Asian flood alert systems make 'significant progress'

Flooded properties in Bangladesh (Image: AP) Floods in the region affect millions of people each year

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A number of South Asian countries and China have made significant progress to improve the region's flood warning system, officials have said.

Countries plan to exchange rainfall and river flow data in order to provide advance warning of potential floods.

The idea is a decade old, but has not yet been implemented. Officials now say that a recent meeting in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, made headway as all participating countries were positive about sharing the information.

The gathering involved representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Pakistan, while delegates from India attended the meeting as observers.

The region is home to some of the world's most flood-prone river basins, such as the Ganges, Bramhaputra, Meghna and Indus.

Monsoon floods in these rivers wreak havoc in most South Asian countries during this time of the year. Millions of people are affected, with heavy losses of lives and properties every year.

'Minimising losses'

Experts say that if countries located upstream of these vast river systems monitored rainfall and river levels and passed on the information to downstream countries, timely flood warnings could be issued to minimise such losses.

Pakistani commuters travel by bus along a flooded street after heavy monsoon rainfall in Karachi on July 19, 2009

Living with floods has become a way of life for many in the region

"We believe after this recent meeting, there will be proper co-operation in the region and we as the most flood-affected country will benefit," said Salim Bhuiyan from Bangladesh's Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre.

"If works happen as has been discussed, we will get information well in advance and that will give us adequate time to alert our people about possible floods," he said after the meeting.

Nearly 40 hydrological stations are being installed within the five participating countries, allowing them to share flood related information via a website.

Two of the stations will be in Chinese-controlled Tibet, to monitor the Yarlung Tsangpo that enters the Indian territory as the Bramhaputra, a major river that often floods north-east India and Bangladesh.

"The two stations will be in Nuxia and Nxughesea of China," explained Mandira Shrestha, a hydrologist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which has been co-ordinating the nations' regional flood forecasting.

"Their role will be crucial to collect information for possible flooding in the river that affects millions of people downstream every year," she added.

But officials from participating countries - particularly Bangladesh, which shares most of its rivers with upstream India - say India's role will be equally important for the regional flood forecasting initiative.

ICIMOD officials say they have been trying to get India fully on board but it has been an uphill task.

"We have approached the Central Water Commission of India (one of the most powerful bodies on water issues) but have not heard from them yet," said Ms Shrestha.

Building bridges

Indian officials say their national policy does not allow them to share their river discharge data in multilateral forums.

Workmen carrying sand (Image: BBC)

"As per the Government of India policy, river discharge data is restricted and we will not go in a common data pool," says N Y Apte, a scientist with the Indian Meteorological Department, who took part in the Kathmandu meeting as an observer representing his government.

"We are developing our own data observation system and we do not want any instrumentation from the ICIMOD or any other agency, we are procuring our own instruments as per our own requirements."

Mr Apte, however, added that river discharge data could only be exchanged with neighbouring countries on the basis of bilateral agreements.

"Based on such agreements we have been, for example, giving Bangladesh flood warnings."

But Bangladeshi officials say such bilateral agreements have not been of much help.

"Through our joint river commission (of India and Bangladesh), we have been receiving some flood related information from Indian authorities," says Mr Bhuiyan.

"But they are from only those places that are very near to our border areas."

He said that this provided too little time to act: "That means we can issue flood warnings only 24 hours in advance which is not sufficient to alert our people and help them evacuate."

Officials from the participating countries, however, welcomed India's willingness to share meteorological information through its website.

Secured funding is another reason that has made them hopeful, as the first phase of the regional project had suffered from budgetary constraints.

"Finland has agreed to provide the necessary funds for five years, which means we now can start procuring equipment - mainly for the hydrological stations," says Ms Shrestha.

Experts believe the importance of such stations will grow, as rainfall patterns in the region are becoming erratic. Some places get unusually heavy rains over a short space of time, while others reel under drought.

A number of international research studies have suggested that climate change may be making Monsoon increasingly unpredictable. However, some local studies have disputed these findings.

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