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IRIN - Nepal


In flood-prone South Asia, early warning systems buy precious time

Tue, 05 Sep 2017 06:11:42 +0000

Early warning can save lives. Knowing something horrible is about to happen gives you a chance to prepare or get away — a painful lesson that is slowly being learnt across flood-prone South Asia. Three years ago, the Karnali and Babai rivers in mid-western Nepal overflowed, sending floodwaters rushing through downstream flatlands, killing dozens. There were 31 deaths in the single district of Bardiya alone. In August this year, monsoon rains again caused the waters to swell — part of massive regional floods that surged across Nepal’s southern plains. This time, though, only four people in Bardiya died. One key reason for the difference was that eight to 12 hours before the floods swept in, people received text messages warning of the impending danger, says Nepal’s chief flood forecaster, Rajendra Sharma. "We know the flood is coming, but where to go?" The messages were part of an SMS alert system put in place just last year. Paired with real-time river and precipitation sensors and education programmes in vulnerable communities at the start of this year’s monsoon season, the SMS alerts gave residents precious hours to try and secure their possessions and flee to higher ground. The damage has still been extensive, but advance warning saved lives. “It was very valuable in the rivers where we have this system,” Sharma told IRIN.  Large parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and northeast India have been debilitated by floods since mid-August. Triggered by monsoon rains, the floods have affected an estimated 40 million people and killed more than 1,200 in the three countries. In recent days, floods have also inundated the Indian city of Mumbai, and Karachi, the sprawling capital of Pakistan’s Sindh Province. What happened in Nepal, where automated flood forecasting tools and early warning systems are relatively recent, is an example of how the region has tried to better prepare for the yearly monsoon season. But it’s also a sign of the vast gaps that remain in one of the world’s most densely populated flood-prone regions. ‘We weren’t prepared’ Sharma says even in areas where the new SMS alert system was employed, some residents still struggled to use the lifesaving information. In some cases there was a crucial missing link: a clear plan and a safe evacuation centre on higher ground. “We issued the forecast, we sent out the mass SMS,” Sharma said, “but then people told us, ‘Okay, we know the flood is coming, but where to go?’”  In each affected country, the magnitude of the floods has sparked questions about why authorities were seemingly caught unprepared. In India, op-ed writers called for a “radical rethinking” of flood preparedness. “The floods that kill hundreds of people across South Asia year after year… can be forecast, prepared for, engineered and insured against and managed, but are not,” an editorial in The Economic Times stated. “We weren’t prepared for this,” lamented Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune in a series of editorials. “Bangladesh is not new to the problem of floods, but year after year, we find ourselves woefully unprepared.” Shared water, shared problems That the severe August flooding inundated parts of three countries in quick succession was no coincidence: river systems in Nepal, Bangladesh and large parts of India are intertwined over a vast basin known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra. When the Karnali River swells, its waters don’t stop at Nepal’s border; it splits and flows into India’s Uttar Pradesh State as the Ghaghara River — itself a tributary of the Ganges. Likewise, the Brahmaputra River rushes into Bangladesh only after curving through India’s Assam State. Most of Bangladesh’s land mass is a river delta for the basin. All three countries are among the most flood-exposed nations in the world. More people in India and Bangladesh are affected by river floods than in any other country, according to the World Resources Institute. frameborder="0" height="600" name="Annual average population affected by river floods" scrolling="no" src="//d[...]

Hurricane versus Monsoon

Wed, 08 Jun 2016 04:05:10 +0000

US media last week mentioned Hurricane Harvey at least 100 times more than India. Outside the United States, media produced three times more about Texan flooding than Asia's in recent days. Monsoon floods on the other side of the world are worse than Harvey, but aid agencies say America's crisis is sucking up all the attention. Using open data, IRIN has quantified the relative online news coverage and found yawning gaps.  It is important to note that headlines and news coverage are only part of the picture. Fundraisers know that some things will always resonate more with the public and studies show that donors are motivated by far more than just media. Academics differ on how much influence the "CNN effect" really has on international aid funding. However, based on previous experience, Harvey will generate a huge outpouring of public donations at home, while faraway crises have to fight harder for attention and money.  Alison Carlman of GlobalGiving, an agency that fundraises for many often smaller non-profits and mostly in the United States, put it like this: "We're raising money for both floods. South Asian flood orgs have raised just over $12K. Our Harvey Fund is at $1.69M now. The Sierra Leone mudslides have raised $55K." This month, the South Asian floods have hit India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which are facing exceptional weather and massive humanitarian impacts. Floods across the three countries have affected some 41 million people (That's about 10 times the total population of Metro Houston), according to the UN. In Asia, some 1,200 deaths are reported. In the United States, the death toll is slowly rising and currently stands at 38.  Data GDELT, a huge database of online news from around the world, automatically tags articles with their topics and geographic focus. Of about 30 million stories it scanned, some 200,000 covered natural disasters so far this month.  The GDELT data can help answer the question: How much attention have the Asian and American floods got at home and abroad? First we compared coverage of India, Bangladesh, and Nepal with coverage of the state of Texas. Not surprisingly, US media shows an explosion of coverage since Harvey emerged. The level of coverage of the Asian disasters is so much smaller it is almost insignificant by comparison.  According to this data, at its peak, Texas coverage in the US is about 160 times that of the Asian flooding.   allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="600" id="datawrapper-chart-oJ5xf" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" scrolling="no" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="100%"> Another database, MediaCloud, counts the number of words in articles produced by a range of US media. We searched the last week of news in US media for the word "flooding" and looked at the word counts. The graphic below represents how many times the top 500 words appear. The word "Houston" appears 100 times more than "India".   Xu said China has very few NGOs relative to its population, and they are still figuring out how to function within China as well as abroad. A former Chinese NGO worker, who requested anonymity and whose organisation recently shut down after losing access to international donors, told IRIN: “Many Chinese NGOs have relied on foreign funding, as local philanthropy is still underdeveloped. Now that the government is clamping down harder on civil society, NGOs are thinking about how to survive, not how to expand overseas.” Inequality undermines charity Despite rapid economic growth, private donations have not yet taken off. “Even with so many newly rich people, charity-giving is still not widely spread as in many Western countries,” said Xu. On Weibo, a popular Chinese website similar to Twitter, most discussions of China’s humanitarian aid are critical of the leadership for giving money to other countries whe[...]