Deadly windstorm in Tarai districts exposes poor warning system and zero preparednessFailure to predict an approaching powerful storm because of poor early warning system, coupled with zero preparedness on the ground, led to one of the worst windstorm devastations in the country on Sunday night.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Failure to predict an approaching powerful storm because of poor early warning system, coupled with zero preparedness on the ground, led to one of the worst windstorm devastations in the country on Sunday night.
The weather forecasting authority failed to keep track of the weather phenomenon that late on Sunday evening swept across two Tarai districts—Bara and Parsa—of Province 2, killing at least 27, injuring more than 400 and causing massive damage.
The Meteorological Forecasting Division, which has been issuing weather forecast for a maximum of three days, however, completely missed the approaching high-speed winds.
Oblivious to the fact that a disaster was in the making, the division, operating under the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, came up with its regular bulletin mentioning overcast conditions and brief rainfall with thunderstorm in a few places “for the next few days”.
The windstorm, which is considered a common phenomenon during pre-monsoon, however, wreaked havoc on the two districts.
“During pre-monsoon season, such system develops locally and stays for only a few hours. Rising temperature in the afternoon, supported by local conditions, helps in the formation of such storm,” Saraju Kumar Baidya, director general of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, told the Post.
According to the department’s press statement, released on Monday evening, the wind speed was more than 90km per hour, making the weather system the strongest ever recorded in the country.
“We could not forecast the windstorm simply because we are not well-equipped—both technically and human resource wise,” said Baidya.
The Sunday night’s devastation has once again exposed how slow the country has been to recognise the importance of early warning and disaster response systems.
Officials at the forecasting division said that they are unable to predict windstorms because they lack technology.
“Such weather events are short-lived and hence cannot be predicted before they take place. We can do nowcasting for a few hours at the time the disaster is occurring. We don’t have weather radars to forecast extreme events like windstorms,” Baidya added.
The government has long planned to install three weather radars to improve weather forecasts and provide real time data on atmospheric weather conditions in the country.
The proposed three radars were to be installed in Rata Nangala of Surkhet in the western region, Ribdikot of Palpa in the central region and Rametar of Udayapur in the eastern region.
A weather radar, also known as an automatic station, can scan the sky and feed data related to weather conditions. So far, only one radar system has been installed in Surkhet.
“Had a radar system been installed in Udayapur, which would cover the eastern part, the windstorm could have been predicted,” said Rishi Ram Sharma, former director general of the department.
“This is a common occurrence at this time. It struck the residential areas so it caused massive devastation. In the Tarai, where there are no hills to block wind movement, it easily sweeps across villages. The radar could have provided early warning to communities and made it possible for people to move to safer places on time,” said Sharma, currently a joint-secretary at the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat.
Radars can provide real time data on movements of clouds and other atmospheric activities.
Sharma also pointed out that the forecasting authority is trailing behind in latest technology, infrastructure and manpower to generate real time data on extreme weather events like the latest windstorm.
Although a common phenomenon in the southern plains, the intensity of the disaster has never been as big as the last one.
According to Home Ministry statistics, a total of 72 lives have been lost due to windstorm between 2000 and 2017. A sudden hailstorm on March 12, 1988 caused a stampede at the Dasarath Stadium during a football match, leaving 93 football fans dead on the southern stands.
“The powerful windstorm once used to be a common incident in Tarai districts. So, such phenomenon cannot be called a rare incident especially during this season,” Dhruba Gautam, an expert on disaster management, told the Post. “After strong infrastructure like concrete houses were built, the intensity of damage went down over the years. This time the impact was concentrated on a small area where there were simple huts—made up of mud and bamboo—and the damage was huge,” he said.
Government bodies, responsible for rescue and recovery mission, have called the Sunday’s devastation a result of “unexpected events”.
“It was totally an unexpected and unimaginable event. Also, we have no early warning system to alert the local community,” said Bed Khanal, chief of the National Emergency Operation Centre.
While the Nepali side failed to decode the weather conditions, India’s Meteorological Department in its All India Weather Warning Bulletin, on Sunday, had predicted thunderstorm accompanied with squall, lightning and gusty winds in many of Indian states, some of them bordering Nepal.
“It was not a normal disaster, but something unthinkable. Within half an hour, the strong wind wreaked havoc everywhere so we could not do anything,” added Khanal.
In 2017, floods in Tarai districts claimed more than 150 lives and resulted in property damage worth billions of rupees. Following the devastating floods, the department had improved its early warning system and launched regular alerts on flood forecasting and monitoring of water levels in various big and medium rivers.
“We have always been more concerned about floods and landslides. Preparedness for incidents like Sunday’s windstorm is zero,” Khanal told the Post.
From 2000 to 2017, flood and landslides have killed 3,852 people in the country.
“We must learn a strong lesson from this unprecedented incident,” said Khanal.
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