Mapping a more stable futureRunoff channels are often ignored because they are believed to be too small to be of import.
Widespread wildfires gripped the country this year, making it one of the worst in almost a decade. Wildfires aren’t uncommon during winter, but they get worse, like this year, when winter rains fail to arrive. It is noteworthy that this year’s dry winter succeeded a devastatingly wet monsoon last year. What climate scientists were cautiously warning of just a few years ago regarding extreme events as a consequence of global warming seems to have already come true in our case; the South Asian monsoon has been experiencing a dangerous increase in extreme wet and dry spells. A recent study also revealed that the monsoon rainfall will be accompanied by an increased number of extremely wet years and potentially more high rainfall events.
It isn't clear whether a wet monsoon followed by a dry winter leading to potential wildfires is a norm in the making, but if it is so, which remains likely, this new cycle of floods and landslides, dry winter, and wildfires all within a single year must boggle the minds of disaster managers. The development of adaptation strategies for the coming years is urgently required.
National goals of disaster reduction
Nearly half of Nepal’s population living in the mountains is exposed to recurrent hazards like intense rains during monsoons and acute shortage of water during winters—both of which have undermined progress and inflicted unimaginable suffering. This pattern will continue in the years ahead, perhaps in more damaging ways because we haven’t been able to effectively tackle these extremes. Now, we may also add widespread forest fires after dry winters to this growing list.
Furthermore, our aquifers haven’t been adequately filled in almost three decades because of this change in rainfall pattern, which incidentally brings in the same volume of water but within a much shorter period leading to disasters in the monsoon and allowing very little water to be saved for the winter. Our watersheds naturally store water for non-rainy periods, but this is only possible so long as the rains keep steadily feeding these aquifers. However, with an increased number of extremely wet years and potentially more high rainfall events as projected for the years ahead, we will have more floods during the monsoon with less water being stored in aquifers to feed our springs and streams. Our actions in reshaping the land to develop infrastructures will, if not corrected, further obstruct this replenishing process.
Speaking of disasters, Nepal aims to achieve its national goals of reducing disaster mortality or, more specifically, reducing the number of people affected by direct disaster economic loss, for which actions must begin at the local level by developing local disaster risk reduction strategies. Unfortunately, the chasm between the national goals and local actions only seems to widen. The action plans and strategies developed to address disasters, following the global call under the Sendai Framework, contain everything under the sun and are incredibly comprehensive documents from an academic standpoint. Sadly, comprehensive documents don't necessarily help in the implementation of said plans and strategies in rapidly changing institutional and environmental landscapes.
Whether it is reducing water-induced risks in the monsoon or making water available in the springs during the winter or even reducing the rapid spread of wildfires in the summer, the answer clearly lies in the way we manage monsoon rain and keep our springs and streams flowing. Few other measures would come as close to answering our pleas like the one recently conceptualised within the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority—runoff mapping to plan for the required actions in managing monsoon runoff.
Runoff mapping is a very simple concept with profound applications. Drainage channels that convey runoff during the monsoon in the mountains are constantly altered by natural and anthropogenic factors. When altered, the channels divert runoff to points that may not have the capacity to handle its volume. These small events are often ignored because they are believed to be too small to be of import. However, each one of them creates a new point for runoff water to flow from, deepening the channel and posing a greater threat downstream. A closer look at these changes, through mapping, helps to find where the runoff flowed safely during the last shower and ensure that it stayed there.
This ingenious approach helps assess the risk points and open up opportunities for local communities, with the support from their governments, to manage runoff and ensure that runoff flows through stable channels and is diverted to safe places or stored in ponds in the event of heavy rain. This will not only help reduce the risk of debris flow significantly but also maintain or improve storage in the depleting aquifers. One of its key benefits—the restoration of aquifers—would potentially help reduce the rapid spread of wildfires we’re seeing right now.
Institutionally, the approach takes advantage of the federal system and enables local governments, especially in the mountains, to see how reshaping the land in the name of development can result in increased water-induced risks for local communities, and to integrate risk reduction actions in their development plans—an action called for by the Sendai Framework.
The sectoral policies of water, agriculture, and forests have long recognised the importance of managing watersheds to tackle climate change impacts within their respective sectors, but none of these sectoral plans have actually figured out how to go about it. The concept of runoff mapping perhaps provides an edge in realising these sectoral policy commitments too.
A stitch in time helps save nine
While formulating well-meaning concepts and policies is one thing, their successful implementation is another. The biggest problem is the perception among many that lessening disaster impacts requires expensive, physical structures, which simply isn’t true; a strategic stitch in time truly helps save nine. Although, leaping from our existing reality is further complicated by the fact that taking preemptive and less expensive measures for risk reduction require constant vigilance—a taxing endeavour in and of itself—and don't have any physical structures to mark progress.
However, only measures such as this that are informed by our unique combination of geography, sociopolitical issues, and changing global climate, enable us to reach the millions of people across thousands of villages to liberate them from grinding poverty and rescue them and their properties from the increasing menace of water-related disasters, all with limited financial and institutional capabilities. In that sense, the runoff mapping approach holds much promise to reduce water-related disaster risks in the years ahead.