Need for advanced early warning system

On 30 October, a minor glacial lake outburst at Thorthormi Lake caused flash floods totaling 1.98 million cubic metres. A two-foot rise in the water level was noted by the Thanza station on the Phochu River, and fortunately, there was very little breach of the river banks.

The incident was caused by the sudden slide of ice into the glacier, which impacted disintegration of the whole Thorthormi glacier. NCHM has increased the monitoring of the lake, and has recommended officials in Lunana to monitor it three times a week.

The National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) Chief of Cryosphere Services Division, Karma, stated that as ice and snow continue to melt, Bhutan may see an increase in the frequency of GLOF.

Following the dangers of climate change and the increase in temperature globally, authorities in Bhutan are stressing the critical need for advanced early warning systems that could provide more lead time for evacuation efforts, ultimately saving lives and reducing the economic toll of these disasters.

Scientists claim that this summer of 2023 was the hottest on record since global records date back to 1880. In addition, July, September, and October were the hottest months in Bhutan this year compared to the previous normal temperature, according to NCHM.

Karma, of NCHM highlighted the immediate necessity for global support in advancing the country’s EWS. He said, “The frequency of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods is on the rise, directly linked to the ongoing climate change and constant melting of snow in our high-altitude regions. We need an early warning system that can forecast these events with greater accuracy and provide ample time for evacuation. Lives are at stake, and time is of the essence.”

Bhutan currently has a flood detection system in place that makes it possible to identify possible flood hazards and floods quickly. Although it is dependable real-time data that is easily available, but the technology is 11 or 12 years old, and it needs to be improved. One potential limitation of the system is that not every user may be able to view the warnings. It is possible that warnings won’t be effective because flash floods happen  very quickly.

NCHM stressed the cost-effectiveness and lifesaving potential of an advanced early warning system. Investing in an upgraded EWS is an investment in the safety and resilience of our communities. It is crucial that we act now to minimize the loss of life and property during these natural disasters.

Bhutan now wishes to have advanced EWS that can forecast floods, night vision surveillance cameras, and motion sensors to monitor the movement of the glaciers all over the station to ensure the safety of communities.

Recognizing the substantial financial strain associated with the crucial advancements required in early warning systems, Bhutan is now exploring ways to find a potential international community for support. The expenses associated with implementing a more sophisticated early warning infrastructure surpass the financial capacity of the nation.

According to Karma, Bhutan can no longer afford to artificially drain water as it did in the past because of the higher risk of producing an artificial GLOF as a result of the ongoing ice melting and rising water levels.

Experts estimate that Bhutan’s GLOF frequency will likely rise, so strengthening the nation’s defences against these disasters is essential. The appeal for international aid highlights the interdependence of the effects of climate change and calls on developed nations to take the lead in assisting nations like Bhutan that are actively tackling environmental issues. 

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