Despite technology in place, lightning continues to be a major killer in NepalEven though the country has nine lightning detection centres and a weather radar station, they have not been sufficiently utilised for lack of manpower and maintenance issues.
Excluding this year, the number of deaths across the country from lightning every year generally exceeds that from landslides.
In the six incidents of lightning in Nepal on Wednesday, one person was killed in Punarbas Municipality of Kanchanpur district and two others were injured. Eight people were hurt in Sanfebagar Municipality of Achham district.
It is not only people that are killed. On Monday, 217 sheep that were out grazing died when lightning struck in Patarashi Rural Municipality in Jumla district.
“In the last decade, around 100 people have lost their lives every year in lightning strikes. Casualties due to lightning have been even higher than landslides,” said Anil Pokhrel, chief executive officer of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority.
Seven years’ data between 2011/12 and 2018/19 shows 773 deaths and 1,695 injuries due to thunder strikes, making the phenomenon the second deadliest catastrophe in the country after the 2015 earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people.
In that period, other disasters like landslides and floods, which received more attention from the government for preparedness and response, claimed 730 and 665 lives, respectively.
Since April 13 this year, a total of 54 people have been killed and 181 injured in lightning incidents. Since the arrival of monsoon alone, 23 have been killed.
Like every other year, lightning strikes have continued to claim lives in various parts of the country even though Nepal’s weather forecast and early warning system has improved over the years.
These lives could have been saved or at least the numbers could have been reduced if there were sufficient proper mechanisms in place or there were trained manpower, according to those working to mitigate the risk.
“The inability to alert the public a few hours before lightning strikes and low awareness among people on how to stay safe during storms also result in loss of lives,” Pokhrel told the Post.
The government in 2017 installed nine lightning detection centres in Tumlingtar, Biratnagar, Simara, Bhairhawa, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Nepalgunj, Surkhet and Dhangadi.
Districts along the Chure and Mahabharat ranges are most prone to lightning incidents.
According to data available, Jhapa, Morang, Ilam, Udaypur, Makwanpur, Rukum (West) and Dang are particularly vulnerable.
“Globally, weather forecasting has improved but the forecast for lightning is still challenging," said Pokhrel. “Nowcasting is an option for alerting people a few hours earlier. This can save damage to property and lives.”
Lightning detection centres, together with weather radar, enable nowcasting, providing real-time data on the movements of clouds and other atmospheric activities, including possible lightning in the next few hours, can minimise damage. The technologies are available in Nepal.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), nowcasting comprises the detailed description of the current weather along with forecasts obtained by extrapolation for a period of 0 to 6 hours ahead. For such a time range, it is possible to forecast small features such as individual storms with reasonable accuracy, says WMO.
But issues of maintenance at the lightning detection centres and the lack of sufficient manpower have stymied the proper use of the technology in Nepal.
A few lightning detection centres are out of operation due to power and sensor issues whereas even the sole radar in Surkhet has been out of operation since at least May. Department of Hydrology and Meteorology officials, however, say it is in operation now.
“Once these centres were installed, there should have been training for interpreting the data on lightning,” said Archana Shrestha, deputy director-general of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “We had planned to conduct the training this fiscal year but Covid-19 has affected our plans.”
If these centres and the radar stations had been in proper operation, people could have been sent alerts about possible lightning strikes in their areas.
The government has a long-standing plan of setting up three weather radars in Rata Nangala of Surkhet in the western region, Ribdikot of Palpa in the central region and Rametar of Udayapur in the eastern region. However, only one at Surkhet has been installed so far.
According to Sarju Kumar Baidya, director-general of the department, the remaining two new radars and one for covering Kathmandu Valley will be installed within this fiscal year.
Weather radars can provide information that will be useful for the aviation, disaster alert and agriculture sector. After getting the real-time data on movements of clouds and other atmospheric activities, the aviation sector and even the general public can plan their activities accordingly, avoiding any risks.
These weather radars can also provide advance warnings about the positioning of clouds, including cumulonimbus clouds which are associated with extreme weather such as heavy torrential downpours, hailstorms, lightning and even tornadoes.
“We have not been able to send such alerts with end-to-end and place-specific prediction of lightning, as the system and manpower required for sending such alerts through social media are not in place,” said Shrestha.
According to Pokhrel, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority is working to develop Common Alerting Protocols for providing early warning for all forms of hazard.
“Only if we could get inputs on possible lightning strikes even a few hours earlier through nowcasting technology, could we use the information for warning the public to be safe,” said Pokhrel. “We could use the alerts in communicating in different languages and help the public stay safe.”
Equipment has also been stuck abroad, according to Shrestha.
“We have been using data manually for weather forecasts but the way we should have modernised the system has not happened,” said Shrestha.
In recent years, weather forecasting has been more accurate and several government agencies including the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Department of Mines and Geology and the Department of Irrigation have come together to improve the early warning system and have been providing flood forecasting alerts during the monsoon season.
The flood forecasting initiative of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has been successful in saving lives and warning communities to move to safer places by sending alerts through SMS and social media.
“The department has been trying to use nowcasting. But we have not been able to do so. We will need a separate nowcasting section,” said Baidya. “Although technologies have been there, sustaining them remains a challenge.”
Every year, an estimated 24,000 people are killed due to lightning worldwide. The majority of these deaths are reported in developing countries.
Countries have been relying on lightning detection systems or mobile app for saving lives and minimising damage.
Malaysia, which experiences an average of 180 to 260 thunderstorm days each year and loses an estimated RM250 million (more than Rs7 billion) every year in infrastructure damage and business disruptions due to electrical outages from lightning strikes, have also relied on high-level lightning detection network for minimising losses.
The African nation of Malawi, where the annual death rate from lightning is extremely high compared to other countries in the world, has been successful in saving lives and livelihoods with installation of eight lightning detection sensors across the country. These sensors calculate the direction and severity of lightning and warn rural communities.
In Nepal, the department also plans to provide a forecast on landslides from the next fiscal year in coordination with the Department of Geology and Mines.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, which is responsible for responding to all forms of disasters and has been alerting the public in advance on approaching weather extremes, says the availability and utilisation of more technology would further help minimise the losses due to lightning incidents.
“New technology is coming but we need to train more manpower—the area where we lag behind,” said Baidya. “We have many plans for weather forecast upgradation for which we need sufficient manpower, budget for sustaining them and adequate research. Only infrastructure and technology are not enough.”