Weather Caprices

How Effective is our State of Preparedness?

It’s the same old tune during every cyclone or torrential rain period, the same grumbling about dwellings and premises inundated, cars wrecked, roads damaged, trees uprooted, power lines damaged by falling trees, rivers over flooded, drains and canals clogged, water everywhere causing gross inconvenience.

The confluence of natural forces and human failings cannot have less disastrous effects than what we often witness at every cyclone and flood event.

Everybody then gets into the fire-fighting mode, including the authorities, which have the ultimate responsibility for the safety and security of the people and assets. Once the mess is cleared after the event, we forget everything until another episode when we start questioning, complaining and blaming again.

Weather doesn’t behave the same way anymore. Climate change and rising sea-levels have reconfigured the characteristics of weather hazards and threats. The frequency and severity of extreme weather events is on the increase and pose new challenges to society and government.

We can’t change the fact that cyclone and flood or any other adverse weather events occur, but we can change our way of interpreting and responding to these events. We can take actions based on past experiences to build and maintain resilience. “Resilience is not about accepting the caprices of Mother Nature. Rather, it is about managing our natural environment in a responsible manner, in the quest for a better future, for the sake of all of us”, Haiti President Joseph Michel Martelly.

Various parts of the country have been adversely affected by recurring flood events, Gokhoola and L’Amitié being the latest on record in Mauritius. Rodrigues hasn’t been spared either. Assertions like “We hadn’t experienced such intense cyclones before. We hadn’t experienced such floods or flash floods before” are very common when Mother Nature hits. Unusual meteorological phenomena are becoming the order of the day in a new climatological era.

Tidal waves and tsunami are other threats we hadn’t heard of in the past. Can we underestimate the impact of phenomenal waves like the ones that hit Mauritius in May 2007? Among six people missing, four deaths were recorded. One body was found partly eaten by sharks.

Who doesn’t remember the flash flood event of 26 March 2008? How can we forget the fact that it took the lives of four people including a child of 13 at Mon Gout, who was returning home after early school dismissal due to torrential rain warning. No sooner had she alighted from the bus than she attempted to cross an over flooded bridge in an endeavour to reach her residence. But the water gushing outrageously from the river and flowing violently over the bridge swept her away from the roadway. How could she gauge the strength of such sudden surge?

And who doesn’t recall the deluge of 30 March 2013. 11 people lost their lives, including a couple of them trapped in the underpass at Caudan, a remarkable number of vehicles wrecked on the highway with water rushing impressively up to waste level. The scenario was one of an unprecedented nature.

This year it has been raining since January, with thunder and in torrents at times. And it doesn’t seem to be over yet as we head towards the end of the season. Figures from the meteorological services indicate above normal rainfall during the last three and a half months. January has been the wettest month over the last 38 years for Mauritius with above 290% above normal. It’s been also the wettest for Rodrigues since 1955 with above 280% above the long term mean.

Flood is not a new event here. The first severe flood occurred in 1959 and another flood event was noted in 1979 when a 15-day non-stop rainfall caused severe flooding throughout the country after a storm named Hiacynthe stayed in the region longer than expected.

While voices from all quarters tend to blame nature, very few are bold enough to face the reality to get to the real human causes and possible solutions. Yes, nature is the first culprit. But dwelling too much on nature’s caprices and not addressing the real issues is an act of utter complacency. It is much easier to brainwash people with fashionable terms like “climate change”, “global warming” and “sea level rise” than it is to talk about the potential professional and institutional failures that contribute to the aggravation of the problems. It is far more comfortable for some to place the blame on their predecessors than to rise up meaningfully to an effective preparedness strategy.

Is it possible to assess the conditions of flooding? The Heavy Rainfall/Torrential Rain/Flooding Emergency Scheme which forms an integral part of the Disaster Management Scheme provides some clues: “It is necessarily subject to the nature of the preceding rainfall, the state of the rivers, the ground water level, the permeability of the soil, the evacuation rate of accumulating water, the prevailing weather conditions in the vicinity of Mauritius, or any other such relevant factor.”

