Every year, residents of Bhagwatipur in southern Nepal struggle to sleep during the monsoon. Between June and September, this village of around 500 households on the banks of the Ratu River in Mahottari district lives in constant fear of floods.
“It’s very hard for me to remember any monsoon when we didn’t lose any person or property to the Ratu floods,” says Arun Yadav, a resident of Bhagwatipur. But, he says, the 2022 monsoon season was “an exception”.
This exception was years in the making. In 2015, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) introduced an early warning system, which is run by NGOs and volunteers in southern Nepal. The system informs the people who live along the river if water levels rise upstream. A couple of years later, it was extended across the border in the east Indian state of Bihar.
The Ratu is a small river that starts in Nepal’s Chure hill range. It crosses the border with India into Sitamarhi district, in Bihar, where it is known as the Raato. In Bihar, the Raato joins the Koshi River, one of the largest tributaries of the Ganga.
Community-led early warning system
At the heart of this system are committed volunteers. In the town of Lalgadh, in Dhanusha district – about 20 kilometres north of Bhagwatipur – Mahendra Bikram Karki is responsible for monitoring a sensor installed under a bridge.
“My phone is connected to the system, so whenever the water crosses the warning level it alerts me,” Karki says. First, he informs Arun Yadav and Ranjeet Jha – the volunteers for Bhagwatipur and Shrikhandi Bhittha village, across the border in India. “Then, I go to the site, prepared with my boots and raincoat as the gauge might give wrong results due to some blockage raising the water level.”
If the water level rises further upstream, Karki gets a phone call from local people when they notice the river swelling.
Karki and the other volunteers work with local police, journalists and shopkeepers to inform people if a disaster is likely and help them get to safety.
“People in Nepal telephone me whenever they record any rise in the water levels at any gauging point,” says Ranjeet Jha, the volunteer for Shrikhandi Bhittha village in Sitamarhi district, India. “Once I get the call, it’s my job to inform some 15,000 people in my surrounding area of the imminent risk – within the next two to three hours before the flood arrives.”
In 2015, ICIMOD installed three wireless sensors at Lalgadh and the villages of Kalapani and Sarpallo along the Ratu River in Nepal’s Mohattari district. In 2017, they were upgraded, with sensors installed across the border at Shrikhandi Bhittha.
Neera Shrestha Pradhan, ICIMOD’s programme coordinator for cryosphere and river basins, says the centre introduced the Community-Based Flood Early Warning System (CBFEWS) project to enhance flood preparedness and prevent loss of life and damage to property. In 2010, ICIMOD piloted a similar initiative in Assam; “Realising its successful impacts on the ground, it was replicated in other areas,” says Pradhan.
A life-saving initiative in Nepal and India
Nagdev Yadav is president of the Community Development and Advocacy Forum Nepal (CDAFN), an NGO involved in coordinating local stakeholders to ensure the functioning of the early warning system. He tells The Third Pole that the system helps around 64,000 people every year in Nepal and India.
CDAFN’s counterpart in India is an NGO called Yuganter. Its executive director Sanjay Pandey says around 10,000 families in India benefit from the system. Government agencies in both countries, including Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology and Bihar State Disaster Management Authority, provide support to the system from time to time.
Yadav of CDAFN says: “Earlier, two to four people would be killed in the Ratu floods every monsoon. But after the 2017 floods, it’s almost nil in six local units of Mahottari and one of Dhanusha.” Nepal’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority recognised early warning systems as a major factor in preventing casualties during the 2022 monsoon.
Ranjeet Jha, the volunteer on the Indian side of the border, says the initiative has been particularly important in minimising the risks to children. “I have been volunteering for the project since 2017, and no child has died in the Ratu flood since.”
Binod Parajuli, a senior hydrologist at Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, tells The Third Pole that such community-level initiatives are important in small river basins such as the Ratu because the country’s mainstream hydrometeorological system has not yet included them in its forecasts.
As of June 2021, an early warning system costs about USD 3,500, according to ICIMOD, describing its maintenance costs as “modest”. Nagdev Yadav of CDAFN says: “Unless there is any serious mechanical issue in the gauge, the only regular cost we have is topping up volunteers’ mobile phones during the rainy season.”
Hydrologist Parajuli says that the reliability of warnings is a challenge, as forecasting floods in small river systems is not as easy as in big rivers such as the Koshi. Because small tributaries cover a narrow catchment area, if a weather event shifts by around 5 km it can render a forecast inaccurate, he says.
Another problem is the short space of time between a warning and a flood, says Shailendra Shakya, an ICIMOD consultant for the project. According to volunteers, the interval is between one and three hours, which may not always be enough for people to salvage their belongings.
Shakya adds that keeping local government engaged in the project is very important. He says for the early warning system to be sustainable it has to be integrated with the local disaster plan.
There is hope that this will happen soon. Raj Kumar Yadav, ward chair of the Balwa municipal government – which falls within Mahottari district in Nepal – says: “We could not make it happen this fiscal year as [the NGOs] came to us quite late, but we are positive about including it into our system from the next annual plan.”
Since 2019, ICIMOD has been working with local governments and NGOs on a similar early warning system set up along the Khando River, another tributary of the Koshi. For this, relevant municipalities in Nepal have established up a fund to ensure the project’s financing is sustainable. Shakya urges for similar models to be replicated in other areas.
This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are their own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.