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Floods in Nepal: A recurring nightmare

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

Floods in Nepal: A recurring nightmare

Nepal, due to its geography, is a disaster-prone country. Add to that rampant deforestation, river-bank encroachment and climate change, which have collectively led to recurrent floods and landslides over the years | Dipen Shrestha

During monsoon, intense incessant rain wipes out entire villages and settlements in different parts of Nepal. Hundreds go missing and many lose their lives. Local authorities and various organizations spring into action, rescuing people and offering food supplies and medicines. For months, floods and landslides are everyone’s concern. The rain stops. The issue wanes. The vicious cycle repeats itself year after year.

This year, as per reports, at least 18 people, including four women and three children, have been killed due to landslides and floods triggered by heavy rain across the country as of this writing. Another 21 have gone missing. The Tatopani border point in Sindhupalchowk has been closed after floods from the Bhotekoshi river damaged roads leading to it. A dam in Kachanpur has been washed away by a flooded Mahakali river. And it’s only just the beginning of monsoon.

Nepal, due to its geography, is a disaster-prone country. Add to that rampant deforestation, river-bank encroachment and climate change, which have collectively led to recurrent floods and landslides over the years. The repercussions are made worse by a negligent system that has never prioritized water-induced disaster prevention. Experts believe drastic steps should be taken immediately.

Prof. Bishal Nath Upreti, geologist and president, Nepal Center for Disaster Management, believes the government needs to take some concrete steps to lessen the threat of regular floods and landslides. Unfortunately, he says, it has been all talk and no action on disaster preparedness.

The first and foremost way to tackle water-induced disasters, he explains, is through accurate weather forecasting. Weather radar is vital to monitor the atmosphere and provide weather forecasts and issue warnings to the public. Nepal has one radar station when it needs at least three or four such stations throughout the country. Upreti says repeated pleas to add more stations have always fallen on deaf ears. The reason is always the same: budget constraints.

“Our government buys fancy cars every five years or so but doesn’t have money to spend on something that could potentially save thousands of lives. This sad reality is proof of an apathetic system,” says Upreti. 

Not all’s lost

To give credit where it’s due, Upreti adds the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) under the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation, is currently doing a much better job than it has since its establishment in 1962. But they are still hamstrung by lack of equipment and investment.

Hydrologist at the department, Bikram Shrestha Zoowa, agrees but says though there have been many improvements over the years much still remains to be done. Zoowa adds there is a need for more investment as well as capacity building to ensure water-induced disasters don’t leave a carnage in their wake.

According to Zoowa, those who work on the field are sensitive to the issue of floods and landslides and see the need to give it utmost priority. But at the decision-making level, there simply isn’t that awareness or a sense of urgency. In this case, he adds, local government authorities could look into the matter. The department could help with the required manpower and capacity building but the plan of action would be better off initiated and implemented at local level.

Nepal floodThe Melamchi Bazar in Sindhupalchowk is submerged after heavy rainfall and flooding in mid-June, just after the start of the monsoon season in the country | Dipen Shrestha

Upreti holds similar views. Every community, he says, should have many weather stations to measure temperature, wind, and rainfall and develop local early warning systems. So far Nepal has been measuring overall rainfall but there is also the need to identify flood/landslide prone areas and focus on collecting specific data for accurate prediction. With proper rainfall measurements in catchment areas and constant monitoring of river flow, settlements downstream will have ample time to move to higher grounds. It’s the failure to do so that has been taking away people’s lives and livelihoods.

Weather forecast, he says, could be compared to a blood test. Just as a blood test tells you much about the state of your body, weather forecast is the vital information that indicates and predicts a country’s condition. But Nepal hasn’t paid much attention to it, which is evident by the number and scale of disasters that happen every monsoon. Weather and hence natural calamities could be predicted very accurately if long-term data were to be available.

Time for action

According to Samir Shrestha, meteorologist at Meteorological Forecasting Division under the DHM, there are chances of heavy rainfall in upcoming weeks, though their frequency and intensity could decrease. However, there is still a high risk of floods and landslides because river levels will continue to rise and the soil is already saturated, meaning it can’t hold more water. Based on predictions, the division will continue to issue alerts 24 to 48 hours prior to the possibility of a natural calamity but, Shrestha says, warnings are futile when proper measures aren’t in place.

“There is a need for policy-level changes because every monsoon brings floods and landslides and, with them, destruction of property and loss of lives,” he says.

Upreti adds that climate change will only exacerbate the problem in the future. There will be more rainfall, it will inevitably be more intense and that will result in more floods and landslides. Not to forget, the massive earthquakes of 2015 have left fissures in and thus weakened many hills.

Cloudbursts that are quite common along the Himalaya, especially the Mahabharat range, also worry Upreti. In such cases, there is an excessive amount of precipitation in a short period of time that is capable of causing floods and landslides even if rivers are flowing their natural course and there is enough drainage. Cloudbursts are apparently quite frequent these days mainly due to climate change.

“The last cloudburst that caused massive destruction took place in 1993. But cloudbursts aren’t rare and if they happen when the ground is already saturated like it is now, then there will be massive damage,” says Upreti.

Another problem lies in the way Nepal has always approached disasters. We wait till something happens and then shift all the focus on rescue and relief. Post disaster trauma and loss could be significantly minimized if disaster prevention and mitigation took precedence over post-disaster management. But that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Dilip Kumar Suwal, an official at Bhaktapur Municipality, says we have to learn from past mistakes and do whatever it takes to prevent disasters. The condition in Nepal is already precarious without human behavior and developmental programs worsening things for us.

The 2018 Hanumate flood was a result of drainage channels being blocked by boundary walls and river bank encroachment that obstructed water flow during the monsoon. Similarly, there’s haphazard road construction and sand extraction in the Chure that weaken hilly areas and make them landslide-prone. In Kathmandu valley, there is also the risk of urban flooding due to improper drainage systems and sewage channels opening into rivers.

“Natural reasons for flooding like rainfall can’t be helped but communities can ensure reckless human behavior doesn't aggravate the problem,” says Suwal. After the flooding of Hanumante River three years ago, the local authorities have been trying their best to ensure there is no narrowing of the waterway. They are also building proper embankments and removing debris and mud from the bottom of the river.

Upreti appreciates local level works but laments that such piecemeal measures won’t make much difference when the entire system is faulty. The communities’ efforts need to be supplemented with additional manpower and infrastructure at the national level. And the time to start working on it isn’t when the next monsoon rolls around. It’s now.