Early warnings need to be 'accessible, understandable' to work: experts

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 12, 2014 6:07 AM

KATHMANDU, Nepal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Creating effective early warning systems about worsening flooding and landslide threats in South Asia's mountains will require involving local communities and using non-technical languages, experts say.

Such changes could help solve the current problem of disaster warnings being issued but people not effectively receiving or heeding them, they said.

“It must be ensured that early warning information is accessible, understandable, acceptable and actionable (to get a) timely response by communities and relevant government agencies,” said Mandira Shrestha, a trans-boundary flood risk management specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

“There is also a serious need for regional cooperation in data sharing to increase lead time and accuracy of forecasts,” she said at an international gathering of climate and disaster management experts in Kathmandu.

The Hindu Kush and Himalaya region, which encompasses countries such as India, China, Pakistan and Nepal, has seen a range of natural disasters that occurred after meteorological departments relayed warnings to government authorities which then failed to act, the experts said.

In most cases, the problem was an inability to decode the warnings, or a delayed response by national disaster management agencies, they said.

FAILED LANDSLIDE WARNING

Salmanuddin Shah, a disaster management specialist at Focus Humanitarian Assistance, a network of humanitarian aid groups, said in 2010 his group informed the provincial government of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan about growing landslide risk above the Hunza river – nearly nine months before a landslide occurred there, claiming 19 lives.

A lake that formed as a result of the landslide submerged 30 km (20 miles) of the Karakorum Highway that connects Pakistan with China. Six bridges, hundreds of houses and other business infrastructures were destroyed, along with crops and thousands of fruit trees.

According to Shah, the failure to put in place a disaster plan by the provincial disaster management authority and other government departments was partially responsible for the losses.

“Much of the losses and damages, if not avoided, could have been reduced had the government promptly responded and got mountain communities and their cattle evacuated to safer grounds,” Shah said.

EDUCATION KEY

Mats Eriksson, program director for climate change and water at the Stockholm International Water Institute, said that educating communities in disaster-prone areas about how to better understand warnings of potential dangers would help lower the cost of post-disaster rescue and evacuation operations.

Anand Sharma, a senior weather scientist at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), said in some cases early warning systems are working well in the region.

He said that early detection of a low-pressure area in the Arabian Sea by the IMD in late October of 2014 helped galvanize authorities to evacuate coastal communities in India’s Gujarat state and in coastal Pakistan as Cyclone Nilofar threatened them.

Sharma said that once the meteorological department detected a depression, it issued a warning of a likely cyclone. Updated bulletins were released every three hours, giving authorities a chance to take action.

Improving the effectiveness of early warning systems does not in itself lead to reduced risk for disaster-prone areas. That requires prompt action to follow-up the warnings, he said.

But that is not possible without an effective plan for disseminating information all the way to community level, he said.

USING TRADITIONAL FORECASTING

One way to get information effectively to communities, he said, is to combine scientific forecasts with traditional systems of weather forecasting practised by communities at the local level.

Anil Sinha of the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority said it also was important that those communicating early disaster warnings use non-technical language that can be understood by government officials at all levels as well as by community members, including those who are illiterate or uneducated.

David Molden, ICIMOD’s director general, said that use of mobile phones and other information technology tools, including community-based radio stations, can speed up transmission of warnings, saving lives.

(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh; editing by Laurie Goering)