Floods are the most common cause of weather-related disasters globally, causing billions of dollars' worth of damage and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. As with all disasters, the poorest are hardest hit: they are more likely to live in vulnerable areas and less likely to have the skills or financial resources to protect themselves. Women are more likely than men to lose their lives and livelihoods.
But the charity I work for, Practical Action, has been developing and adapting technology to create end-to-end Flood Early Warning Systems with vulnerable communities in Nepal since 2002. This began as very simple technology that has steadily been improved and extended to more communities. Since 2013, Practical Action has collaborated with Zurich Insurance through the Zurich Flood Resilience Programme (ZFRP) to reach more people more effectively.
This global programme is also implemented in Peru and Bangladesh and in the Karnali basin of Nepal we now implement end-to-end warning systems with 74 communities. Now, not only does this technology have the ability to save thousands of lives a year, it also means that many thousands more who would have survived don't necessarily lose their livelihoods, savings and possessions every time disaster hits.
How we use technology for good in Karnali, Nepal
Practical Action's work with risk knowledge has two components: firstly, basic training for communities and government staff to explain how the system functions and to make people's roles and responsibilities clear. The second component involves integrating a community's knowledge of floods with expert understanding of local hydrology through mapping risk and capacity. The village map includes critical risk information, for example all households with pregnant women, and capacity information such as safe evacuation routes.
Risk monitoring in the Karnali basin is done manually by the gauge reader, three times a day in normal conditions, and every hour once the river crosses a threshold level. This is supported by automatic radar readings. In the Karnali basin, this system gives communities around three to five hours in which to gather their families and belongings and move to higher ground. Loss of human life and belongings has reduced dramatically since the implementation of this system, but livestock and other valuable assets are still frequently lost.
Rainfall monitoring could potentially increase the lead time significantly. This year, with support from Practical Action, the Nepali Department of Hydrology and Meteorology will pilot two methods of rainfall monitoring: one 'rainfall-to-runoff' model, which uses basin characteristics such as slope and evaporation rate to estimate the river level from rainfall, and one probabilistic forecasting model, which compares current and recent river level data trends against data from past flood events.
Communication and dissemination
The Karnali communication network is activated when the river crosses the 'alert', 'warning', or 'danger' threshold levels. The gauge reader calls the District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC), local radio stations, the police, the armed police, the army, and crucially, the Community Disaster Management Committee (CDMC) coordinators in at-risk communities. The CDMC coordinator contacts the head of the Early Warning Task Force, which is responsible for spreading the message using sirens, flags, or megaphones. Villagers may also receive warnings from local police posts or radio stations.
The ability to respond
Each community Practical Action works in has three Task Forces: Early Warning, Search and Rescue, and First Aid. Search and Rescue volunteers retrieve people stranded by flood waters, and First Aid volunteers manage any casualties or in the worst case, fatalities.
Each task force needs equipment such as sirens, lifejackets, bandages, and medicines. To keep this up to date and well-stocked, each CDMC manages a community emergency fund. Each household contributes 5 rupees ($0.05) monthly. The CDMC decides how this is spent; one granted 5,000 rupees ($47) to two families made destitute. It can therefore also serve as a safety net for the community.
How do we ensure these flood early warning systems continue to protect communities long into the future? In Nepal there are costs that must be owned and absorbed by the government, including wages and mobile phone costs for the gauge reader, and maintaining equipment such as the radar. Unfortunately, district officer turnover rates are extremely high, and each new officer could refuse to support the system if they did not prioritise it. Practical Action has now successfully lobbied the national government for a district-level management fund that must be used to maintain the Karnali warning systems.
Participatory risk mapping and action planning ensures the community is fully engaged with and empowered by the system. One community in Nepal used their village risk map to successfully petition the local government not to build a road that would have inundated their village during the monsoon.
So has technology acheived flood resilience?
The short answer is no. To build long-term community resilience to floods, there must be support to adapt and diversify livelihoods. In Nepal, Bangladesh and other flood-prone countries, farmers' crops are often destroyed before they can be harvested, costing families a whole year of investment and damaging their food and financial security.
Support to adapt practice is essential. Community libraries provide weather forecasts and adaptation information, such as which food crops can be grown in sandy, previously flooded soils. Farmer Field Schools are particularly important for women farmers, who are less able to access government extension services due to cultural norms that prevent them from interacting with male extensionists or travelling far from home. Equally, training in alternative livelihoods can also strengthen resilience.
So while simple, well-placed technology can reduce the devastating losses in Nepal and other flood-prone countries, true flood resilience demands a more holistic approach.
For more information on Practical Action’s resilience-building work, including on FEWSs, please visit the home page of our Resilience in Practice Briefing Paper Series