Central Water Commission’s Flood Forecasting – Pathetic performance in Uttarkhand disaster

Central Water Commission, India’s premier technical body under Union Ministry of Water Resources, has once again failed in the Uttarakhand flood disaster. Even as the Uttarakhand state faced the worst floods in its history, CWC, which has been given the task of forecasting floods across flood prone areas all over India, completely failed in making any forecasts that could have helped the people and administration in Uttarakhand.

First principle of disaster management is prior warning. With prior warning, significant proportion of possible damages and destruction can be avoided. In that respect, one expected that CWC would play a key role in forecasting the floods. SANDRP has been monitoring CWC flood forecasts throughout the monsoon for some years. During June 15-17, when Uttarakhand was receiving the most intense rains, CWC did not make any forecasts regarding Uttarakhand. As far as the most severely disaster affected areas of Ganga basin upstream of Devprayag are concerned (these include  the worst affected Kedarnath and Mandakini valley, the Gangotri and Bhagirathi valley and Badrinath in Alaknanda valley), CWC has made no flood forecasts at all this year. Same is the case regarding other affected regions of Uttarakhand including Yamuna basin including Yamunotri and Pithoragarh including Goriganga basin. What is than the role of this premier technical body tasked with flood forecasting?

The only forecast that CWC made for Uttarakhand this June 2013 were for Rishikesh and Haridwar on June 18, 2013. Even in these instances, CWC’s callousness is reflected. For example, by the fact that normally when flood forecasts are made for any site in the first place, the forecasts would be low flood forecast (where water level is between warning and danger level for the site), and only in next stage, would medium flood forecast would be made (water level above danger level). However, in case of both Rishikesh and Haridwar, CWC straightaway made medium flood forecasts, clearly missing the low flood forecasts.

In fact looking at the CWC flood forecasting site (http://www.india-water.com/ffs/index.htm), we notice that in entire Uttarakhand state, CWC has only three flood forecasting sites: Srinagar, Rishikesh and Hridwar, which means CWC would not be doing any forecasts for the most vulnerable regions of Uttarakhand in any case! Even in case of Srinagar (which actually suffered the worst floods with hundreds of damaged houses), CWC site says the Highest flood level is 536.85 m, amazingly, below the warning level of 539 m! This means that CWC has never forecast flood at that site and even if water level goes above HFL, it won’t forecast any floods since level could still be well below the warning level?  Can one imagine a more callous technical body?

The callous performance of CWC does not end there. During June 2-7 this year, CWC flood forecasting site as also the flood forecasting site of NDMA which also depends on CWC, stopped functioning. After numerous emails and phone calls from SANDRP, the website started functioning on June 7, 2013 and Shri V D Roy, Director (Flood Forecasting Management) of CWC wrote to us, “Due to technical reasons, the CWC FF site was not working since 2nd June. With consistent effort, the website was made functional w e f 7th June”.

Pointing out a major blunder of CWC, we had written to CWC on June 12, 2013, “CWC forecast site reported that water level of Brahmaputra river at Neamatighat site in Jorhat district in Assam had reached 94.21 m at 0900 hrs (on June 11, 2013), which was 6.84 m above the highest flood level of the site at 87.37 m. The FF site also forecast that the level will be 94.15 m at 0900 am on June 12, 2013, that is today. Both the recording and forecast were clearly wrong, rather way off the mark. The site or the area in question or upstream and down stream levels do not match with what the CWC site said y’day.” Needless to add there was no floods in Brahmaputra in spite of such forecast by India’s highest technical body! CWC is yet to respond to our emails on this issue.

It is strange that CWC, in stead of putting its house in order, is acting as a lobby for big dams by making baseless claims about Tehri dam having saved downstream area of floods, as reported by Indian Express[i] on June 25, 2013. This is like adding salt to the wounds of the people of Uttarakhand who are suffering from the ill effects of lopsided developments including dams and hydropower projects. It would be better if CWC tries to improve its flood forecasts rather than indulging in such lobbying efforts at such times of crisis.

