South Asia disunity 'hampers flood warnings'
- 19 July 2013
- From the section Science & Environment
A lack of co-operation between South Asian countries is preventing timely flood warnings that could save lives and property during the monsoon season.
Erratic and extreme rainfall is causing catastrophic flooding, most recently in northwest India and Nepal following heavy rainfall in June.
But the sharing of hydrological data can be a sensitive issue because of disputes over water use.
Officials say a network is required to share data across borders.
Experts and officials told the BBC that countries in the region are doing very little to help each other forecast floods.
Referring to the event last month, Chiranjibi Adhikary, chief district officer of Darchula district in western Nepal, which shares a border with India's flood-hit Uttarakhand state, said: "We received no warning from the Indian side about that devastating flood."
The flooding in the Mahakali river that criss-crosses India and Nepal claimed more than 30 lives on the Nepalese side and swept away many buildings at the district headquarters Khalanga.
Nearly 1,000 people have been confirmed dead because of the floods in the Indian side while thousands are still missing.
"We are still trying to contact them [the Indian authorities] to know what was the reason behind the floods, but there has been no telephone contact yet," Mr Adhikary told the BBC.
In western South Asia, the Kabul river that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan was a major contributor to the massive floods in the Pakistani territory in 2010.
But, officials say, there was no communication on flood-forecasting between the two countries then, nor is there any now.
"The Kabul river is of course a flood threat to us even today but still we have no hydrological and rainfall data exchange with Afghanistan," said Mohammad Riyaj, Pakistan's chief meteorologist.
"It is something we need to do with urgency but this can be done only at the policy-making level."
One of the worst flood-hit countries in the region, Bangladesh, receives relatively little hydrological data from upstream Nepal.
Officials at Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology said they used to send the information to Dhaka by fax before but now staffing constraints have become a problem.
Pakistan does have a mechanism to receive limited hydrological data from India but officials say it is quite inadequate for meaningful flood forecasting.
"For instance, the Indian side informs the Indus Water Commission (a body under an agreement between New Delhi and Islamabad on the sharing of Indus river water) only when the water level in the Chenab river crosses 75,000 cusecs," says Mr Riyaj.
"That gives us much less time for evacuation and preparation for floods."
The Chenab is a major tributary of the Indus river that originates in Tibet and flows through India into Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have deep running disagreements on the sharing of Indus waters and have been involved in litigation.
Mr Riyaj said hydrological information on tributaries of the Chenab, including the Jhelum, Ravi and Sutlej rivers, that flow in from India would also be of great help for timely flood forecasting.
Officials in Bangladesh, however, said there had been some progress on hydrological data sharing with India as they were now getting information from three reading stations for the Ganges and four for the Bramhaputra in the Indian side.
The chief of Bangladesh's flood warning office, Amirul Hossain, said his country was also getting Bramhaputra's hydrological data from Chinese authorities in Tibet, where the river originates.
"But since our people are demanding that they should get flood warnings at least a week in advance, we would like to get the hydrological data from a bit further off areas in India so that we get more lead time for a forecast," Mr Hossain said.
Officials say the data Bangladesh gets from India at present are from nearby border areas.
Hydrological data is quite a sensitive issue in India, especially between states that have been at loggerheads over the sharing of water resources for quite some time.
The recent order by India's water resources ministry to its authorities regarding the constitution of the "classified data release committee" read: "The committee shall consider requests for release of classified data after due verification by the concerned chief engineer of the Central Water Commission and [the] receipt of [a] secrecy undertaking."
Rajendra Sharma, who heads Nepal's flood forecasting division at the country's meteorological office, said: "For genuine regional flood forecasting, all countries including India and China will have to actively participate in the exchange of hydrological and meteorological data."
Indian officials said they recognised the importance of cross border cooperation for effective flood forecasting.
Though he was optimistic that things could improve in future, M Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of India's National Disaster Management Authority, said: "Things which are on paper sometimes do not get translated into action."