Flood devastation in Melamchi not only because of rainsExperts say the mayhem in the first week of monsoon is quite concerning and with ‘above normal’ rainfall predicted this time, the situation could go worse.
The first spell of monsoon has wreaked havoc like never before. In less than a week after the monsoon arrived in Nepal, massive devastations have been seen across the country. Major rivers and streams have swollen up dangerously, raising fears among communities living nearby. While districts like Palpa, Manang, Pyuthan, Syangja, Lamjung and Bajura have been hit hard, Sindhupalchok is one district affected the most, with hundreds of houses already inundated.
As reports of damage and losses filter in from across the country, many are shocked by the disaster unfolding in the Melamchi area, nearly 60 km from Kathmandu, in Sindhupalchok district.
Floodwaters from the Melamchi river have gushed into the settlements and main market, displacing over 100 families and leaving behind destruction that could run into millions of rupees. Videos and photos posted on social media show muddy water reaching as high as the first floor of houses in the area. People were left stranded on roofs of buildings. Communication networks have been breached following a power outage.
At least one person died and seven others have gone missing in the last two days after the rain-swollen Melamchi river entered settlements in Helambu, Melamchi Bazaar and the surrounding areas.
According to the District Police Office, the raging river swept away eight resorts, two motorable bridges and six suspension bridges from Helambu to Melamchi Bazaar. More than 150 houses were inundated, displacing hundreds of people, officials said.
“A body was recovered from the banks of Indrawati river on Wednesday. Seven other people have been missing,” said Deputy Superintendent Prakash Sapkota. “Most of the missing victims worked in various trout farms on the banks of the Melamchi river.”
Eight trout farms, a bridge in Nakote, farmlands at Timbu, Chanaute Bazaar, Amahyalmo Buspark and City Park have been swept away by floods.
Experts, however, say rainfall is not the only cause for the floods and the subsequent devastations in the Melamchi and nearby areas.
According to meteorologists, the rainfall data in Sindhupalchok district shows that the area has not received the amount of rainfall that could unleash such a level of disaster.
“The rainfall data for Tuesday in Sindhupalchok doesn’t show that it received a significant amount of rain,” Indira Kadel, a senior meteorologist with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, told the Post. “Even last year, when the precipitation was recorded only around 20mm-30mm, there were landslides in the district.”
Kadel said landslides could have blocked the river before suddenly releasing the floodwaters downstream or there could be heavy downpour in a small isolated area.
“The land is already weakened by earthquakes and water seepage from the surface can cause landslides even with a moderate amount of rainfall,” said Kadel. “Landslide-triggered flooding can bring down muddy water and can be more destructive as it brings down a massive flow of water.”
Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed practitioner and climate change expert, said the amount of debris in the Melamchi flood was shocking.
“This cannot happen only because of rainfall or encroachment of the river locally,” Upadhya told the Post. “The question this time is what caused these landslides, although the whole area has been abused for its resources for 20 years.”
Upadhya said the changing rainfall patterns due to climate change or some localised rainfall in a small area could also be the reason.
“It seems temporary dams were created that blocked the flow of the river, and then rains could have triggered sudden floods,” said Upadhya.
Upadhya also finds a different pattern of a disaster in the area.
“What happened in the Melamchi area shows a new kind of disaster unfolding in the country, unlike in the past, especially because floodwaters have come down in intervals,” said Upadhya. “Normally, when landslides block the river flow, water comes down with a heavy force. But in the case of Melamchi, it seems there must have been some temporary dams that blocked rainwater for some time before it got released. The pattern seems to be repeating as the water level has been fluctuating in the Melamchi river.”
Floods and landslides leave a devastating trail every year in the country. Despite that, the country’s disaster preparedness has not been up to the mark. On top of that, the continuous exploitation of natural resources—the hills and mountains and trees—in the name of development has made Nepal more prone to monsoon disasters.
The government’s monsoon action plan, which estimated that over 1.8 million could be impacted by monsoon-related disasters this year, had mentioned that Sindhupalchok could be the second most affected district, after Dolakha, due to landslides. Sindhupalchok was among the districts most affected by the 2015 earthquakes.
Studies suggest the quakes had weakened the hills in the district, making them extremely vulnerable.
“I think landslides were triggered by various factors, for instance, earthquake- shaken hills, Melamchi project construction or other development initiatives like road construction,” said Raju Pandit Chhetri, the executive director of Prakriti Resources Centre, a non-profit working for sustainable development and environmental justice in Nepal. “There could be multiple factors. Road construction too has been haphazard, which is the case across the country.”
Experts agree that Sindhupalchok has been one of the most vulnerable districts when it comes to floods and landslides. But they say there is certainly a different pattern this time, just in the beginning of the monsoon.
“The phenomenon shows we have entered into a very complex dynamics of floods and landslides,” said Upadhya. Visuals coming from Melamchi show at least one storey of houses, which could be nearly 10 feet, is buried in debris. This is a serious case.”