CWC needs to seriously consider including key sites of Uttarakhand into its flood forecasting sites, even if the the duration available for such forecasting is smaller. In times of crisis even a few hours notice can save many lives and also help save other losses.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com, 09968242798)

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People  (http://sandrp.in/)

For SANDRP blogs on Uttarakhand flood disaster, see:

1. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/uttarakhand-deluge-how-human-actions-and-neglect-converted-a-natural-phenomenon-into-a-massive-disaster/

2. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/uttarakhand-floods-disaster-lessons-for-himalayan-states/

3. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/uttarakhand-and-climate-change-how-long-can-we-ignore-this-in-himalayas/

A news report following this PR:

http://www.dnaindia.com/india/1853208/report-cwc-failed-to-forecast-alert-about-floods

9 Comments on “Central Water Commission’s Flood Forecasting – Pathetic performance in Uttarkhand disaster

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  7. Rejoinder to Central Water Commission’s Flood Forecasting – Pathetic Performance in Uttarakhand Disaster Posted by Sh Himansu Thakkar on 25th June 2013.
    This is with reference to Message posted by Sh Himansu Thakkar from South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP) in their blog as well as to the report which appeared in DNA. The message tries to highlight the shortcomings in the CWC Flood Forecasting system. However, by going through the contents of the same, it appears that the author is not fully acquainted with flood forecast system being operated and maintained by Central Water Commission.
    CWC had started the flood forecasting activities in India late back in 1958. At present, CWC operates a network of 878 hydrological sites, data from which is used for issuing level forecast ot 147 sites and inflow forecasts for 28 sites. The location of sites are finalised based on requisitions received from the respective State Governments. The other consideration in selection of sites includes availability of hydrological /meteorological sites upstream of the forecast station and the lead time (time taken by flood wave to travel from the observation site to the forecast site) and past history of flood problem in the area. After selection of sites, certain other parameters (including Danger Level) are also fixed in close consultation with respective State Government Departments involved in flood management and local District Administration. These parameters are required to reviewed on regular basis by the State Government.
    CWC monitors the water level on the forecast sites on hourly basis during the monsoon period. The forecast for a site is issued to the concerned authority only when the water level at forecast site is above the „Warning Level” which is generally 1 m below the “Danger Level”.
    Further, CWC disseminates these flood forecasts to various user agencies involved in taking rescue and relief measures which includes the concerned District Magistrates, Principal Secretaries in charge of Flood in the state, State Irrigation/Flood Control officials, Railways, Project Authorities, etc. CWC uses various channels of communication for dissemination of flood forecast such as e-mail / Fax / Wireless etc so as to ensure that these reaches the concerned user agencies as quickly as possible. Flood forecast dissemination through website is a secondary means of communication for public at large.
    Here it is pertinent to mention that the forecasts issued by CWC generally cater to the flood of general nature having sufficient warning time available. The hilly region experiences flash flood on many occasions, which is very difficult to predict due to fact that flood wave in these rivers travels at a very high speed due to steep slope. The lead time in such case is very less as compared to that required in a general flood forecast system. Even the most advance country do not operate system to predict Flash Flood. Moreover, in the hilly region like Uttarakhand, landslides have more damaging effect than that due to rise in water level.
    On the basis of the criteria mentioned above, there are only 3 flood forecasting sites on river Ganga in the Uttarakhand experiencing severe damages due to flash flood during third week of June. These locations are Srinagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar where forecasts are being issued since, 2004, 2004 & 1985 respectively. CWC has issued five flood forecast each for Haridwar and Rishikesh during 16th to 18th June, 2013. No forecast was issued for Srinagar as the water levels at the site remained below warning level.
    The case of Neamatighat highlighted in the post was mainly due to typographical error made by the concerned official who publishes the data on website. The flood forecast sent to the actual users was correct, which can be verified from the concerned agencies. Even the figure on website was also corrected as soon as it was noticed.
    The basic purpose of the rejoinder is to highlight that the entire activity of flood forecasting is a outcome of tremendous efforts made by officials of CWC who on many occasion work in a very difficult condition to collect the data on rivers which becomes furious in nature during high flood situation. Any review of the system in casual manner without having sound knowledge of the system and dissemination of result thereof on a very powerful media like blogs / Facebook could be very discouraging to the people involved in operation of system. CWC will welcome any effort made by any individual / group which after going into thorough study of the system make any suggestion for its betterment. CWC will try to implement such suggestions to the extent possible.
    From Central Water Commission

