Nepal at risk as more extreme weather events loom


KATHMANDU, Aug 25: The inhabitants of Surkhet, a district in Nepal´s mid-western region, were recently struck by what was arguably the worst flooding in living memory.

The death toll from the Surkhet flood, caused by the downpour that continued for two days in the second week of August, has reached 33, excluding 99 people still missing and thereby feared dead, so far, according to the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC).

Around the same time, devastating floods struck other districts of the mid-western region like Bardiya and Dang, too. So, what led to such disastrous floods throughout the whole region? “Such a heavy downpour is unprecedented,” says Mahesh Gautam, president of Nepal Red Cross Society, Bardiya. “We had never before witnessed such intense rainfall.”

Banke flood victims heading for higher grounds along with their belongings last week. (Republica)

According to the Meteorological Forecasting Division (MFD), more than 150 mm of rainfall was recorded in eight different districts of the midwestern region during a short period of just 24 hours ending at 8:45 in the morning of August 15. In other regions of the country, no more than 100 mm rainfall was recorded during that same period.

“If 150 mm rainfall is recorded in some particular area in such a short period, we generally anticipate devastating flooding,” says Gautam. “But, in some places like Surkhet, even more than 400 mm of rainfall was recorded around that same time. It was something we never witnessed before. Even the elderly people in our community do not remember if they had witnessed such a heavy downpour before.”

The MFD officials say some rain data recorded in the midwestern region this year are record-making. Ever since it started keeping rain data in 1969, the MFD had never recorded 423 mm of rainfall in just 24 hours in Surkhet. Similarly, 298 mm of rainfall recorded in Dang during the same period is highest of all time. “Rains were intense this year in the midwestern region,” says Barun Poudel, a meteorologist at the MFD. “In our recent memory; we had not seen such an extreme weather event.”

Scientists say climate change causes extreme weather events, among other things. The term ´too much rain or too less rain´ is often used to explain the effects of climate change in the simplest way. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally stated that climate change is already causing extreme weather events.

So, can the intense rainfall of the midwestern region be described as a result of climate change? “Theoretically, yes,” says Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “This is what climate change causes. But, we cannot say surely without proper research.”

Dr Shrestha says climate change increases frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, meaning that Nepal could face in future more of what led to the devastating floods and landslides of the midwestern region. “It is a wake-up call,” says Dr Shrestha. “We now need to better mitigate climate change and better adapt to its effects.”

However, what happened in the midwestern region during and after the flooding has demonstrated that Nepal is yet unable to deal with disasters. When floods ravaged much of the region, early warning system collapsed, embankments gave way and government authorities fell short of resources to rehabilitate the displaced families.

In Bardiya, thousands of families living along the Babai River were confident that an early warning station set up to the north of their villages would alert them in case of a disastrous flood. But, the locals living south of Chepang village, where the station was placed to gauge the water level in the Babai River, had no inkling that the flood was about to wash away everything they had. The station failed right at the moment when it was needed the most.

“We had not anticipated such a worse flood in Babai,” says Rajendra Sharma, chief of Flood Forecasting Project at Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM). “The very first wave of flood swept away our station; and people were caught unguarded.”

Gautam, the Bardiya Red Cross president, says, “We need better early warning system as climate change poses more serious threats of extreme weather events.”

Published on 2014-08-26 02:42:03

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