Floods still swamp Pakistan despite improved warnings

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 August 2015 09:30 GMT

Girls carry water pots through floodwater at Camp Koruna Akbar in the Pura area of Nowshera District, northwestern Pakistan, Aug. 5, 2015. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

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Weather forecasts strengthened since 2010 floods, but local officials lack resources to act on information

ISLAMABAD, Aug 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan has reinforced its weather forecasting services since massive floods struck five years ago, but government agencies are struggling to act on the information, with extreme weather continuing to bring new disasters.

Recent flash floods in the country's northwestern and southwestern areas, triggered by heavy monsoon rains in July, were forecast weeks in advance by the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

Glacier melt and overflowing glacial lakes, triggered by a sharp rise in temperatures last month, worsened the floods, which have left a trail of destruction.

Around 170 people have been killed and 126 injured. Nearly 5,800 homes have been damaged in around 2,500 villages, and some 920,000 people are displaced by the floods, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

"Massive losses and damages from the recent devastating summer monsoon floods ... indicate the brazen unpreparedness of district, provincial and federal government agencies to respond to forecasts," said Arif Mahmood, former PMD director general.

Despite warning of torrential rains and flash floods this summer, provincial governments only woke up to the threat when large swathes of the country were already under water, he noted.

On May 19, forecasts of extreme rainfall exceeding 100 mm per day in the northeast and northwest, and a flash flood warning, were shared with government offices and disaster management agencies so they could take measures to protect people and property, said PMD Director General Ghulam Rasul.

"Loss of lives in flood-hit areas could have been staved off successfully this time had the provincial government and relevant (local) disaster management authorities heeded the PMD's warnings," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We are now able to forecast extreme weather events like torrential rains, floods, glacial lake outburst floods and droughts some three to four weeks in advance, with over 60 percent accuracy," he added.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

From 2005 to 2011, Pakistan expanded its glacier monitoring network into the higher Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges to track changing precipitation patterns, the pace of glacial melt and spin-off floods, Rasul noted.

Foreign donors supported the installation of five glacier monitoring stations in northern mountain regions, each costing around $20,000, to better assess climate impacts in the upper Indus basin and related flood hazards.

And in December 2013, the Finnish government provided 10 automatic weather stations for the north of the country. Rapid developments in weather radar technology have also helped improve predictions, said Muhammad Aleem ul Hassan, a weather forecasting expert with the PMD.

The Japanese government has agreed to install two modern Doppler weather radars in Islamabad and Karachi in two years' time to monitor weather phenomena, including storms and tsunamis in the Arabian Sea.

Meanwhile, negotiations are progressing with the World Bank on installing four cutting-edge radars at Mangla, Sialkot, Lahore and Gwadar, Aleem ul Hasan added.

The PMD's flood forecasting division provides information on the size and flow of floods using data from an extensive network of weather radars along the Indus river, as well as a forecasting system that uses computer modelling.

"Much of this information has not been put to good use by the relevant government agencies, such as provincial irrigation departments," said Pervaiz Amir, who heads the Pakistan chapter of the Global Water Partnership.

A major effort to collect and analyse flood data has been undermined by weak strategies for managing disasters and disseminating information, he noted.

LACK OF LOCAL FUNDS

Ahmad Kamal of the NDMA blamed a lack of sound flood control policies at the provincial level, adding that information was not reaching climate-vulnerable communities.

Kamran Sharrif, a disaster risk expert at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, said early warnings would be wasted until local authorities strengthened their disaster response and risk reduction capabilities.

But officials say they lack the resources to do this.

Aminul Haq, deputy commissioner for the northern mountain district of Chitral, said weather forecasts are communicated to his office in a timely manner compared with the past, thanks to modern equipment in the area. But the cash-strapped authority cannot act on them, he said.

"How can we respond to the flood warnings as long as we do not get enough money from our provincial government to relocate vulnerable mountain communities to safer grounds?" he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have repeatedly conveyed the message to the provincial government about (the need for) investment in disaster prevention efforts but in vain."

Almost all districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province - now hit by its worst summer flash floods in more than 20 years - face the same situation, Haq added.

Experts also urged better coordination among government bodies. In addition to the NDMA, the PMD and the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), there are almost a dozen central and provincial agencies working on flood response.

(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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