Transboundary flood early warning systems in the northern Ganga basin

Improving participation and representation of people at risk are key to make transboundary interactions on flood early warning systems more effective. Because floods have strong upstream-downstream linkages, an early warning system can significantly reduce losses in the downstream areas by providing early information and allowing for pre-emptive actions.

Improving participation and representation of people at risk are key to make transboundary interactions on flood early warning systems more effective. Because floods have strong upstream-downstream linkages, an early warning system can significantly reduce losses in the downstream areas by providing early information and allowing for pre-emptive actions. The UNISDR (2009) defines an early warning system (EWS) as “the set of capacities needed to generate and disseminate timely and meaningful warning information to enable individuals, communities and organisations threatened by a hazard to prepare and to act appropriately and in sufficient time to reduce the possibility of harm or loss.”

In the last few years, government agencies in Nepal and India have adopted technology such as mobile short message services (SMSs) in EWS to disseminate early warnings. They also use flood bulletins, web-based information, and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) to inform people within their sovereign boundaries who are at risk from floods. In many transboundary basins that straddle Nepal and India, including that of the Koshi River, however, no EWSs exists. During periods of high river flow, the two governments have established ad hoc mechanisms to communicate risks. These mechanisms include the extended hierarchy of institutions and ministries of foreign affairs of both countries.

Koshi River: Tibet Autonomous Region, Nepal and Bihar, India

In recent times, advancements in meteorological science and the development of satellite-based technologies have enabled the hydrometeorological agencies of both countries to make fairly accurate weather forecasts. Using relevant forecast models, these agencies provide information on potential floods events three days in advance. However, because of sociocultural barriers, gender roles, and constraints in risk governance at the local level of implementation, the warnings fail to reach the most deprived and vulnerable, especially women and marginalised communities in the basin.

Study Area in Nepal Tarai and North Bihar along the Koshi River

Social and Cultural Barriers

Cultural factors such as socio-cultural norms and gender barriers limit access to risk communication. Such factors also limit the co-production of EWS knowledge, especially by women and marginalized communities in the basin. In particular, warning messages do not reach women and marginalised people because of their lack of access to technologies, low literacy levels, gender roles (e.g., cooking, cleaning, and caring) and socio-cultural barriers. The results of these social realities limit the movement and interaction of women with men and marginalized with mainstream communities.

Understanding and responding to risks should happen collectively at the community level through participatory consultations. In reality, however, it is mostly men who participate in such consultations and make all the decisions. Women perceive risks differently than men do; they perceive harsh living conditions and risks during evacuation (such as sexual harassment, animal attacks, snake bites, diseases, and theft of valuables) to be more concerning than the risks of the hazards they face. These factors significantly affect their motivation to participate in actions during and after flood disasters.

Women perceive risks differently than men; they perceive harsh living conditions and risks during evacuation (such as sexual harassment, animal attacks, snake bites, diseases, and theft of valuables) to be more concerning than the risks of hazard they face.

In the Ganga basin, which stretches from Nepal across the border to India, central government agencies are involved in managing EWSs. The top-down character of EWSs means that they lacks mechanisms for collecting feedback from people at risk. The institutions that generate information are disconnected from the local contexts and the geographies of the communities that receive the warnings. These agencies are largely unaware of whether or not the intended recipients of the warnings use, access, understand, or implement those warnings.

A recent study found that government institutions in Nepal were very concerned about the possible public trust deficit which would arise from false alarms and thus chose certainty over timeliness in delivering warnings . In Bihar there are layers of agencies. The central government’s institutions generate flood forecasts with three days of lead time in bulletins and disseminate them only to disaster response agencies for their action and preparedness. Flood warnings flowed top-down from central government institutions to the state level and then on down to district-level, block-level, and village-level authorities, involving an extended hierarchy of institutions and reducing the lead-time in warning at every step.

The communication processes of the EWS need to connect with contextual reality of users.

At the village level, only three government officials received the flood warnings. They were given the impractical responsibility for disseminating those warnings to thousands of at-risk people and evacuating them to safety. As a result of this impractical institutional setup, most people in Bihar lacked access to warnings and relied instead on news broadcasts over the television and radio for warnings during the monsoon. Those broadcasts, however, contain only the information on river discharge and stage values provided by hydrological stations and color codes. People found this information difficult to understand.