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    • Many thanks, Shri V D Roy, Director, FFM (Central Water Commission) for this detailed response. This is greatly appreciated. As I wrote to you y’day, I would like to meet you and discuss this further, in the meantime, here is our quick response.

      1. CWC is India’s premier body in charge of flood forecasting. Uttarakhand faced one of the worst flood disaster this year, though not for the first time. Uttarakhand is known to be prone to flood disaster. Even if lead time of flood forecasting in Uttarakhand is shorter than in plains, even a few hours advance notice would be good to save a lot of lives and hardships. Hence CWC should seriously consider adding sites from flood prone regions of Uttarakhand in its flood forecasting. This is a constructive suggestion we have given and we hope CWC will seriously consider this. If there are lack of existing hydrological monitoring sites in the upstream to make this possible, CWC should consider adding them. CWC should also consider adding the IMD’s rainfall forecasts and also actual rainfall observations from the upstream catchments in its forecasting calculations, which does not seem to be there if we go by what you have mentioned. This is the second constructive suggestion from our side. This will be very important in the context of changing climate, possibilities of increased high intensity rainfall and cloud burst events and also Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. Yes, in Uttarakhand landslides have an important role to play in the floods and that should also be a factor that should be included in CWC flood forecasting calculations. This is the third constructive suggestion from our side.

      There are many countries who issue flood forecasts in hilly regions, and it is not true to say that other countries do not do that. Yes, such forecasting may be more difficult, but considering the damage potential of such forecasts it is worth doing in public interest.

      2. It is good to know CWC issues hourly forecasts to the administration. Our suggestion to you is to put all such hourly forecasts also promptly on the website so that affected people do not have to depend only on local administration, but they can also get information directly from CWC website. That will be a great help to flood affected regions and this should not be too difficult. Flood forecasts dissemination through website need not remain a secondary channel for the flood affected people, it can also be primary source. We request you to do this urgently and this is another constructive suggestion from our side.

      3. You have rightly said that CWC did not make any flood forecasts for Srinagar site on Alaknanda river, during the recent flood disaster in Uttarakhand. Sir, but Hundreds of houses in Srinagar faced one of the severest floods in the history of that town. What is the meaning of Srinagar flood forecasting site if CWC could not forecast any flood for this site? Pleast explain this anomaly for the people of this country, CWC needs to explain this. We had also pointed out in our PR and blog that the warning level in Srinagar is higher than the HFL of Srinagar! So what was the water level in Srinagar on June 17, 2013? We will look forward to CWC response on this issue.

      4. On Neamatighat, Sir, I am glad you have accepted it as a typographical error, but please note that this is very serious nature of error. Not only the number changed, but the forecast also changed, and so did the nature of flood forecast, that is Unprecedented flood forecast. The error also remained there for several hours. Our email to you on this issue on June 12, 2013 remains unanswered till date.

      5. We appreciate that some of the CWC people may be working in difficult circumstances. However, please note that CWC is a public institute running of public resources and is accountable to people of the country. It should welcome any such feedback. We have not made any comment without substantiation and you should also appreciate that.

      6.We are glad you have welcome suggestions for betterment of CWC flood forecasting and we have made a number of such suggestions and raised some questions and we will look forward to CWC responses on these.

      Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP

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