Though rainfall has been reported in Sindhupalchok and other parts of the country, the level of devastation is too high.
On Wednesday, none of the five weather stations in the district had recorded potentially dangerous levels of rainfall in the last 24 hours.
Between 8:45 am on Tuesday and 8:45 am on Wednesday, among the five stations for which rainfall data was available, Shermathang recorded 29.4 mm of rain, Gumthang 7.6mm, Dhap 10.6mm, Chautara 5.3mm and Bahrabise 6mm.
In the same 24-hour period, of the total 228 rainfall measuring stations monitored by the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, 213 recorded rainfall, showing the monsoon has widely spread across the country.
Khanchikot of Arghakhanchi district recorded the highest 201.4mm rainfall in the last 24 hours, followed by 165 stations measuring more than 10mm of rainfall, 111 stations receiving above 25mm, 73 stations measuring more than 50mm, 37 stations marking above 100mm and 11 others measuring above 150mm of rainfall.
Precipitation of 50mm or more but less than 100mm is called “heavy rain” and can cause damage. The five stations of Sindhupalchok did not see heavy rain when 73 stations across the country had crossed the heavy rainfall mark, showing the devastation suffered by Melamchi was not entirely because of rainfall.
Another set of data for accumulated rain for six days—from 8:45am on June 10 to 8:45am on June 15—showed that Dhap received 112.8mm, followed by Gumthang 112mm, Bahrabise 72.9mm, and Chautara station 56.2mm.
According to Kadel, who is also the chief of the Climate Analysis Section of the department, even in Bagmati Province, the rainfall looked more concentrated in Makawanpur and Chitwan than in Sindhupalchok.
“Data show the area did not receive too much rainfall to cause such a level of disaster. There could be a multitude of factors, including the geology of the region,” said Kadel. “The area was already vulnerable due to the earthquakes of 2015. Rampant road construction could be one of the reasons, which could have weakened the soil.”
Chhetri, who is from Chanaute Bazaar, a half an hour bus ride from Melamchi Bazaar, said that it was around 4:30 pm on Tuesday when floodwaters started entering settlements.
“All the elderly people say they had never seen flooding of this scale–that too mixed with the mudflow,” Chhetri told the Post based on his telephonic conversation with the people in the district. “Unfortunately, we do not know the real reason yet.”
The monsoon season is predicted to be harsh this time. There are predictions that the country could witness “above normal” rainfall this season.
With devastations seen in the early week of the monsoon, experts say the worst is yet to come, as the country remains ill-prepared even this time, like in the past.
The government agencies, however, have claimed that they are well-prepared to tackle the monsoon disaster. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority has prepared a monsoon response plan for better dealing with disaster incidents and their aftermaths.
On Monday, while sharing the draft of the monsoon response plan, many government officials said that they had prepared a comprehensive action plan, “learning from last year’s experiences” and relied on data and consultation from concerned stakeholders.
But Upadhya, the expert on climate issues, contests the claims.
“In the name of preparedness against impending disasters, government agencies run in all directions once the disaster strikes. We have improved information sharing and accelerated relief distribution and come up with guidelines for rebuilding houses,” said Upadhya. “These activities are still focused on post-disaster recovery and do not avert disasters. Disasters continue to strike in different parts of the country. We have failed to integrate science in early preparation and development practices.”
The monsoon action plan was also criticised for failing to prioritise anticipatory actions, which can help minimise the effects of potential disasters or avoid disasters altogether.
And, what has happened in Melamchi and elsewhere has shown that early preparedness remains out of the priority for the government agencies.
“It seems we have not been able to impart risk communication to vulnerable communities and it’s not been effective,” said Bed Nidhi Khanal, deputy spokesperson with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. “We could not communicate such risks to local communities which are prone to disasters. Local governments and other actors should have been engaged in such a process. However, there are still no such mechanisms at the local level.”
According to Khanal, not all local units prepare their monsoon action plans, which guide them during such incidents; instead, they panic when disaster strikes.
“We learnt that Melamchi Municipality had prepared its action plan which helped it minimise the loss, which could have been even bigger,” said Khanal. “Some agencies complain that they do not have an adequate budget for disasters whereas there is nearly Rs6 billion for disaster management purposes. However, we need proper guidelines for channelising the available budget for a quick response.”
Khanal also agreed that most of the activities are response-oriented rather than focusing on preparedness to avert disasters.
“There should be a threshold on the budget for disaster management purposes,” said Khanal. “Even the procurement law is not disaster management-friendly. It does not allow buying relief materials and equipment in advance but only after a disaster has taken place. Last year, we could not buy tarpaulins.”
The country is already reeling under the second wave of Covid-19, and the monsoon in the next three months could spell another disaster.
“Monsoon-related disasters should have been the highest priority of the government after the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Updhaya. “But our approach to disasters is still too traditional. One institution should lead the disaster response for the rest of the monsoon.”
Anish Tiwari contributed reporting from Sindhupalchok.