Inadequate Capacity

Despite updates in policies, this study shows that the institutional context of the implementation of EWSs at the local level and working modalities in both Nepal and Bihar have remained the same. By and large, local government institutions lack the capacities they need to conduct EWS-related activities. In Nepal, donor agencies and NGOs support these institutions in conducting awareness-raising activities on EWSs at the local level. However, these institutions have not been able to institutionalize those awareness-raising practices and have become reliant on donors for continuing them.

The NGO-led activities and interactions at the community level were also sporadic and minor in scale, and the representation and inclusion of marginalised people at risk in those programs were questionable. These gaps raise the question of the sustainability of EWS programs and their ability to function independently after the cessation of donor support. In Bihar, the involvement of NGOs was not as significant as it was in Nepal, and local government institutions of Bihar have not been able to conduct awareness-raising activities by themselves. These deficits have led to a significant lack of awareness at the community level.

In both countries, the governance of EWSs at the national level was top-down, centrally managed, disaster response-focused, and lacked the participation of people at risk. The central government’s institutions generate and disseminate warnings without understanding the local contexts of their implementation. There is no opportunity for upward communication or feedback from people at risk to the generators of warnings. In neither Nepal nor Bihar are there policies or working modalities available to implement transboundary EWSs.

Indeed, Nepal and India have formed a number of bilateral committees for collaborative action on flood risk management broadly and in the Koshi River basin in particular. However, the centralised committee focuses on interactions among officials of the technical departments of the two countries. They lack representation of local-level institutions and people at risk, whether Nepali or Indian. As a result, the committee functioned more as a platform for a powerful country to exercise soft power over a less powerful country than as a platform for meaningful transboundary collaboration. This institutional arrangement has not helped address myths and misinformation related to the causes of floods which have the potential of disrupting social cohesion at the community level on both sides of the Nepal-India border.

Potential transboundary early warning system

The lack of participation of people at risk in the generation of risk information and in the communication processes of EWSs can result in those processes being disconnected from the contextual reality. At the community level, warnings given to at-risk people without a feedback mechanism is one-way communication that, by its very nature, cannot effectively meet its goal of risk reduction. Chances of meeting this goal is further undermined because, at the national level, the risk communication and information generation processes are disconnected from the contextual awareness regarding people’s access to, preferences for, and understanding of flood warnings. Likewise, at the transboundary level, bilateral committees lack representation of local government institutions and people’s participation.

Participatory Adaptive Management

Improving the participation and representation of people at risk are key to making transboundary interactions on EWSs more effective. Bilateral interactions need to begin with creating space for the participation of local government representatives of both countries (district magistrates and municipal mayors) in the process. At the same time, it is also necessary to foster the participation of people at risk in these conversations. These steps will lead to win-win outcomes as the decisions will be informed by local contexts and the needs of the people at risk.

Simultaneously, independent research institutions in both Nepal and India should be included in discussions of transboundary EWS collaborative actions. The formation of a neutral transboundary research group consisting of the national research institutions of Nepal and India (e.g., IIT and Tribhuvan University), with support from technical institutions like IMD, CWC, and DHM and local NGOs, and people at risk should be involved in basin-wide research on transboundary EWSs and meeting the goals of generating and disseminating timely and meaningful warning information for flood risk reduction.

Providing space for the river is not an abstract concept.

At the same time the governance approach to flood risk reduction needs to pursue climate-adaptive measures that provide space for rivers. This is not an abstract concept. In the Netherlands, “room for river” and in the UK “making space for rivers” approaches are already being implemented. In the Ganga basin, many rivers between Nepal and India and between India and Bangladesh cross an international transboundary and many small tributaries cross both international as in-country administrative boundaries. While establishing appropriate EWSs at these scales will be key to reducing flood risks, making space for rivers is a pre-requisite for adapting to flood risks sustainably. Further collaborative research is required to identify pathways for actions that build on the idea of living with nature.


[1] Policy Brief “Policy implications and lessons learned: Transboundary Early Warning Systems in the Koshi River basin between Nepal and India” based on the author’s PhD research, funded by Science for Humanitarian Resilience and Emergency (SHEAR) program.

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