Weather forecasting: It’s time to do it differently

Nilabja Ghosh | Updated on July 08, 2013 Published on July 08, 2013

In an unfamiliar terrain, reaching a safety zone during a disaster can be difficult. — V.V. Krishnan

Public, private agencies must share and spread vital information. This will enable the tourist to make informed choices.

The Uttarakhand disaster is not only one of the worst in recent times, it is also in many ways a much needed eye-opener — an alarm bell that alerts us on climate change that many in our country would like to ignore.

While public defence and fault finding may have their merits, more important is the urgency to analyse rationally what or who went wrong, why and what can be done to ensure that it never happens again. The disaster demands dispassionate identification of causes and a focus on relevant factors, bringing on board physical and social scientists with the required expertise.

It is well known that the Himalayas are fragile, made more so by deforestation. The terrain faces landslide risk during heavy or prolonged rainfall.

Landslides are nothing new on mountains in the monsoon season and a system already exists for seasonal regulation of tourism. But it is time to restructure the system.

Factoring in monsoon

Temperature records demonstrate that global warming is a reality. The effects of global warming are feared to be far reaching and self-sustaining.

The full implications can be even more serious than understood now. Asian countries face greater uncertainty, with monsoons being complex natural processes that are influenced by many factors.

While scientists study monsoons and their implications, the results have not been conclusive. There are possibilities that monsoon circulations are invigorated by temperature increases but indications in the opposite direction are also apparent. However, even in this early stage of scientific investigation it is largely agreed that with global warming, incidences of extreme weather effects will become more frequent and the date of onset of monsoon will increasingly vary, keeping us guessing. Experiences of late season rainfall, belated monsoon, drought and early furious entry of monsoon in recent times underscore the fact that all this requires greater policy attention than is being given now.

Power of information

The early rainfall that occurred incessantly on June 15 and 16 was not exclusive to Uttarakhand but was shared by much of North India. The difference was in the risk that the rainfall posed on the mountains and the plains.

Aspiring tourists and residents drawing their livelihood from the danger-prone zones are not totally unaware of the possibilities that lie in store, but as in all cases, the risk they willingly take is calculated, shaped by the information they have access to.

There is a need to answer the question, how early is an early warning. Rescue operations of the kind seen this time should be the last recourse.

Even helicopter-driven specialist interventions to save human lives are hampered by weather conditions and they too involve human lives. For the tourist there is hardly any safety zone to run to in the unfamiliar high mountains during inclement weather.

There is a serious need to review our weather forecasting and forecast dissemination mechanism considering both technological and institutional options.

While forecasts can never be assured to be precise and though our system has successfully demonstrated its capability in the crucial times of rescue operations, in reality what matters is that the danger signals reach all stakeholders in time, including the people undertaking risk and the public authorities, to be alerted enough to respond.

The government’s burden will be considerably lightened when informed tourists make their choices. Timely warning translated to information is the essence.

Instead of relying on a single agency, signals from multiple agencies — public, private or international — can be made accessible to the people and the administration.

The Himalayan ranges have always beckoned the people of the plains and more people will aspire to visit the Char Dham in days to come. Spiritual appeal aside, for the hill States, tourism spells revenue. Thus protecting the ecology and assuring safety makes economic sense too.

Let us not lose our focus. Climate change is staring us in the face and asking for not only sustainable development but also the best possible early warning system.

(The author is Associate Professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi)

Published on July 08, 2013
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