It is obvious. During any adverse weather condition every focus is on the meteorological services. People tend to question the reliability and timeliness of its forecasts. Can floods like those that occurred in 2008 and 2013 be predicted with minimum margin of error? Here’s what an ex-head of the services once stated: “If we can calculate the percentage of humidity in the atmosphere, it’s impossible to know the amount of rainfall that the clouds will release at a given time.” He was all the more blunt: “I challenge any meteorological station in the world to be able to predict such torrential rain.” Just to imagine how complex the forecast system seems to be and how cumbersome it is to predict the exact scenario despite all technology at hand.

Protocols under the National Disaster Management Scheme

But specific protocols have always existed to deal with familiar events like cyclone, torrential rain and flooding. Emerging challenges have warranted the incorporation of landslide, high waves; and even earthquakes and tsunami, although rare.

Protocols which were previously enshrined in the Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme have been updated since 2015 and consolidated under the National Disaster Scheme. Responsibilities of various authorities and institutions are clearly spelt out as to what they need to do before the approach of the cyclone and torrential rain season, during the adverse weather episodes and in their aftermath.

This article doesn’t intend to probe deep into the responsibilities of each and every institution or organization in all the possible scenarios. It will be limited to some in relation to cyclones and flooding events.

Bodies, like the Meteorological Services, the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, the Local Authorities, the Road Development Authority, the Ministry of Education, the Police, and the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) are among those that have a prominent role in the given events. A glance at the involvement of these major players will suffice to comprehend the nature of the issues which, if not properly addressed, can perpetuate unnecessary chaos.

According to the scheme a number of actions need to be taken well before the cyclone and torrential rain season.

The Mauritius Meteorological Services “is the warning/alerting agency for the Republic of Mauritius in the case of a cyclone”. This service has a duty to provide appropriate timely warnings and adequate information on the forecast intensity, severity and duration of any meteorological phenomenon. It shall also issue warnings when it is likely to have heavy rainfall, torrential rain and flooding conditions.

For the purpose of the scheme, “Torrential rain conditions are said to exist when the prevailing weather in Mauritius or Rodrigues produces 100 millimetres of widespread rains in less than 12 hours and that this heavy rain is likely to continue for several hours. Torrential rain may cause flash floods, urban floods or water accumulations in flood prone areas. It may also cause overflow of rivulets and streams or even major rivers leading to riverine flooding which may occur downstream where it may not be necessarily raining heavily.

Municipal/District Councils are required to “take all preparedness actions prior to the cyclonic season. These should include carrying out of surveys to identify vulnerable areas/communities and inadequate drainage system and take remedial actions. Ensure cleaning and maintenance of drains, and canals. Enforce measures against illegal dumping in rivers, canals and drains”.

The heavy rainfall/torrential rain/flooding emergency scheme provides the following: “Pending the setting up of a National Land Drainage Agency to take over responsibility for the construction, cleaning and maintenance of the drainage systems across the country, the Local Authorities (Municipal and District Councils) under the overall supervision of the Ministry of Local Government will continue to be responsible for the construction and maintenance of drains on non-classified roads whereas the Road Development Authority shall be responsible for drains along classified roads. These bodies should ensure that drains are constructed to the desired standard as far as possible.

The Local Authorities have also the responsibility to “carry out audit and mapping of flood prone areas, inadequate drainage system and vulnerable groups prior the issue of building and land use permit and share the information with the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Centre (NDRRMC), and if required to the Police, the Fire Services  and the meteorological services”.

The Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Land Transport is required to “oversee the maintenance of drainage systems”.

The Central Electricity Board has the responsibility for “lopping of branches protruding on overhead electrical network”.

The NDRRMC which oversees the functioning of these protocols has the responsibility to “coordinate and monitor all preparedness actions and monitor with concerned authorities the implementation of appropriate risk reduction structural and non-structural measures”, among others.

The schemes also provide for sensitization campaigns prior to the cyclone and heavy rain season.

Are the schemes adequate?

The cyclone emergency scheme has worked fairly well in Mauritius. With four stages of warning from Class I to Class IV the population is adequately informed of the imminent dangers of cyclones. But the torrential rain warning is not phased. Although the population is advised on the possibility of heavy rain, a warning of torrential rain is issued only when the amount of rainfall has reached 100 mm and is likely to persist for several hours.

Emergency schemes and early warning systems vary from country to country. It all depends on the nature of the hazards. But the principle of these systems is the same. All are concerned with providing explicit and timely advice to the population so that they are prepared beforehand to face the events with minimal inconveniences towards their own protection and that of their property.

