Lightning is particularly destructive in an agriculture-dependent country. Thunderbolts deposit a significant amount of nitrate in the soil every time they strike, and an excess of nitrate is detrimental to crops. The fatality rate from lightning strikes for livestock is higher than that for humans. Cattle are five times more likely than people to get killed in an electric storm.
In industrialised countries, there are only 0.3 deaths per 1 million population caused by lightning. The fatality rate is much higher in the developing world, with up to 6 deaths per million. Lack of knowledge about lightning and insufficient safeguards in buildings are the main reasons.
In Nepal the latter factors compound the topographical and meteorological reasons for fatal strikes. Added up, Nepal’s vulnerability is further increased by the rise in frequency and intensity of storms caused by global warming.
“We have to get used to more potent lightning and its increased frequency. We need better protection, preparedness and public awareness,” said climate scientist Ngamindra Dahal, who says lightning risk should be prominently incorporated into school curricula.
Public buildings such as schools, hospitals and government offices should be equipped with lightning rods. Telecommunication and transmission towers are at high risk because they are located on mountain tops, and need special safety measures integrated into their design. As more people use mobile phones, they must remember that it could be dangerous to use electronic devices during thunderstorms.
Experts lament that despite the high fatality rate, lightning does not command the same priority as earthquakes and other disasters. They want the government to focus on policies that require the public to take lightning into consideration before building new structures.
The best strategy moving ahead should be to invest in forecasting equipment and better preparedness. The good news is that the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has set up nine lightning detection stations across Nepal (Dhangadi, Surkhet, Nepalganj, Pokhara, Bhairawa, Kathmandu, Simara, Tumlingtar and Biratnagar) to study thunderstorm activity and provide more accurate forecasts.
“Data generated at these stations can indicate long-term lightning trends, their frequency and concentration, which in turn can help with better ‘now-casting’ of electric storms so people can seek safety,” said senior meteorologist Archana Shrestha at the Deaprtment of Hydrology and Meteorology.
Nepal is hosting the annual South Asian Seasonal Forecasting Summit this month, at which international climate scientists will work to provide a collective monsoon forecast for South Asia so that governments in the region can plan for better agricultural productivity and be prepared for extreme weather events.
Said Shri Ram Sharma: “With Nepal’s diverse climate and weather systems, we are the best lab in the world for scientists. Nowhere else will you find terrain rising from 70m to nearly 9,000m in the span of 150km. This is what makes Nepal more vulnerable to extreme weather, and why we need more research for better disaster preparedness.”