Usually, the monsoon enters Nepal in the first week of June and exits the country on 23 September. But this year, it decided to stay a little longer, bringing great volumes of water, and causing flood and landslides everywhere. Although the rains have let up a bit in the past few days, heavy downpour had started this year even before the monsoon’s arrival, with some predictable consequences.
Government data suggest, this year has witnessed highest casualties in a decade. According to Home Ministry, between 28 September 2019 and 28 September 2020, altogether 292 people have died in landslides. In the past month (28 August to 28 September), 54 people died. In one week (22 September to 28 September), 16 people perished; dozens are still missing.
Parbat, Palpa, Gulmi, Sindhupalchowk, Myagdi, Lamjung, Jhapa, Dhading, Tanahu, and Gorkha, are traditionally the most landslide-prone districts of Nepal. This is in addition to 14 districts surrounding Kathmandu valley that were badly shaken by the 2015 earthquakes.
Nepal has always been one of the most landslide-prone countries in Asia. “Between 1950 and 2009, the frequency of fatal landslides was highest in China, followed by Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Japan, Pakistan and Nepal,” says a 2011 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. “These seven countries accounted for 87 percent of the 17,830 landslide-related fatalities reported in Asia between 1950 and 2009, and 82 percent of the 267 reported landslides.” Even so, the frequency of landslides in Nepal has been constantly increasing.
Subodh Dhakal, Assistant Professor of Geology at Tribhuwan University, says many factors led to greater frequency of landslides mainly in hilly and mountainous regions. “Nepal is in the middle of the Himalayan region that is still in the making. Our landform is evolving so it is always vulnerable to landslides”. Moreover, adds Dhakal, our current development model does not factor in geological engineering and scientific surveys. Moreover, climate change is also causing more frequent and intense rainfall, triggering landslides in high hills and mountains of Asia.
Haphazard road construction
Road-construction is considered a major development indicator in rural areas of Nepal. Yet local road networks are cut haphazardly into steep hillsides with next to no planning, resulting in landslides, with massive amounts of soil being washed into rivers. Then there are the dozers. Government agencies and contractors make use of dozers to cut roads in hilly areas. This loosens the soil, resulting in dry landslides even in the winter.
In his 2019 article in The Himalayan Timestitled ‘The road to disaster: Dozer use causing landslides’, Dane Carlson, a landscape designer and researcher says: “Dozer roads are known to contribute to or directly cause landslides. Remote communities relying on already precarious access to infrastructure are further isolated and endangered. Dozer road building doesn’t just damage the landscape in the short-term, it makes those who rely on it in the long-term more vulnerable.” He adds that the rush to build new roads is causing severe flooding in the Tarai and significant destruction of forest cover, ecosystems and productive land across the country.
In many districts, big constructions like hydro projects have resulted in slippery land. Environmentalist Prabhu Budathoki says that if the current construction model is given continuity, not only will there be more landslides but the fertile land of hilly region will also be destroyed, seriously affecting agricultural productivity. Experts say the number of landslides in Nepal began to tick up after 1994 when the central government increased development budget for local bodies.
These local bodies in turn started carving roads without any study. Now, with the country adopting a federal structure, even more resources have been transferred to local governments, resulting in even more haphazard construction. Similarly, the federal government is building highways in various parts of the country without considering their environmental impact. Already, highway areas are prone to disasters.
Earthquake and landslides
Experts say the two-dozen districts that were badly shaken by the 2015 earthquake are all vulnerable to landslides. Sindhupalchowk district, one of the worst hit by the 2015 earthquake, has seen the most landslides in the past couple of years. Even after five years, repeated aftershocks are still shaking high hills. Till September 26 this year, about 73 people were killed and 39 went still missing in some of the worst landslide in Sindhupalchowk.
The government had declared Sindhupalchok a disaster-hit district. Similarly, compared to other districts, Sindhupalchowk always sees more rainfall. Environmentalist Budhathoki says the 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks are partly responsible for more landslides in some districts. “The earthquake has shaken the land so badly, even a small rainfall can result in landslides,” says Budathoki. Experts say it will take several years to settle the land loosened by big earthquakes.
