The new normal


The devastating storm that ravaged Bara and Parsa districts on Sunday night leaving at least 30 people dead and hundreds injured now looks certain to have been a tornado. Although not as common here as in the plains states of mid-western US, tornadoes have been known to occur during the pre-monsoon season in Bangladesh and parts of coastal India.

Meteorologists were initially reluctant to confirm that this week’s disaster was caused by a tornado because they were almost unheard of in the Nepal Tarai. However, the fact that elderly people in the plains have in their Maithili and Hindi vocabulary a word for tornado (chakrawat) means that they do occur.

The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has come under a lot of criticism this week for not being able to forecast this extreme weather event. While storms, rain, and high winds can be forecast, tornadoes are notoriously difficult to predict, and it is next to impossible to pinpoint where they will touch down.

Read also:Disastrous Management in Nepal

Even in the United States, which is hit by more than 1,000 tornadoes a year, there are only general warnings about possibilities of these twisters, although computer modeling allows more accurate forecasting. Still, the only specific warning people get is when they can actually see a tornado approaching with its ominous funnel. Homes and businesses along America’s ‘Tornado Alley’ in states like South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of Texas and Colorado are mandatorily required to have shelters since wind speeds of up to 450 km/h inside a tornado can rip everything apart.

As survivors picked up the pieces of their lives this week in Pheta village of Bara, scientists from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) saw the clear footprint of a tornado: a long and narrow path of destruction, houses and walls built with masonry lay demolished, trucks and buses had been thrown about, mighty trees were uprooted – but a few metres away palm trees still stood with fronds intact and thatch homes were unscathed.

Photographs taken by passengers on planes circling over Simara while waiting to land at Kathmandu airport show continuous lightning flashes inside a supercell soaring above Central Nepal with the tops of the cumulonimbus reaching more than 10,000m. Right below these planes, the conditions were getting ripe for the twister to form.

Eyewitnesses describe a frightening storm that hit at dinner time, with the brunt of the damage confined to a 50m wide trail of destruction along a few kilometres towards Birganj. As our coverage of the disaster in this edition explains, the tornado would been difficult to predict even with the most sophisticated equipment. 

Read also: Ground Zero in Pheta, Kiran Nepal

Nowcasting is possible, but not for a specific locale or an exact time. The DHM has installed a Doppler radar in Surkhet, and two more are going to be set up in Palpa and Udaypur to cover the entire country. Data from these can be fed into modeling software that can detect rotating updrafts inside supercells, make predictions for rain and wind, and also gauge the possibility of twisters striking. 

However, even if these radars had been operational and modeling software already available, it would have been impossible to forecast a tornado hitting a localised cluster of villages in the central plains of Nepal at a specific time. And even if the warning had gone out, there would not be enough time to respond, and in the absence of underground shelters, there would still have been high casualties.

For us in Nepal, therefore, there is only one thing to do: spread awareness and be prepared for more tornadoes in future as the intensity of storms increase with climate change. Extreme weather events like wind storms, flash floods, cloud bursts, glacial lake outburst floods, droughts and erratic monsoons are the new normal, and we have to improve forecasting and preparedness.

Even before the 2015 earthquake, the government had been working on a Disaster Management Act. It was delayed by geological and political earthquakes, but a bill to that effect is finally going to Parliament soon. The National Reconstruction Authority should be expanded into a Disaster Management Authority that can upgrade multi-disaster preparedness, and have systems in place for rapid search and rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

Bara was the first major disaster to hit Nepal since the federal constitution went into effect, and we could see that the first responders were from the Wards and Municpalities of Province 2 where the tornado struck. Central coordination local response would be the way forward in preparing for disasters to come. It is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.

Read Also: Past disasters foretold, Om Astha Rai

10 years  ago this week

Why do these lines from an editorial in Nepali Times #445 of 3-9 April 2009 sound strangely familiar ten years later? 

We have the unenviable task of trying to wake up rulers pretending to be asleep.

It is now only a question of time before dashed hopes turn into spontaneous outbursts of frustration. There were high expectations, even euphoria, when the Maoists came to power seven months ago that their revolutionary zeal would bring a new style and efficiency to the government.

Most Nepalis expected that the constitution-drafting process would be messy and fraught with delays, but they were certain their lives would improve. Nobody expects miracles from Dahal and his fellow travellers. But they need to prove that they are doing more than just blaming everyone else, or at least once a week threaten to overthrow a government they themselves lead.