After the Melamchi disasterPlanners need to realise and accept that the era of megaprojects in Nepal is over.
The floods and debris flow in Melamchi on July 31, the second such event in just six weeks—after the devastating debris flow in June that killed five and buried parts of the town and surrounding farms—swept away the remaining bridges and several houses and huts. The flood survivors who had started to salvage what they could to rebuild their lives after the June event were once again let down as the second flood nipped what little hope and confidence they had mustered to re-establish themselves. For many in Melamchi, these have been unimaginable circumstances. The loss in monetary terms is assumed to be in the tens of billions of rupees.
The state only seems to feel the heat when disaster events affect the people in the capital. The Melamchi Drinking Water Project, built over two decades to bring water to Kathmandu with a price tag of over Rs35 billion, was near completion when the event occurred, damaging some of its structures. A large part of the Melamchi watershed has been severely damaged by landslides and erosion, likely affecting the local hydrology and subsequently impacting the dry season flow. Additionally, a massive amount of debris, difficult to stabilise on steep slopes, is still hanging in the catchment and will continue to flow down for several years to come. In a nutshell, the fate of the Melamchi Drinking Water Project hangs in limbo.
Relief and rehabilitation of the victims and reconstruction of the damaged bridges and roads are of paramount importance at this stage, and need to be addressed immediately. An investigation into the cause of the floods and debris flow will allow the necessary measures to be taken to reduce such risks in the future. However, the Melamchi story, unlike others, does not end here. It has raised some serious questions, the answers to which will steer the direction of our development discourse.
The fate of megaprojects
In a country where more than 80 percent of the land falls under mountains, Melamchi demonstrated the degree to which we are vulnerable to natural events, including earthquakes and the rapidly changing nature of weather patterns. This vulnerability surfaced when the country is aggressively pursuing mega hydropower projects, networks of highways, trans-basin water transfer projects and so on. What will be the fate of these big projects under rising uncertainties, given what we've witnessed in Melamchi? The warning signs have been there for a while.
The Kulekhani hydropower project, the only reservoir-type power project in Nepal built in the early 1980s, lost half of its expected life when the flood and landslides of 1993 dumped 50 times more debris than estimated in its reservoir, just 11 years after the project was commissioned. Kulekhani recorded 540 mm of rain in 24 hours, the highest on record in Nepal, which caused the debris flow. However, the events in Melamchi remain a puzzle in the absence of such credible evidence. According to preliminary investigations, multiple factors from landslide and river damming to riverbank erosion and glacial deposit erosion have been suggested as the reason behind the Melamchi disaster. The possibility of heavy rain in the upper catchment has not been ruled out, though there is no evidence to support this. As per locals, there was no heavy rain during these events.
We have witnessed unconventional disasters consecutively in the last five years. The Tarai flood of 2017, droughts in the monsoons of 2018 and 2019, the series of landslides of 2020 followed by widespread forest fires, and the floods we just witnessed in Melamchi. Are they isolated "freak" incidents or the beginning of a new cycle of disasters likely to be the result of climate change? If yes, are we anywhere near capable of handling such events which are only likely to intensify in the future? Sooner or later, we hope to reduce our trade deficit, attract our labour force back home, and be self-reliant in food production. Unfortunately, these hopes and the days ahead seem to be shrouded in uncertainty because of these emerging changes in the global weather.
Warming oceans and polar regions have already affected global weather patterns. The Indian Ocean, which is responsible for the monsoon in our region, is warming at a faster rate than the Atlantic or Pacific. The western parts are warming more, affecting the intensity and frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea. This year the monsoon remained weak, yet it wreaked havoc in some pockets. Consequently, rainfall and damage have been more concentrated in the smaller river basins.
One of the questions that Melamchi raises is: Are there big changes taking place in the overall environment of our mountains? The deadly winter floods in the last decade, Seti (2012) and Uttarakhand (2021), revealed that conditions at higher altitudes are changing fast. Drying springs at higher altitudes and increased landslides have already been noted. Discharge in many springs in the mid-mountains has reduced or stopped altogether. There is no evidence to explain why water is disappearing in the upper mountains and what implications it will have, if any, for the stability of mountains.
In the context of a devolving environment, it is time for introspections on several fronts. The area in Melamchi where the trouble began has dense forest cover with no roads or settlements. This forces us to re-examine the conventional understanding of the causes of floods and landslides, which centred on haphazard construction of roads or deforestation in the mountains. Melamchi has exposed our rather poor understanding of the vulnerabilities of Nepal's mountains and high mountains. No studies revealed the amount of sediment deposit at higher altitudes in the catchment when the area was selected for a water supply project of such a scale.
Researchers and research institutions must realise that the conventional methods of studies don't help much. The situation on the ground changes faster than the study, rendering the research redundant; therefore, investigations must be swift to suit the quickly changing conditions. Training institutions need to prepare students to champion this new reality. The meteorological department must start monitoring micro-weather patterns. Government-operated disaster-related institutions must be afforded a degree of autonomy to make decisions without the need for authorisation through committees. And the most significant takeaway perhaps is for planners who need to realise and accept that the era of megaprojects is over. The era of smaller projects with limited risks of failure, which can provide benefits in a short period, has begun.