Post-disaster lessons for Nepal

Although Nepal is used to localised rains even post-monsoon, last October saw unprecedented nationwide downpour. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI.

On 11 October 2021, Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology declared that the southwest monsoon had officially exited the country. Paddy fields across the country were golden with ripening rice, and Nepalis were getting ready to prepare for the Dasain festival.

On 15 October, the Met Office reported that a westerly system had become active, and there was likely to be some rain. Indeed, the frontal system lashed the Indian state of Uttarakhand, triggering landslides and causing flash floods.

Nepal is used to localised rains even after the monsoon ends, but this was the first time in 12 years that there was widespread nationwide rain in October. And it was not just ordinary showers, the cloudbursts dumped more than 500mm of rain in Dadeldhura on 17-19 October. Sunsari got nearly 400mm in just 24 hours on 19-20 October.

Landslides and floods killed over 120 people across the country, 28 are still missing. Nepal’s Ministry of Agriculture had predicted paddy harvests to exceed target because of a healthy monsoon, but the unexpected rain in October cost nearly Rs12 billion in damage to the rice crop, reducing Nepal’s GDP by 0.6%. Sudurpaschim Province alone lost up to one-third of paddy that was ready for harvest.

24-hour rainfall 18-19 October. Source: DHM

Roads, bridges, irrigation schemes and hydropower plants were damaged or destroyed. There was $85 million damage to 26 hydroelectric schemes.     

Since then, climate scientists and meteorologists have been scratching their heads to figure out what happened, and why there were not more accurate weather forecasts about the severity of the unseasonal precipitation.

A new paper ‘Missed Opportunities in Utilisation of Weather Forecasts: An Analysis of the October 2021 Disaster in Nepal’ by risk reduction experts Dinanath Bhandari and Ajaya Dixit investigates what happened, if it could have been foreseen, and how it can be prevented in future.

The authors look at the challenge of predicting post-monsoon and winter precipitation, and how the global climate crisis is affecting rainfall patterns that used to be fairly regular in the past. The paper analyses precipitation data since 1971 to show that total post-monsoon rains have gone down all over Nepal except parts of the trans-Himalaya.

‘Existing meteorological stations are inadequate to cover the diversity of Nepal’s microclimates, and the high mountain and remote regions have fewer stations than required for climate trend analysis,’ the paper notes.

24-hour rainfall October 19-20. Source: DHM
24-hour rainfall October 20-21. Source: DHM

The authors also look into why there was widespread damage and human casualties despite weather alerts through media. Although the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology did predict rain, the messaging did not include location and time-specific impact-based forecasting, they say.

Although the National Disaster Risk Management and Mitigation Authority (NDRMMA) did issue early warnings through social media platforms, including daily situation reports, the paper says that these tended to focus on post-event rescue and relief, and not enough on early warning.

Even when the correct forecast was available, there was not enough coordination with various other agencies of government like the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Local Development, local governments, as well as the security agencies for emergency rescue.

Stations with over 200 mm of accumulated rainfall in 2021 October
Maximum 24-hour October rainfall above 140 mm in October (1951 to 2009)

This could have been due to the impending Dasain holiday mood, but the authors also blame ‘location specific impact-based rainfall forecasts’. In other words, the early warning was too general. The authors imply that the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology should not just be in the business of issuing forecasts, but also work with local authorities for preparedness and timely action.  

‘The argument that the frequency of extreme rainfall events in the post-monsoon has increased seems to be valid,’ the paper says. ‘In 2009, the post-monsoon high rainfall was concentrated in west Nepal. It was the same initially in 2021, but the widespread and unseasonal rainfall last year seemed to catch everyone by surprise and there was not even some semblance of preparedness for rescue and relief to be dominant in disaster management response.’

Read more: Lessons still not learnt, Editorial