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IMD apps need an update; so does India’s storm warning system

SMS alerts based on specific forecasts, indicating when and where the storms would strike, are sent only to users registered with the IMD — a pool of mostly officials and journalists, not the public.

environment Updated: May 17, 2018 21:32 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Since its launch in 2013, the Android-based IMD Weather app has been downloaded less than 5,000 times. (AP FILE PHOTO)

In the wake of the deadly storms pounding several parts of India, those seeking accurate updated weather information are giving India Meteorological Department’s official weather app, IMD Weather, a miss.

Since its launch in 2013, the Android app has been downloaded less than 5,000 times.

Specific forecasts come in the form of nowcasts, which are issued a few hours in advance, indicating when and where the storms would strike. But SMS alerts based on nowcasts are sent only to users registered with the IMD — a pool of mostly officials and journalists, not the public.

Another app developed by the Regional Meteorological Centre in Delhi covering northern and north-western states has been equally unhelpful.

In the age of Digital India, when everyone from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan has a glossy app tracking every twitch, and when unwanted mobile messages flood phones daily, the absence of effective weather warnings sticks out.

Not Local Enough

Ferocious storms killed 120 people and left a trail of destruction across north, south and east India on May 2–3. The worst affected areas were in western UP and east Rajasthan.

The weather agency’s regional department sent out a warning on April 29 and read: “Thunderstorm accompanied with squall and hailstorm likely to occur at isolated places over Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Thunderstorm accompanied with squall likely to occur at isolated places over West Uttar Pradesh. Thunderstorm accompanied with gusty winds very likely to occur at isolated places over Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi and East UP.”

Though relatively accurate, the forecast didn’t capture the intensity and specificity in terms of time and location.

“Local variation is difficult to predict because lots of local factors come into play,” Kamal Kishore, a senior official at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said. “This is true not just of IMD but other meteorological agencies as well.”

Who Will Disseminate?

The IMD Weather app is symptomatic of the state of storm warning system in India, interviews with IMD officials and independent experts reveal, with the focus being on improving forecasting abilities and not so much on dissemination.

IMD officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that their job is generating forecasts and dissemination was the responsibility of the local disaster management authorities.

However, the IMD’s own forecaster’s guide calls dissemination of bulletins and warnings the “most important part of weather forecasting services”.

“Our forecasts should reach the public and user agencies in time and without any distortion. For this purpose, forecasting offices may make use of all the available means including mobile phone, internet services, etc. as the situation demands,” the 2008 guide says.

Info On Website, Goes Via Stakeholders

KJ Ramesh, director general of IMD, said they were working on content generation first. “The app will come later. It will take only 10–15 days to push through the app.”

For now, the website is the only reliable source of information for the public, but requires some expertise and a few hours to navigate and decipher.

“For the public, our warning system relies on stakeholders; they are the responders — disaster management authorities, district collectors, etc. So it has to flow through that channel,” Ramesh said.

Around 12:30 pm on May 2, an email was sent out to senior officials including the minister for earth sciences, and science and technology, Harsh Vardhan.

Actionable Forecasts For Public

Ramesh said it was inefficient for IMD to push out warnings over several channels. “We send out emails and SMSes,” he said.

But the SMS service to public is still at an early stage whereas in 2012 itself, the China Meteorological Administration had tied up with two major telecom operators to send out SMS alerts.

The IMD is currently in discussions with BSNL to use their services to disseminate weather warnings. “It will be on an experimental basis,” M Rajeevan, secretary, ministry of earth sciences, said. “If it proves successful, we will approach private operators.”

“The meteorological forecasts have to be converted into action forecasts. For example, if you know the wind speeds, you should be able to say that trees will be uprooted,” Kishore said. “Unfortunately this is not happening in India.”

“Multiple channels of dissemination should become centralised,” Ramesh said. “We are thinking of a cloud-based live platform that everyone can pull information from.”

The know-how to do this is available in many developed countries, including China, according to Ramesh. But generating centralised weather-related data that can be automatically converted to live infographics on a cloud platform and generates SMS alerts, will require heavy investment and a technological upgrade, and seems a far cry from India’s current warning system.

“We will try and develop a cloud-based platform at the earliest,” Rajeevan said, adding, however, that there was no set time frame for this.

First Published: May 17, 2018 16:41 IST