Early warning can save lives

Early warning can save lives

According to the Union home ministry, 124 people were killed and another 300 were injured in incidents of thunderstorm and lightening in the first week of May. The maximum number of deaths occurred in Agra region of Uttar Pradesh, with 73 fatalities and many more injured.

The Forecast Division of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had this to say: “this is not an unusual system of strong thunderstorms in the pre-monsoon period, but every few years, the intensity of thunderstorms increases. In north-eastern and eastern India, such storms are more frequent”. However, the most chilling issue is our inability to reach out to the vulnerable communities by sending the pre-warning or early warning message despite our proven expertise and well-entrenched meteorological infrastructure.

A similar failure was observed in the case of Cyclone Ockhi in December 2017. It caused havoc and destruction in the southernmost coastal districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu – 63 lives were lost and many more went missing, most of them fishermen out in the Arabian Sea, and the loss of public and private property was estimated at Rs 3,000 crore. A simple pre-warning could have averted these losses of lives and property.

We have made gigantic progress in placing satellites to serve as remote eyes in space to provide us with real-time updates on the world around us. For instance, Kalpana-1 (named after the Indian-American astronaut), launched way back in 2002, is capable of imaging the Earth in the visible, thermal infrared and water vapour bands. It can take 48 scans daily, at a frequency of once every 30 minutes. The scans can help us infer quantitative precipitation estimates. It was launched with a lifespan of seven years but is still functioning well.

It was followed by INSAT-3A (launched in 2003), INSAT-3D (launched in 2013) and INSAT-3DR (launched in 2016). These INSAT series satellites carry very high resolution radiometres (VHRR) and provide data and facilitate rainfall estimation, weather forecasting, genesis of cyclones and their track prediction. These satellites also carry Data Relay Transponders (DRT) to facilitate reception and dissemination of meteorological data from in-situ instruments located across vast and inaccessible areas.

The IMD is the primary user of meteorological data from the satellites. Data is processed and disseminated by INSAT Meteorological Data Processing System (IMDPS) operational at IMD, New Delhi.

Last week, too, IMD forecast the possibility of strong surface winds and sent the communication to those stakeholders who were registered with it, most of them representatives of Disaster Management Authorities (DMA) in the states and, in this particular instance, it was the DMAs of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Once the forecast is disseminated, it is the responsibility of the state DMAs to ensure that early warning messages are communicated to vulnerable communities and to the government machinery to be in a state of preparedness in the event a disaster strikes. However, due to unknown factors, this last-mile connectivity was lost and the result was a calamity. Loss of property may not have been averted even if the early warning messages were communicated, but the loss of human lives could have been prevented.

A pioneer

On last-mile connectivity, the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC) can said to be a torchbearer. It started its journey as Drought Monitoring Centre in 1988, the first of its kind in the country, as an institutional mechanism to deal with drought. In 2007, its mandate was expanded to cover all natural disasters.

The KSNDMC prepares and disseminates daily/weekly/monthly/seasonal and annual reports at the Hobli (cluster of villages) level and provides rainfall and weather information at Village Panchayat level. The customised information is disseminated through SMS, e-mail, web portal, apps, and social media. Reports and information in the form of advisories are provided to the community in general and to other interested stakeholders. 

The KSNDMC has established a system that enables it to communicate early warning messages after analysing meteorological data or data received from other agencies such as ISRO’s Satellite Applications Centre and the Indian Meteorological Department.

Early-warning messages are communicated to the state machinery and to individuals who have registered with it on their mobile phones. The early warning enables the community to prepare itself for the impending disaster.

In fact, KSNDMC provided early warning alerts to even Bengaluru civic authorities about the heavy downpour and possibility of urban flooding in 2017, along with near-real time data. Any person can register herself with the KSNDMC on its web portal to receive such advisories. 

It is projected that the incidence and intensity of natural disasters are bound to rise. It would be ideal if the Government of India showcased the utility of KSNDMC in providing last-mile connectivity. In addition, other state governments can emulate the practices of the agency and ensure that their citizens, too, are warned early in the event of disasters.