Pakistan flood data wasted, say critics

Flood imagery: putting it to use is the difficult part Copyright: FlickrDigital Globe-Imagery

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[ISLAMABAD/KATHMANDU] A huge effort to collect and analyse data on the devastating floods wreaking havoc in northern Pakistan has been severely undermined by a lack of strategies for disaster management and the dissemination of information, scientists and disaster experts have said.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department’s flood forecasting division provides information on the size and flow of the floods using data from an extensive network of weather radars along the Indus river as well as an Indus flood forecasting system that uses computer modelling.

But experts have told SciDev.Net that much of this information has not been put to good use.

"Much of it is being rendered useless in the absence of a sound and integrated flood management strategy and information dissemination," said Ahmad Kamal, a member of the country’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

And Akram Anjum, chief meteorologist and director of the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s flood forecasting division, said: "Pakistan has all necessary flood forecasting systems — though not state of the art — in place but coordination and information dissemination at [the district] level need to be improved."

Critics also say there is a large number of agencies working without direction and coordination, and often duplicating efforts. In addition to the NDMA, the Pakistan Meteorological Department, and the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), there are almost a dozen central and provincial agencies engaged in flood relief.

Faisal Nadeem Gorchani, head of policy advocacy and outreach at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), an Islamabad-based non-profit organisation, said an integrated approach is key to avoiding similar disasters in the future.

"Would that we had learnt any lesson from colossal floods in Pakistan in the past," he added.

The country’s worst-ever floods, of the Indus, Kabul and Swat rivers, have inundated one-fifth of its land, killing 1,600 people and affecting millions more.

They have also wiped out about 200,000 animals and 4.25 million acresof crops worth US$5 billion, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock has estimated.   

The flood forecasting division gives authorities 24-hour warning of monsoon flooding. Its efforts are now being complemented with data on the extent of flood water and damage from the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain development (ICIMOD) in conjunction with the US and Japanese space agencies.

An ICIMOD team is overlaying the flood data with maps of villages and crops. ICIMOD then relays the information to SUPARCO, as well as to international organisations and the UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, UN-SPIDER. The Pakistan government and army also use the maps to help them decide how to respond.  

Scientists said data gaps should also be plugged. For example, meteorological radar coverage should extend across the entire country, said Anjum. And ICIMOD scientists say on-ground information, such as the lengths of bridges or the number of animals and crops, still needs to be assembled and combined with satellite data.