Weather forecasting of large-scale disturbances is a specialised field

India’s technological prowess in a variety of fields somehow does not reflect in the ability to predict weather-related disturbances. Space imaging technologies and satellite-based weather forecasting has been done in India for ages. The weatherman has often been the subject of mirthful drawing room banter across the world for being usually wrong with his cloudy or sunny day predictions. However, weather forecasting of large-scale disturbances is a more specialised field and the cost of getting it wrong can be devastating.

This is what happened following the dust storm and heavy rains that lashed northern India earlier this week, taking a large number of lives and damaging property. However, the story could have been different had this been predicted. Precautionary measures could have been put in place. Disaster management personnel would have been pressed into service. Early warning signals would have gone across northern and north-western states apart from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The loss of human lives reported till Friday evening could have been minimised.

Even private players in the field of weather forecasting evidently failed to predict the dust and thunderstorms coupled with downpour that engulfed Western Uttar Pradesh, Eastern Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Delhi. Over 150 people have so far died, more than 200 have been injured owing to roof collapses and such. The serious damage to standing crops, freshly harvested wheat and grains that were taken to mandis is a worry from the food security point of view. Advance warning could have given the government agencies concerned crucial lead time to prevent loss of cattle and poultry and prepare for power outages and traffic chaos.

Dust storms and gusty winds have been experienced virtually every summer over large parts of India. The weatherman ought to have been able to forecast the intensity and the areas that were likely to be impacted most.

There has been a precedent in successful disaster management. On October 12, 2013, Cyclone Phailin, the strongest cyclone in nearly a decade and a half with windspeeds of over 200 kmph made landfall in Orissa. Fewer than 50 lives were lost on that occasion. Even though high, this figure was lower than what would normally have been the case. However, armed with advance warning, over a million coastal residents were evacuated to safety and emergency measures were put in place. This was not done this week.

Globally, advanced economies like the US and European countries have used technology to predict weather accurately and plan relief and rehabilitation measures. India needs to put in place a larger institutional mechanism to deal with weather-related disturbances. Space scientists, meteorological experts and the scientific community will have to come together to arm the country with the latest methods in advance forecasting. Computing deep dive will only add to the country’s capabilities.