Pakistan News

Footprints: Of floods and forecasts

Footprints: Of floods and forecasts

It seems to be a structure out of the science-fiction movies made in Hollywood some three or four decades ago. Overlooking the old Islamabad graveyard in sector H-8, this solid mass of concrete with a small tower propping up a giant, football-shaped object is the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) headquarters. It is what looks towards the clouds, trying to achieve its mandate of accurate weather forecasting.

Equipped with radars, thermometers, barometers, Richter scale measures, and sunshine, evaporation, rain and wind recorders as well as dozens of computer screens, PMD coordinates with 90 weather-stations across the country and hundreds of others in Asia and around the globe to monitor weather patterns in the region.

The huge football-shaped, white radome with a seven-metre diameter hosts a dish antenna which rotates slowly to catch weather signals from within a 300-kilometre radius. It transmits them to the screens installed in the building below.

In another building, a vast hall is furnished with large and small screens displaying satellite images, weather charts, numerical weather forecasts and real-time weather indicators. Around this hall, meteorologists — both men and women — are glued to their computer screens, noting down the latest indications, communicating them to the relevant sections and uploading information on the official website.

Around a dozen more computer screens are attached to equipment in yet another large room, monitoring the situation at Rawalpindi’s often swollen Lai Nullah to monitor the flood situation there. The place, called the ‘Flood Risk Management in Lai Nullah Basin’ is linked to six rainfall monitoring stations, two water-level monitoring stations and 10 warning posts.

The met office is connected to weather radars across the country in Islamabad, Lahore, Mangla, Dera Ismail Khan, Rahim Yar Khan, Karachi, Charrat and Sialkot. Out of these the one at Sialkot is the oldest — installed in 1978.

Unfortunately, no radar has so far been installed in the northern areas, currently centre stage for this year’s floods and an expected hub of climate changes in the near future.

“No radar was installed in the northern areas because there has never been a threat of floods there in the past,” Dr Ghulam Rasul, the director-general of the PMD, tells me.

“We require a network of at least 20 radars and around 200 weather observatory stations across the country,” he continues. “Plus, we need to upgrade the existing technology and acquire proper satellite backup for more accurate weather forecasting.”

Dr Rasul says the department needs Rs15 billion to upgrade technology. “The system we have right now provides us only general details about the areas of weather changes, while the latest technology gives the exact vertical profile of the changes in where the weather pattern is low and where it goes high,” he explains. “Not having our own satellite is also a major setback in weather forecasting because we are unable to get high-resolution data. We get low-resolution images from the Chinese satellite which are no match to the high-resolution pictures,” he says.

Dr Muhammad Hanif, director of the met office and one of the senior weather experts of the country, says three factors are important for quality weather forecasting: “Data, tools and skills. We have recently upgraded our skills by sending 18 of our officers abroad for doctorate-level qualification in weather sciences,” he says. “But we still need improvements in our tools.”

Most of Pakistan’s weather radars were installed in the 1990s and were hardly ever upgraded. They now require urgent improvements to meet future needs. Moreover, international requirements for a weather monitoring system for accurate forecasting are one weather monitoring station after each 36 kilometres. Pakistan has one at an average of 75 kilometres.

Met office officials say that despite these drawbacks they have always forecasted almost 100pc accurate weather behaviour.

“We predicted the recent heavy rains and chances of floods on July 14, many days before the rivers swelled this year,” says Dr Hanif, adding that the forecasting of floods is not possible before a week. “You can only predict floods after measuring rainfall in the catchment areas and this becomes possible only after the rain,” he explains.

Asked why people get swept away and even drown in the rivers and drains despite the warnings, an official deputed at the Lai Nullah warning system says that the departments concerned and people don’t pay heed. “The warning systems are installed in all the relevant departments such as Federal Flood Commission, the Water and Sanitation Authority and the Tehsil Municipal Administration. If floods are still creating havoc and sweeping people away, it means that either the departments are not working properly or people on the ground are not paying attention to the warnings,” he says.

According to the director-general of the met office all stakeholders should act now to avoid future weather disasters. “The upgradation of weather measuring technology has not been done as rapidly as the climate has changed,” he says. “In view of the present situation of climate change, the government should approve an overhaul of the technology right now.”

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2015

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