Experts urge urgent action to tackle lightning risks

Nitu Ghale

Nitu Ghale

Experts urge urgent action to tackle lightning risks

Experts consider this a significant loss, especially given the size of the country. The data reveals that on average, 100 people lose their lives annually in lightning incidents over the past 11 years

Over the past 11 months, 80 people lost their lives and 202 were injured in 236 lightning incidents, as reported by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. These incidents also affected 253 families and caused the loss of property worth tens of millions of rupees.

Experts consider this a significant loss, especially given the size of the country. The data reveals that on average, 100 people lose their lives annually in lightning incidents over the past 11 years.

Nepal is one of the three high-risk areas in the world for lightning due to its geographical location. Although lightning incidents are natural disasters, the lack of attention to the necessary precautions has increased the number of deaths and injuries, according to Dr Shreeram Sharma, a lightning expert. Sharma, who conducted a study on the risks of lightning and its impacts in 2021, stated that the risks of lightning increase by 10-12 percent for every one degree centigrade rise in temperature. “Lightning is also related to climate change,” he added.

Incidents of lightning typically begin in March. Since Sunday, most parts of Nepal have received rainfall, which has resulted in lightning and thunder. As a result, three people have been injured.

Experts say that a few precautions can save many lives. However, the government has been criticized for not paying attention to this matter. There has not been a serious study or research conducted on this subject yet. In 2017, nine lightning sensor stations were established to issue alerts. However, these stations are currently non-functional.

According to a government study, 1,135 people have lost their lives due to 2,661 lightning incidents since 2011. A total of 152 structures were damaged, while 2,474 livestock were killed. The loss of property due to these incidents has been estimated at Rs 88m. Despite this study, the government has not felt it necessary to introduce special programs to minimize the risks.

Dr. Sharma believes that lightning incidents have been increasing in recent years due to climate change. “A long spell of thunder without rain can cause lightning. But there is a need for further studies and awareness campaigns,” he added.

Lightning is a naturally occurring giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere. According to Dr. Sharma, the electricity in lightning is a thousand times more than the normal household supply. Lightning is more prevalent in southeastern Nepal and usually requires turbulence within the cloud. The turbulence is more pronounced in land/water interfaces.

Along with southeastern Nepal, incidents of lightning are higher in Tripura of India, Bay of Bengal, and Bhutan. The lightning season typically starts from March and continues till August. Lightning is now the second leading cause of death in natural disasters worldwide after earthquakes.

Incidents of lightning occur more frequently in the pre-monsoon and monsoon period and are more common in southern areas of the country. They are less common in hilly areas and virtually non-existent in the mountainous region. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs over a period of nine years, 930 people lost their lives due to lightning incidents during this period. In addition, 2,454 people were injured, with 50.8 percent of them being men.

More incidents in developing countries

Dr. Sharma’s study shows lightning incidents result in numerous fatalities in developing countries. The lack of lightning-proof housing, offices, and vehicles exacerbates the damage caused by these incidents. Additionally, many people lack knowledge on what to do if lightning strikes them. The study emphasizes that due to the lack of effective emergency treatment services and disaster risk reduction programs, developing countries are more vulnerable to lightning incidents.

The pre-monsoon season (April-June) sees numerous lightning occurrences. Studies indicate that over 100 incidents occur within a 15 km radius of the central and southeastern parts of the country each year. In the hilly region, lightning is more common in May, while in southern Tarai, the risk is higher in June. Many incidents occur in these areas during this period.

Sensor stations not working

According to Suman Kumar Regmi, spokesperson for the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the government established ‘Lightning Sensor Stations’ at nine places in 2017. But these stations worked for only one and half years. Few of them are working partially. Regmi explained that without data from all stations, they won’t be able to get a complete picture of lightning incidents. The stations were opened at Tumlingtar, Biratnagar, Simara, Bhairahawa, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Nepalganj, Surkhet, and Dhangadhi.

“We have tried a lot to make all stations functional. We even consulted with the Meteorological Department of Finland on this matter, but it didn’t help,” he said. “The department’s technical team is still trying to see if these stations can be brought back into operation.”

Regmi also explained that the department does not receive additional budget for research and that the budget for the department has actually been reduced. “Additional budget and manpower are needed for the monitoring of the sensor stations. Onsite monitoring requires more budget and workforce,” he said. “There are also frequency issues due to the operation of electronic devices nearby. Trained personnel are needed to deal with these issues.”

ICIMOD’s toolkit

The Weather Assessment Toolkit developed by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and NASA can predict lightning, rainfall, hail, and temperature in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and North India.

“Anyone can visit the ICIMOD website and check the forecast for the next 54 hours. Not only is it easy to use, it can forecast weather down to the municipal level,” he added.

ICIMOD regularly monitors the use of the tool and educates relevant authorities on how to use it. The tool is also being developed into a mobile app. Bangladesh’s Weather Forecasting Department is currently using the tool and broadcasting weather information through it, according to Shrestha.

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