Once bitten, twice shy: Kerala enlists private players for weather forecast

The report on the 2018 Kerala floods submitted to the High Court observes that the government should not have solely relied on the predictions made by the IMD, since it turned out to be faulty

Updated 6:07 PM, 10 June, 2020
The IMD seems to have lost its credibility and was blamed for its inability to foresee the torrential rainfall of 2018 that caused massive floods in Kerala. File photo: PTI

When the weather forecast goes wrong, the public wrath falls mostly on the government and not on the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

Learning bitter lessons from the past and expecting a rain fury this year too, the Government of Kerala has decided not to take risks this time and has opted to enlist the services of private players.

An order issued on May 14 states that ‘permission is granted to source appropriate weather prediction and monitoring tools from private weather agencies — namely Skymet, IBM Weather Company, Earth Networks, and Windy — on a nomination basis as a pilot for one year.’ The order states coherent arguments too on what prompted the state to do so.

The IMD could not apparently meet the expectations of people and match its past performance. Many of the IMD’s Automated Weather Stations (AWS) are not functional.

The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) had conducted a detailed survey across the state and identified 73 sites for deploying new AWS.

The IMD has only fifteen AWS in Kerala, of which only five are providing live data. The order says, “IMD has promised that fifteen will be ready before this monsoon.

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“Unfortunately, as on date, no new stations have been set up and the near realtime data streaming is minimal to nil. With such an unreliable network of near realtime weather measurements, the state will not be able to localize alerts.”

On the other hand, Skymet Weather Private Ltd already has 94 automated weather stations in Kerala.

“We have nothing against IMD,” said V. Venu, Principal Secretary of the Disaster Management Department, in what is seen as an attempt to tone down the overtly unpleasant expression against IMD in the order.

“The final word is certainly that of the IMD. By accessing the service of the private players, we are only trying to bring value addition and a comprehensive approach by giving more focus to localised forecast,” says Dr. Venu.

It is a fact that the IMD does not provide localised weather forecast, which often results in wrong categorization of yellow, orange, and red alerts. “IMD is still not issuing alerts even at a taluk scale. In effect, none of the major requirements requested by the state is addressed. This critically impedes the disaster management ability of the state,” says Shekhar Kuriakose, member secretary of KSDMA.

Related news | Monsoon to hit Kerala on June 5, likely to be delayed by four days: IMD

According to the KSDMA, this is not a problem specific to Kerala. Nine states including Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Karnataka are availing the services of private players in weather forecast since the IMD’s services are found to be inadequate.

“None of our demands has been met,” says Shekhar Kuriakkose. “As per BIS standards, Kerala requires 256 automated weather stations. We had given a representation to the Centre in 2018 October with regard to the various requirements in weather forecast. This includes the need to establish 100 automated weather stations for which we identified locations. We expressed willingness to provide land for establishing 256 stations.

“Additional Doppler Radars need to be deployed considering the complex terrain of Kerala. We had also said at least one meteorologist should be posted in every district. IMD could meet none of these demands,” says Shekhar Kuriakose.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in his daily briefing on May 14, told the media that heavy rainfall is expected this year too. The government has started the process of identifying buildings for evacuation in case of a flood, like in 2018 and 2019.

Related news | IMD forecasts normal southwest monsoon, revises onset date

Local Self Governments have also begun the process of cleaning water bodies, anticipating a flood situation. According to the weather forecast by IMD, the monsoon will begin on June 5, which does not match with the predictions made by private agencies, that expect an early arrival of monsoon, beginning May 28.

Interestingly, the Chief Minister warned of a heavy monsoon despite the IMD predicting normal rainfall this year. T.V. Sajeev, Senior Principal Scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), feels that institutions like the IMD have consistently proved how ‘unreliable they are.’

“One factor is lethargy,” says Dr. Sajeev. He also claimed that the institutional mechanisms run by governments, like that of the IMD, always lag behind and are unable to rise up to new challenges. “They predict normal rainfall simply because they do not want to spread fear among many other related departments,” says Dr. Sajeev.

The IMD has seemingly had a consistent history of making mistakes in forecasts that cause heavy damage, ever since cyclone Okhi in 2017. The IMD was blamed also for their inability to foresee the torrential rainfall of 2018 that caused massive floods in Kerala. They predicted a rainfall of 95 per cent of the long period average (LPA) in the southern peninsula with an error of plus or minus 5.

Related news | 2,155 lives lost in monsoon rains, floods this year

However, in contrast to the IMD’s prediction, the actual rainfall received by Kerala was 141 per cent.

The report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on cyclone Okhi tabled in the Lok Sabha on April 4, 2018, refers to the failure of the IMD in giving prior warning of the cyclone. The report also suggests that the IMD should develop better mechanisms and adopt successful models prevailing in other countries.

The report on the 2018 floods in Kerala compiled by the State Disaster Management Authority points towards the discrepancies in IMD’s prediction throughout the year. The report submitted by the State amicus curiae to the High Court observes that the government should not have solely relied on the predictions made by the IMD.

The amicus curiae’s report held the government responsible for its alleged strategic failure in dam management, which reportedly caused the flood. The opposition stirred up a storm out of it, putting the government in the dock.

The amicus curiae’s report also states that “the dam managers ought not to have solely relied on IMD predictions for dam management and variations in the IMD forecast cannot be counted as a justification for delayed release of water from the dams.”

Following this, the state government appears to not have relied solely on the IMD this time. The ruling LDF in Kerala may have realized that the political climate in the election year of 2021 would not be favourable to them if they go wrong once more.

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