Whither forecastWhile issuing early warning against floods remains a challenge, forecasting thunderstorms has emerged as another one
Just when Nepalis in the eastern part of the country were getting worried about their marooned land because of torrential rainfall earlier this week, news from across the border was much painful. Nearly 80 people had died from lightning strikes in the Indian states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkand.
So many people dying of thunderbolts in a single day is quite unusual. If it happened in a neighbouring country, it could very well happen in ours. Although there is no official study, incidents of people getting hurt from lightning strikes are said to be rising in Nepal, like in many tropical and sub-tropical countries.
That is very much in line with the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “It is generally expected that lightning will increase in a warmer climate, although a study for the 2030 climate finds no global increase but instead a shift from the tropics to mid-latitudes,” says the UN body on climate science.
Hundred lightning bolts
A study from the US a year and a half ago further showed that heat energy in a warmer climate fuelled storm clouds. “As the planet warms, there will be more of this fuel around, so when thunderstorms get triggered, they will be more energetic,” University of California, Berkeley’s Professor David Romp, who was involved in the study, told the BBC. His team said they had calculated how much each extra degree in temperature will raise the frequency of lightning.
“Climate models showed about 10% increase in lightning for every one degree of warming,” Professor Colin Price, a lightning and climate researcher at Tel Aviv University, told me in an interview for a separate BBC report I did in 2014.
Experts estimate that even if there was no warming, the Earth is hit by more than a hundred lightning bolts every second. And more than 70 percent of those take place in tropical and sub-tropical regions. The risk is naturally higher during rainy season when there are more clouds that are usually filled with electrical charges.
Going back to the monsoon forecast in the region this time, the miseries in eastern Nepal and the lightning-led deaths in India show we are dealing with a double-edged sword here.
The worse news, however, is: There is at least some forecasts for rainfall and floods but not for lightning. It is true that there is normally no separate forecast for lightning, but met offices around the world do issue warnings against thunderstorms.
That warning is largely missing in the meteorological forecasts in the region. Locals in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, said that they get no warnings about thunderstorms and lightning. If that is what urban dwellers are saying, imagine how clueless people in rural areas may be.
Almost all of those who died in Bihar because of lightning earlier this week were in villages—either in the fields or in their mud-thatched huts.
A far cry
In Nepal, forecasting thunderstorms and lightning is out of the question. Even issuing timely early warning against torrential rains and floods for many vulnerable places is still a far cry.
Of course, some communities in certain areas have benefited from cost effective technology. This involves monitoring water levels in rivers and alerting the local administration and people through mobile phone text messages.
Some projects are afoot in a relatively big scale. The Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project is being implemented by the department of hydrology and meteorology. Its Tarai flood component is focused on flood prone Mahottari, Siraha, Saptari and Udayapur districts.
“The project aims to increase the adaptive capacity of the vulnerable communities living in these four districts, especially in the eight VDCs of five river systems,” reads the department’s website.
Under the UN-initiated National Adaptation Programme of Action, the project has received 7.2 million dollars from the Least Developed Countries’ Fund administered by the Global Environment Facility. Of that amount, 2.3 million dollars is for lowering the water level of the Imja glacial lake in the Everest region and the remaining for the Tarai flood component. “Various capacity building programs in different level and establishment of Community Based Early Warning System (CBEWS) are expected to enhance the adaptive capacity of different stakeholders including vulnerable communities,” the DHM says.
While that is aimed for people on the ground, the department has another project—Building Resilience to Climate-Related Hazards—to strengthen itself.
“It intends to enhance government capacity to mitigate climate related hazards by improving the accuracy and timeliness of weather and flood forecasts for disaster preparedness,” reads the department’s website.
The trouble, however, is these government projects are moving quite slowly. The Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project, for instance, had been on papers for years, and we are getting to see its implementation only now. The Building Resilience to Climate-Related Hazards (BRCH) project was signed with the World Bank in early 2013.
Even if these projects are fully implemented, whether other government agencies will play an effective role in disseminating early weather warnings remains to be seen. Then there is the question whether these projects, if they are successful, will be replicated in other vulnerable places in all water basins of the country.
And now that the government has prepared new documents like the National Adaptation Plan as it is required to by the UN climate convention, additional donor funds are sure to flow in. Whether that money will be channelled matching the speed in which climatic impacts are happening is the key issue here.
Floods, thunderbolts, landslides, droughts, wildfires, among other natural disasters, are the new normal now. The old bureaucracy of both the government and donors will only make them worse for the poor and the vulnerable communities.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London