Relocation of vulnerable communities
Landslides cannot be fully prevented but there are ways to secure people’s lives against them. One way is identifying and relocating human settlements in hilly and mountainous areas vulnerable to landslides. After the 2015 earthquake, there was much talk of relocating vulnerable communities but there has been little progress. A Nepal Reconstruction Authority team had suggested relocation of vulnerable settlements but to no avail. Its study had identified around 11,000 houses in 26 earthquake-affected districts for relocation.
According to Manohar Ghimire, NRA Deputy Spokesperson, an extra Rs 200,000 will be provided to the families that want to buy new land to relocate. But the NRA only works in quake-affected districts. The government does not have nation-wide data on vulnerable human settlements. Nor is resettlement easy even if was an option for everyone. People are emotionally attached to their ancestral lands; nor can the government guarantee livelihood in the new place.
Effects of climate change
Various reports have shown that climate change is altering rainfall patterns, resulting in extreme rains in certain locations. Global warming has increased the frequency and severity of heavy rainfall. Nepal has also witnessed unexpected rainfall in certain localities. For instance, 11 people were killed when landslides triggered by incessant rains buried houses in Gulmi district this year in the third week of July. Locals said rainfall in the area was unprecedented.
“The pattern of water-induced natural disasters this year is entirely different to previous years. There is less flooding in Tarai area but the number of landslides in hilly districts has significantly increased,” says environmentalist Prabhu Budathoki. He says climate change has changed rainfall patterns, causing heavy rains in certain pockets.
Flawed environment assessment
Another reason behind increased landslides is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of development projects. As per the law, all development projects should undertake EIA but this is mostly seen as a ritual by government agencies. If the EIA shows huge environmental impact of a project, it should be relocated. If trees are to be felled, there should be compensatory plantation. “But we are building roads and undertaking other development works without any engineering, while the EIA reports are neglected,” says Budathoki. “We will ruin our country if we do not pay more attention to sustainable development.”
Rescue and rehabilitation after landslides are also sluggish. When there is a landslide, ministers from both center and provincial levels rush to inspect the site. But when it comes to providing those affected with relief material, there is no urgency. For long there was no independent mechanism dealing with natural disasters. Last year, the federal government set up the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. Yet its manpower and mechanisms are centralized. Provincials and local governments are yet to be adequately equipped to deal with natural disasters.
“On the one hand, our government is not serious on environmental assessment, and on the other, we don’t have expertise to ensure sustainability while launching development projects,” says Budathoki. Experts say landslides could be more frequent as hundreds of national and local development projects are now being undertaken without any homework. The authority is now in the process of identifying vulnerable human settlements.
Dhakal says local governments lack geological engineering expertise while implementing development projects. The constitution has granted to the local governments rights and resources to undertake development projects but there is little oversight. Only a geological engineer, Dhakal adds, can understand and identify vulnerable areas prone to landslides.
Recent history of big slides in Nepal
Jure landslide: The Sindupalchowk landslide on 2 August 2014 killed 156 people and dammed the Sunkoshi River. It also blocked the Araniko Highway.
Taplejung debris flow: The 10 June 2015 event killed 53 people, and badly affected airport, district headquarters, and agricultural lands.
Ramche Landslide: The 14 August 2003 nighttime slide took 23 lives, and blocked highway.
Baglung landslide: The landslide on 2 September 2020 at Lankuribot in Dhorpatan Municipality Ward No. 9, Baglung district, killed 14 people, while dozens went missing.
Lidi landslide: Happened on 14 August 2020 in Lidi, Sindhupalchowk district, killing 37 people with some missing. Around 121 households were displaced.
Melamchi landslide: On 3 August 2020 in Gaurabagar in Ward 11 of Melamchi Municipality, Sindhupalchok district, killing eight and injuring one.
Ghumthang landslide: On 13 September 2020 in Ghumthang in Bahrabise Municipality Ward No 7, Sindhupalchok district. Around 11 people were killed and 20 went missing.
Tamad landslide: On 24 September 2020 in Tamadi in Waling Municipality Ward No 14 in Syangja district. It took nine lives.