USAID and UNDP Partnership Project on Climate Risk Management emphasised that city institutions were being response-centric instead of taking preventive measures.

“The technical capacity in understanding disaster risk reduction, risk assessment and EWS needs to be strengthened at the urban local bodies level. City level hazard and vulnerability mapping capabilities need to be enhanced on priority basis,” the report said

The report also mentions that technical agencies involved in providing warnings have to evolve and supply information that can either be used by a wide pool of users or create products based on user needs.

The latest edition of the Global Climate Risk Index that was published by Germanwatch, an independent development and environmental NGO based in Germany, observed that India was the seventh country in the world most affected by extreme weather events in 2019.

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