S.H.M. Fakhruddin blogs on lessons learned from Pakistan flooding

S.H.M. Fakhruddin, member of the IRDR Science Committee, shared his recent experience working in Pakistan on climate risk management assessment and training program for the government officials. Fakhruddin worked in the country in 2009-2010. Based from his assessment, he outlined recommendations which included strengthening the flood forecasting and warning system with longer lead time and using community awareness to interpret the flood forecasts for decision making.

“Advances in meteorological, hydrological and engineering sciences are fast generating a range of new methodologies for forecasting weather and flood events, including ensemble prediction systems (EPS) and new hydrological or hydrodynamic models. However, many of these advances prediction system have not yet been incorporated into operational forecast systems and consequently, operational forecasts have not been integrated into decision making processes in order to reduce disaster risks,” Fakhruddin said in his blog.

While steps have been taken by Pakistan’s Meteorological Department (PMD) to strengthen the flood forecasting and warning system, areas for improvement remain: as reported widely in the media earlier this year, hundreds were killed in flooding caused by heavy rain across large swathes of India and Pakistan, a number not far from the casualties inflicted upon the country in 2010.

Rescue workers help transport a family affected by flooding to dry ground in Wazirabad, Pakistan on September 7, 2014. (Photo: abc.net.au)
Rescue workers help transport a family affected by flooding to dry ground in Wazirabad, Pakistan on September 7, 2014. (Photo: abc.net.au)

One of the problems identified are unconnected systems: the PMD is in charge of issuing to the public early warnings of natural hazards due to meteorological, hydrological and geophysical phenomena such as tropical cyclones, heavy rains, floods and earthquakes. The department also maintains a specialized Flood Forecasting Division at Lahore. However, a flood forecast is only valuable if it induces a response from the residents in the threatened area that prompts them into actions, and it is this element that has been lacking oversight so far.

Fakhruddin explained that an accurate forecast given 24-hour before a probable flooding event provides little time for people to take appropriate actions to secure their properties but sufficient time to save their lives. Current research shows that lead times for flood forecasting for the Indus Basin could be increased to 5-7 days, using for example the available “European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” (ECMWF) or other high resolution ensembles precipitation forecasts. This record was reflected in 2010 when “ECMWF 1-15 rainfall predicted forecast” was able to capture the 27-29 July events accurately. “Without enough lead time to react, an early warning is almost ineffective. For people to take an effective decision and action, the need to generate long lead flood forecasts with an acceptable degree is essential,” Fakhruddin said.

He added, “In the real world, it has been observed that the general public finds it difficult to understand the meaning of probabilistic forecasts which consequently puts them still at risk.” The recent deaths in Punjab Province, Pakistan which were attributed to heavy rains and floods showed the community’s lack of communication to receive, interpret or internalize the warning information for decision making and response.

Based on the 2009 World Disaster Report, early warning systems alone do not prevent hazards turning into disasters and early action is essential in order to mitigate potential damage. Early warning and early action can save thousands of lives and livelihoods; reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience. “A breakdown in any one of these elements of early warning can cause warning messages to fail to reach and motivate their intended recipients. It is clear that early warning is not helpful unless it has reached the people who need to act on the warning message. To respond to these early warning, the information needs to be understood and internalized by the people. Thus, an interpretation and translation of the science information is essential for the general public to understand,” he concluded.

The IRDR Programme is studying how people — both decision-makers and ordinary citizens — make decisions, individually and collectively, in the face of risk through the Risk Interpretation and Action (RIA) project. RIA focuses on four priority areas: 1) Decision-making for uncertainty, 2) Early warning systems 3) Adaptive management and resilience and 4) Individual perceptions and risk behaviour. Understanding how people interpret risks and choose actions based on their interpretations is vital to any strategy for disaster reduction.

Read more on S.H.M. Fakhruddin’s blog “Pakistan Flood 2014- Lesson Identified Never Learned”.

Related Information:
Using science for disaster risk reduction: report of the ISDR scientific and technical advisory group, 2013
An Atmospheric-Hydrologic Forecasting Scheme for the Indus River Basin, Journal of Hydrometeorology (in press)
A Case Study for Early Warning and Disaster Management in Thailand