In some countries there’s a three-stage warning system for weather hazards including thunderstorms, floods, storms and tornadoes. A “watch” is issued when the weather services expect people to watch out for weather problems and when things might turn bad. An “advisory” is issued when minor street flooding starts to occur, meaning problems have started. While they’ll issue a “warning” when storms are actually causing considerable problems like flash flooding and things have become dangerous.

Can these systems be adopted or adapted in the local context? It’s up to the authorities to ponder upon them. Do we need to revisit our strategy in the face of recurring flood events? Opinions differ with regard to the criteria of 100 mm of rainfall qualifying a torrential rain episode. When this has happened it’s already too late; it’s time for rescue and evacuation rather than to start taking precautionary measures.

Although the scheme provides a disclaimer to the effect that “no liability, civil or criminal shall be attached to any person and/or organizations in the execution of their roles, responsibilities and actions associated with the scheme”, a number of questions legitimately arise. People have the right to know what practical mitigation actions have been initiated prior to the advent of the weather hazards.

Are we really prepared? Are the people adequately warned of the implications, precautions and actions in the wake of such events? Are the authorities standing up to the level of their responsibilities as outlined in the schemes? What concrete actions have been taken by the Local Authorities and related institutions to ensure prone areas and vulnerable communities have been surveyed for remedial measures, if any, (and indeed remedied where warranted) well before the season?  Has there been any action towards construction and maintenance of drains? Has the NDRRMC been advised accordingly? How effective is the monitoring system? Is our preparedness strategy yielding the desired outcome?

On paper, maybe we have all the soothing ingredients: a nice document with well-drafted schemes for every possible scenario. In practice, well, there’s every reason to be apprehensive. If the effectiveness of crisis management deserves some praise, there’s a bit of skepticism with regard to crisis prevention. The action or inaction before the events has a definite bearing on the extent of ensuing distress. This is where the shoe pinches.

Climate change is a good excuse. True. But we need also to see to it that structures meet the environmental requirements. We need also to see to it that the authorities take their responsibility, like survey of prone areas, state of rivers, canals, drains and remedy where necessary, and we need also to see to it that people live up to their responsibility as citizens and do not do anything to further burden the already overloaded environmental and natural structures.

More often than not it is at the peak of the tragedy that spontaneous actions are undertaken to carry out unclogging of rivers, canals and under bridges or clearing of debris and pumping out of water from inundated areas. All to the praise of those risking their lives in an effort to provide some sort of conjunctural security. The inexistence of drains at many places, or the state of clogged ones along the roads hindering access in many areas, or those canals or drains simply rendered ineffective or inexistent by property development contribute largely in exacerbating the dramatic outcomes.

Water level will inevitably rise depending on soil permeability and other factors, but also, and to a great extent, if there’s no way out. Those living in rural areas may recall that canals constructed in the past by “tabisman”, that carried away excess water during heavy rainfall, have been suppressed with partitioning of estate land.

But then there’s what we call accountability. Are we responsible citizens? All too often people ignore warnings and act irresponsibly when venturing in visibly risky weather conditions. And there are those for whom the sense of civic responsibility is a big deal. Just figure out the bus discharging its passengers in an over flooded area. Was there anyone to stop the child from crossing the bridge?

It costs nothing for any Tom, Dick and Harry to criticize; but it does cost some bucks in terms of man, money and materials when the rescue team has to set foot in gullies to save those who’ve been stuck out of their own imprudence by simply ignoring the safety instructions in disaster conditions. People tend to react in a blind fury at losses and inconveniences sustained by them or their dear ones. This is comprehensible. Can you figure out what people do around river banks or on the sea shore at a moment when the weather is at its worst? This is where all our sensitization and enforcement efforts go down the drain.

Attitude? We often tend to rest on our laurels until we are shaken by an unexpected calamitous event with fatal outcomes.  The nightmare will be even more dreadful if we choose to remain dozy.

So, the problems associated with flooding have more to do with artificial rather than natural caprices. The protocols are clear. They just need to be strictly adhered to, and well before the dreaded season.

Note: This article was written for This Week News Mauritius on April 28, 2018


Amanoola Khayrattee has served the Mauritius Meteorological Services for more than 35 years.

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