Cyclone Hudhud-induced disaster claimed about 40 lives in the Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal. The disaster could have been averted had timely weather forecast been made available to those on the trekking route in the Annapurna Circuit, said Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, Senior Climate Change Specialist at ICIMOD and Himalayan Adaptation, Water, and Resilience (HI-AWARE) research team member, in an interview with Nepal TV, which was aired on 23 October 2014, 7:25 PM Nepal Time.
Several days before the Annapurna tragedy took place, the India Meteorological Department had forecast the likely path Cyclone Hudhud would take, including its category and travel speed. There was thus a window of opportunity to act on this information. However, in the near complete absence of an early warning information dissemination and response mechanism in the Annapurna region, action could not be taken on time. When Cyclone Huddud-induced blizzard hit the Annapurna region, many trekkers, porters and locals in and around Thorung La pass (5,416 masl) were caught off guard. Many got lost, got buried in snow, or died of hypothermia, altitude sickness or any number of causes. The massive post-disaster rescue efforts launched in the aftermath, involving the Royal Nepal Army and other agencies, were, however, able to rescue about 492 trekkers, many with injuries such as frostbites.
Dr Shrestha said that disaster management in Nepal is narrowly focused on the aftermath of disasters. The challenge, he said, is to do more on the pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness front. But this has to be a part and parcel of an integrated approach to disaster management. It should involve not just government bodies but also different institutions working together to ensure the flow of weather forecast information, including local mechanisms for disaster preparedness and response.
“High mountain passes such as Thorung La and others that attract trekkers are risky zones in the first place, because at that altitude weather can worsen quickly,” said Dr Shrestha, explaining why trekkers should never underestimate the risks on mountain passes. “In the Hidden Valley in Dhaulagiri region where ICIMOD has set up a cryosphere monitoring station, up to 1.8 m of snow accumulation has been observed due to precipitation alone, which is a lot of snow.”
Reflecting on the technological aspects of disaster management, he said that there is a need to identify “disaster hot spots” in the country, and monitor them regularly. There is a strong need for end-to-end early warning systems, as well as capacity building of local institutions to respond to early warnings, he added.
“Being a landlocked country, Nepal is relatively safe from tropical cyclones originating in faraway oceans; however, it is not completely immune. This is the costly lesson that Cyclone Hudhud, with its origin in the North Indian Ocean, has taught us,” he said.
Taking this lesson to heart, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment has decided to establish an ‘Extreme Weather Forecasting and Information Dissemination Mechanism’ to be headed by the Director General of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. The proposed mechanism seeks to prevent human casualties by severe weather induced by tropical cyclones. The mechanism also includes one official each from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, Ministry of Information and Communications, and Ministry of Agriculture, to act as focal persons on behalf of their respective ministries. Expert agencies, including ICIMOD, are expected to provide input to strengthen this mechanism.