Reliable hydromet data becomes crucial

Bhutan among the most disaster prone country in the region

Disaster: Floods, cyclones and storms claimed more lives in Bhutan than earthquake accounting for about 95 percent of the 304 deaths related to natural disasters in 17 years (from 1994-2011). The remaining 5 percent were from earthquakes, a World Bank report points out.

The report: “Modernising weather, water and climate services: a road map for Bhutan” identified Bhutan as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the South Asia region with exposure to multiple hazards.

Bhutan ranks fourth highest in the South Asia region in terms of relative exposure to flood risks, with 1.7 percent of the total population at risk. Storms affect about 75 percent of the population but have historically resulted in fewer casualties, the report states.

Consequently, the demand for hydro met data among a dozen of other government agencies is very high. For instance, the civil aviation department rely on hydro met data for air services, the Road Safety and Transport Authority requires number of hydro met data for public transport, health ministry need the hydrology data for sanitation, agriculture for seasonal cropping and disaster management for preparedness.

“Thedisaster information needs and priorities of key sectors underscore the urgency for modernizing hydro met services in Bhutan,” the report states.

However, the Department of Hydro Met Services (DHMS), is a relatively new department with very limited budget for capital investments and its budget for current expenses has been approximately USD 550,000 per year since 2011, which is insufficient to support significant expansion of the monitoring network, forecasting, and service delivery.

Officials from the department said over 80 percent of the DHMS’s capital budget comes from development partners, including the government of India.

“Many undermine the importance of the department commencing from the political level,” said an official from the DHMS. As of now, he said the department is comfortable with donor funds but there is no surety in long run.

“As there are no returns on the investment, the department is allocated a very low budget,” he said. The various automated meteorological and hydrological stations always needs to be maintained every 5-6 years and even for the spare parts, the department has been seeking donors.

Albeit the constraints, he said department has been able to forecast weather 72 hours in advance.

Officials also said that raw data are being provided free of cost to different agencies including private consultants. “But processed data needs time and cost money,” said one.

The World Bank’s report, another official said has pointed out several gaps and provided recommendations. “But if all gaps are to be filled at once, more money has to be pumped in.”

In a few years time, the department intends to come up with flood forecast, which currently is not in place due to financial constraints.

An assessment of the representativeness of the meteorological stations with respect to elevation zones, the World Bank carried out, revealed that 55 percent of the land mass is below 2,999 meters because 92 percent of the stations are located at this range of altitude, and only 8 percent of the stations are at elevations higher than 3,000 meters.  “Thus the higher elevations are underrepresented compared with the lower elevations,” the report states.

As per the report, data on rainfall, storm, and lightning are conveyed by telephone when a severe weather event occurs.

The report highlights that the only quality checks for collected data is done at the head office.

Officials from hydro met said currently the department has proposed for a grant of USD 1.45M from the World Bank to procure new hardware for the aviation sector and agro met data for seasonal cropping.

While JICA is funding the GLOF alarm system along Mangdechu and Chamkharchu basin, National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA), a UN body, is funding a huge project on meteorological stations.

Although Bhutan is a member of World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), it is not yet connected to the global data. However, by November this year, officials said Bhutan would launch the global network of meteorology.

Meanwhile, many of the key economic sectors-agriculture, livestock, and forestry; electricity and water supply; and construction-together accounting for almost 50 percent of gross domestic product, are highly prone to natural disaster, according to World Bank.

As per their projection, winter rains in many districts are likely to reduce in the next two to three decades and this is likely to compound the risk of forest fires.

The slow onset of disasters such as droughts and local extreme rainfall are less recorded, but the impacts are often equally detrimental.

For example, the average cereal crop yield peaked in 2004 at 1,256.3 kilograms per acre and has declined by about 20–30 percent in subsequent years.

The report states that cyclone Aila in May 2009 caused the worst floods across the country in 40 years with water level in Punatsangchhu recording even higher than the levels recorded during the 1994 GLOF event.

Tshering Dorji

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