Thunderbolts getting deadlier each year as country remains unpreparedThe Department of Hydrology and Meteorology admits it has not been able to fully utilise the only weather radar to its maximum potential.
On Thursday, an elderly woman at Shadananda Municipality in Bhojpur was critically injured by a lightning strike. The 60-year-old succumbed to her injuries at a local health facility.
On the same day, a nine-year-old girl from Asine village of Chhathar Rural Municipality-6 in Tehrathum also died after being hit by lightning.
On Friday, a man in his forties was struck by a lightning bolt at Tarakhola Rural Municipality in Baglung district.
These are the three casualties reported by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority in the period of 24-hours between Thursday and Friday.
The Authority also reported several lightning-related incidents in different parts of the country including the Kathmandu Valley.
A study published earlier this month has shown that 1,927 people lost their lives and 20,569 others were affected— injuries or property damage — to lightning strikes in Nepal between 1971 and 2019.
The findings of the study published in Weather, Climate and Society, a journal published by the American Meteorological Society, analysed lightning fatality events, fatality rates, and economic loss from 1971 to 2019, relying on data collected from the UN’s DesInventar dataset and the Disaster Risk Reduction portal of the Nepal government.
The analysis revealed that the overall countrywide lightning fatality rate of the entire period was 1.77 per million per year.
“This means, in every million people, there are two deaths attributed to lightning in the country,” said Basanta Raj Adhikari, the researcher involved in the study.
The report found that the district lightning fatality rates range from 0.10 to 4.83 per million people per year. The fatality rate was high in Dolakha district (4.83) followed by Okhaldhunga (4.72), Ramechhap (4.69), Nuwakot (4.62), and Makawanpur (4.62). Likewise, the fatality rates were lower in Baitadi (0.10), Dang (0.16), Kathmandu (0.24), and Surkhet (0.51).
The fatality rate in Dolakha district was the highest where the population is relatively small (0.2 million). With 94 deaths, the largest number recorded during the period, Makwanpur district was the most affected district in Nepal. However, Bhaktapur district has the highest fatality density (0.067).
In 2019 alone, a total of 2,884 people were affected with a loss of over $110,00, and the fatality was the highest (94) in reported lightning events since 1971.
The latest data with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority showed at least 70 people and 717 cattle were killed in 247 lightning incidents in the last one year (April 13, 2020 to April 13, 2021). Property losses due to lightning also totalled over Rs 7.2 million.
“In 2019, casualties due to thunder strikes were the highest for the year,” said Adhikari, an engineering geologist who is also an assistant professor at the TU’s Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk.
Government data show that around 100 people lost their lives every year in lightning strikes during the past decade. Casualties due to lightning/thunder strikes in Nepal have often surpassed that of other disasters like landslides and floods.
Seven years’ data between 2011/12 and 2018/19 have attributed 773 deaths and 1,695 injuries to thunder strikes, making the phenomenon the second deadliest catastrophe in the country after the 2015 earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people.
During the seven-year period, other disasters like landslides and floods claimed 730 and 665 lives, respectively.
Despite such devastation, lightning/thunderbolt has received less attention from the state and the country remains ill-prepared to minimise the associated losses.
“The reason behind lightning disasters, despite being a leading hazard, not getting adequate attention is because it doesn’t cause mass casualties like other disasters,” said Adhikari. “While floods and landslides can engulf entire villages, leaving behind trails of destruction, lightning kills people by ones and twos — for example, a farmer working in the field. Although it claims a significant number of lives, lightning occurs in isolated and small patches hence it is not in the priority of the authorities.”
According to Adhikari, the reporting of lightning incidents and fatalities due to thunder strikes have increased over the years with better access to communication technology. Yet, the parallel development has not been witnessed in the early warning system and preparedness for preventing damages.
“Our level of preparedness against lightning strikes through early warning system is almost nothing,” said Adhikari. “All we have is nine lightning detection systems at different airports.”
In 2017, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has installed lightning detection network sensors at nine places: Tribhuvan International Airport, Tumglintar Airport, Biratnagar Airport, Simara Airport, Bhairahawa Airport, Pokhara Airport, Nepalgunj Airport, Surkhet Airport, and Attariya in Kailali district. This network collects lightning data, location, and time, which are very useful for the analysis of past events and future possibilities.
However, these stations have not been of full assistance in lack of adequate data on thunder strikes across the country.
“We could provide a trend analysis of lightning incidents in the country only when we have enough historical data. As it has been only two years since these stations were installed, we do not have enough data for such analysis,” said Bikram Shrestha Zoowa, an information officer with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.
“We have just started collecting lightning data. Hopefully, we can do a trend analysis and also make predictions based on the data in the next few years.”
For minimising losses to various disasters, including lightning strikes and making weather prediction more accurate, the state has been working to install at least three weather radars. Of the three planned, just one has been installed in Surkhet. But this also goes out of order every now and then, according to officials.
Lightning detection centres, together with weather radars, enable nowcasting, provide real-time data on cloud movements and other atmospheric activities, and this all makes it possible to predict lightning strikes a few hours in advance and save lives.
Despite these technologies being available in Nepal, the country has continued to lose lives and suffer damage as they aren’t fully functional, as Post reported last year.
Nothing much has changed this year either.
“We brought the technology like advanced weather radar, but we still do not have the necessary human resources to operate the technology and extract its benefits in early warning system,” said Adhikari. “The radar that scans the whole sky and tracks the movement of clouds and other activities in the atmosphere could be helpful.”
The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology also admits that they have not been able to fully utilise the weather radar to its maximum potential.
“There are several complexities in utilising the new technology. There are challenges in terms of human resources and infrastructure. We are trying our best to bring them into operation,” said Zoowa. “Even the radar in Surkhet is not fully functional. We are trying to identify the problems. All we can say is the technology has not been in smooth operation.”
Zoowa said the department was planning to install the remaining two radars in the next fiscal year while other works like building access roads to the radar sites are ongoing.
“But there are challenges ranging from managing human resources to using the available resources for making the technology fully functional,” said Zoowa.
Before the government upgrades its early warning system, Adhikari, the researcher, says there are a number of things that the government can do for protecting lives and property from lightning strikes.
The Nepal National Building Code has mentioned the need for installing lightning protection devices in new buildings, but the provision is not implemented strictly, according to Adhikari.
“The provision should be made mandatory for all new buildings or at least educational institutions like colleges and schools where mass gatherings take place. Such buildings should install lightning arresters,” said Adhikari. “Besides, the lightning detection system should be strengthened and its coverage expanded across the country.”
The public should be made aware of the effects and ways to remain safe from lightning. The 30-30 rule for staying safe from lightning outdoors can be useful, according to Adhikari.
As per the rule, once one sees lightning, start counting to 30. If the person hears thunder before s/he reaches 30, the person should go indoors and suspend activities for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.
“Besides, mass media and public hoarding boards should be used for reaching out to the public,” said Adhikari. “Protecting the public from lightning strikes is crucial as they not only kill people but also leave them with life-long injuries.”