Early warning system to tackle natural disasters | Sunday Observer

Early warning system to tackle natural disasters

Dr. Konstantine P. Georgakakos
Dr. Konstantine P. Georgakakos

With the prevailing weather in the country, and the risk of impending natural disasters, Sri Lanka remains in the eyes of local and international bodies.

Emphasis was given on the need to improve response mechanisms and disaster preparedness, by several international bodies. At the same time, the Government is on a process of taking comprehensive measures to mitigate damage and risk of natural disasters, to enhance the disaster preparedness of the country.

Accordingly, last week, several consultations took place with the Ministry of Disaster Management, Department of Meteorology and National Building Research Organization (NBRO), and the lead designer of the World Meteorological Organization’s Flash Flood Guidance System (FFGS), Dr. Konstantine P. Georgakakos.

These consultations were on different aspects of the FFGS system, including how the system could be implemented with the existing weather forecasting systems in the country. The implementation of FFGS takes place via development of regional systems, which inform local authorities to provide early warnings of flash floods and precipitation-induced landslides. Sri Lanka is a member of the South Asia Regional FFGS.

Dr. Georgakakos joined the Sunday Observer for an exclusive interview on FFGS and his Sri Lankan visit.

Reasons for the visit

Speaking of the FFGS, Dr. Georgakakos said, in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, he has been working with local weather and astrological services in about 60 countries, to help out with flash flood prediction and warning. “We are providing support to empower them to be effective, using all the data that is available,” he said.

Dr. Georgakakos added that they are currently in the process of implementing a regional FFGS system that includes Sri Lanka. “As a matter of policy, we also visit different countries to encourage the agencies to provide information and data to be shared through this system, with forecasters and disaster managers,” he said, explaining the purpose of his one week visit to Sri Lanka, which concluded on Saturday.

He said, they just had the first meeting with the Secretary, Disaster Management Ministry, on Wednesday (18) and that they had had “a very encouraging response”.

The meeting took place at the Ministry of Disaster Management. Speaking of the costs of implementing the system, he said, the implementation is looked at on a regional basis and not on individual countries.

Collaboration

“Each region is different, but for South Asia, it is less than US$ one million dollars,” he says. It is implemented with the cooperation of the US Agency for International Development, World Meteorological Organization and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through which all the necessary satellite date is obtained.

Dr. Georgakakos explained that one of the reasons for his visit is to find out more about the existing system of disaster management in Sri Lanka and what more he could do to improve it.

He said, generally, in other countries, FFGS serves as a catalyst. “For instance, there is weather services, disaster management and warnings. Our contribution is to bring together data from the countries, so that this communication would be much more effective,” he said.

Preparedness

The collaboration also provides extensive training on modern systems and satellite information on areas such as, automated sensors, weather prediction and so on.

According to Dr. Georgakakos, this system will inform aspects that should be changed from the existing disaster management systems for its betterment. Also, there is training, and co- operation, which would provide extensively for the improvement of disaster preparedness. “There is training provided by the United States, where hydrologists, meteorologists and forecasters are provided hands on exercise, with the actual system, once implemented. When they return, they can provide training to the rest,” he suggested.

Features of FFGS

Dr. Georgakakos noted that perhaps, the most important component of this system, for its function, is that it has to bring in data from automated rain gauges and combine it with global data from the satellites. These include, both, geostationary and polar orbiter satellites.

This data is then brought together, to come up with estimates of precipitation that are quantitatively useful for issuing flash flood warnings. The focus is more on short time scales and small spatial scales. In addition, the system has components for forecasters and disaster managers, to provide their experience on local information and local conditions, so that combination of data occurs.

It is a regional system, implemented with a regional centre, complete with high capacity communications and computers.

Forecasters

Then, the individual country forecasters and disaster managers access the information on a secured net. “They can make adjustments and input their knowledge, before they actually issue warnings in their country,” he explained.

Dr. Georgakakos said, they have conducted initial studies in Sri Lanka, and as part of this visit, some of the local data may be incorporated into the system.

“Sri Lanka has all the supporting features required by the system. The most important thing is forecasters, which Sri Lanka already possesses,” he said.

The system covers the whole South Asia region, country by country, from Hindu Kush to Sri Lanka. “The system is diverse and links approximately 495 drainage basins Sri Lanka has been subdivided into. We track each one of them to see whether there is flash flooding,” he added.

Dr. Georgakakos pointed out that a forecaster using the data and experience can obtain good accuracy via this system. “

In a similar environment, it has been observed that a forecaster succeeds about 85 per cent of the time in getting information for flash flood warnings. It is a good number where flash floods are considered,” he said.

Pic: Vipula Amarasinghe 

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