Flood forecasting in Bangladesh and the need for greater response capabilities | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 21, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:44 AM, August 21, 2019

Flood forecasting in Bangladesh and the need for greater response capabilities

More often than not, climate change is analysed from a long-term perspective. Surely, the word “change” itself requires one to look at it through a futuristic lens. However, in an interview with The Guardian on July 7, 2019, Mami Mizutori, a top UN official, warned that climate crisis disasters are occurring every week causing death, displacement and suffering. In other words, “climate change” is not so much about the future anymore. It is a current crisis as well.

Similarly, European Academies’ Science Advisory Council had examined the rise in extreme weather events and published a statement on March 21, 2018, concluding that “man-made climate change has proven to have increased recent extreme rainfall and associated floods and coastal flooding due to sea-level rise.”

A study performed by researchers at the University of Oxford titled “Risks of Pre-Monsoon Extreme Rainfall Events of Bangladesh: Is Anthropogenic Climate Change Playing A Role,” also concluded that anthropogenic climate change doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall over north-eastern Bangladesh. In reality, extreme weather events are defining a new normal in terms of hydro-climatic conditions.

In July 2019, we experienced flooding in three different regions (north-western, north-eastern and south-eastern) of Bangladesh, where flood-water level has exceeded the previous record at a number of observation points that experienced unprecedented flooding. Earlier, when we talked about unprecedented environmental shocks, most of us would assume that they weren’t frequent. But such notions are redundant now, as we experienced unprecedented flooding in the nation for the past four years.

Until 2016, the recorded highest flood (in terms of magnitude) for the low-lying areas of Jamalpur was the one that occurred in 1988. The severity of that flood was surpassed by the 2016 monsoon flood; the new record was again broken during another flood that happened in 2017. On July 19, 2019, that level was again exceeded by a much greater margin when an ongoing flood hit over a million people in Bahadurabad point of Jamalpur.

While some regions of the country are experiencing floods, some others are swept by heat waves. On March 2017, extreme rainfall triggered the earliest flash flood in north-eastern Bangladesh since 2000, damaging huge amounts of Boro rice just before the harvest. Consequently, rice import saw the highest rise in a decade in the following fiscal year. During the same year, landslides—which were a consequence of the flash flood—reportedly claimed more than 150 lives in three hilly districts of Bangladesh (Rangamati, Chattogram and Bandarban).

In light of these disasters that have claimed so many lives, we must devise ways to manage the risks of climate change. One way is by monitoring and forecasting imminent risks using Early Warning System (EWS). In Bangladesh, Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) of Bangladesh Water Development Board is responsible for forecasting floods using structural and non-structural measures. Quality-checked, processed data are used in their model to generate 5-day lead-time deterministic and 10-day lead-time probabilistic flood forecasts. With 10 days’ lead time, FFWC has been able to detect the monsoon floods well ahead of the events. This capability has been highly appreciated in the region as Bangladesh is the only country in South Asia to have this flood forecasting system.

Forecasting is just the first step, however. Forecasts need to be listened to, understood and used to actually take precautions. The communities at risk should have the capacity to respond to the warnings. FFWC issued a warning well ahead (at least 8 days) of the flood that happened earlier this month in the north-western region of the country, which marooned millions of people. FFWC also captured the possibility of exceeding the previous recorded highest levels at Jamalpur and issued a special flood outlook on July 17. This was a brilliant job from the forecasting point of view, given FFWC’s technical and human resources limitations.

When it comes to forecasting, we always ask one question—“How accurate is it?” But what we need to inquire and investigate more is whether the early warning for the ongoing flood was used by the responsible officials to devise a proper risk management plan and whether that plan proved useful.

The Department of Agricultural Extension issued special advisories for the farmers based on the 10-day flood forecast. We need to find out how much of this information reached the impoverished farmers and whether they were able to take preventive measures at all. We cannot deny that the community needs to be provided with more impact-oriented information; they need to know what the weather will do, not only what the weather will be.

To tackle the new normal, we need an integrated multi-hazard EWS. We need to develop the capacity of that software around four crucial safety measures: disaster risk knowledge; detection, monitoring, analysis and forecasting of hazards and possible consequences; dissemination of warnings ensuring last-mile connectivity; and preparedness and enhancing response capabilities through risk education.

It is important to note that we need to act very soon and that it is not a time to argue about the quantum of measures to be taken. Our social, environmental and economic foundations for sustainable development have been threatened by non-linear climatic variability. Extreme weather events are happening across multiple dimensions and on varying scales. New risks and correlations are emerging in ways that had not been anticipated. We need to incorporate these findings in development planning, investments and policies.

We also need to find a balance between our approaches to Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, while adhering to their main goals for more effective and efficient long-term development gain. This would open up opportunities to learn from each other, enhance resilience at the local level through risk anticipation and reduce the number of overlapping activities, thus, improving funding efficiency.

Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in developing early warning systems for floods. However, rapid development and the environmental concerns that come with it could also affect climate risks. We need more research and development to improve the EWS to face the future challenges that may arise out of man-made climate change.

All in all, major changes to the current risk management approaches are needed to be able to realise the outcomes and goals of the agreements we have pursued after 2015—the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction 2015-2030 (SFDRR) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We need to improve our foreseeability and look at the risks of not investing in resilience. The urgency is evident as climate change is happening right now in Bangladesh. And so, the time to act is undeniably also now.


Raihanul Haque Khan is the Country Program Lead of Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System (RIMES). He is also a member of the Water Youth Network. Email: raihanul@rimes.int

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