Practical Action has been working with a number of different partners in the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance to explore the factors that build the resilience of communities in developing countries to the threat of floods. One of the features of flood prone communities is the fact that these communities are often fully aware of the risk, but some economic or social benefit leads to them discounting the risk to live in the at risk location.
We are now entering the monsoon season and once again the flood protection and Early Warning systems will be tested. Is it right to trust in technology alone? The story of what happened in Nepal during the monsoon season of 2014 is a timely reminder, when several communities along the Babai River learned the hard way of the problem of discounting risk and relying on technology.
Rainfall maps for June 2016 the start of the Monsoon
In mid-August 2014, three days of torrential monsoon rainfall led to the widespread floods in Western Nepal. The floods killed 222 people and had a major impact on 120,000 others, damaging infrastructure and property and displacing households. The communities along the Babai River were particularly badly affected whereas neighbouring communities on the Karnali River were not. We have learned some interesting insights into how two apparently similar situations impacted the local people in very different ways.
Trust in Early Warning System
The communities along the Babai River had just been provided with a brand new flood Early Warning System. This system copied a system installed by Practical Action on the Karnali river but had only just been installed and had therefore not been tested in a flood. Unexpected and extreme rainfall in the catchment led to a rapid rise in the river. The rapid rise in the waters resulted in the gauge reader abandoning the gauge station to find safety on higher ground, unfortunately in an area with limited cell phone coverage. The gauge reader was finally able to contact the authorities but the river was already above danger levels and floodwaters had engulfed villages downstream of the gauge. Unfortunately, the communication chain via radio had not been practiced. The police did not know who to contact next, leading to delays. The local government office finally received the gauge reader’s warning, but did not understand its implications. Ultimately, sirens in Bardiya only sounded to indicate warning levels had been reached, but the sirens did not sound to communicate danger levels.
The Early Warning station on the neighbouring Karnali River
Trust in River Protection measures
The warnings that did reach communities along the Babai River were not well heeded. Those who thought they were not in the path of the flood judging, by previous experience, did not move to safety. For others, it had been over six years since the last large flood and they were sceptical that significant flooding was imminent. In addition they thought that the new irrigation canal constructed upstream would siphon flood water away from their community. Others believed that the River Protection Measures recently installed along the river banks would protect them. But this trust was flawed. Floodwaters flowed from unexpected places due to embankment failures; due to floodwaters being transported via irrigation canals; and due recent constructions blocking, disrupting and shifting flows. In addition the theft of large stones from the embankments weakened them when otherwise they may have prevailed.
Low tech embankment being constructed to protect communities
The installation of physical capital in the form of Early Warning Systems and the construction of flood barriers are only part of the solution. People’s perceptions of flood risk are greatly influenced by their knowledge of the cause of floods. For a holistic approach to flood resilience building it is vital to build social and human capacities as well as physical. Increasing the knowledge of citizens about the causes of flooding will increase flood risk awareness, and it is particularly important to target individuals who are unaware of or ignore the high risk exposure they face. In addition the underlying foundations of resilience depend on respect for the natural capital the foundation upon which the flood events unfolds. Finally in poor community’s access to financial capital will be required to implement protection and preparedness measures and to ensure an adequate and robust social safety net is in place to provide for people when things go wrong.