Unfinished homeworkThe government and tourism industry fail to conduct risk studies recommended for major trekking regions
Picture this postcard the country’s tottering tourism industry is desperately in love with these days: Fun-filled foreigners holding “Visit Nepal, it is safe” placards with a mesmerising mountainous background. Visitors have indeed been great goodwill ambassadors for the troubled travel trade of Nepal as it remains hit by the effects of last year’s earthquake. The words of mouth are indeed working. Trekkers and mountaineers are gradually coming back. Around 200 climbers have been given permit for Everest expedition this spring so far, and officials are hopeful about the Annapurna region as well.
Tourism entrepreneurs and government agencies may claim some credit for this good news—to some extent rightly so. Their argument that the country’s economy badly needs tourism to recover from the quake’s jolt is very valid. And so is their expectation that the world help them spread the word that Nepal is safe for tourists after the major disaster.
But to secure that help, the authorities first need to show that they are really serious about the safety issue and that it is not just the business-as-usual tourism promotion. That cannot happen just by lip-service; action is key. And one glaring example shows it is missing big time.
The government-assigned assessments of quake-led damages in two major trekking areas—Annapurna and Everest—had recommended detailed study of the risks once last year’s monsoon was over. The assessment of the Everest region, funded by the World Bank, had said: “In order to manage the risks associated with the geologic hazards identified in this report, we recommend completing a detailed risk-assessment study post-monsoon. This will include assessment of likelihood of failure, occupancy or specific areas of the trails and villages and combining these with hazards to assess the risk.”
Miyamoto International, a global engineering and construction management company, that did the assessment, further added in its recommendation: “Once the risk is assessed, we recommend that a tolerable level risk is defined by the Nepal government, including consideration of the likelihood of loss of life and a comparison with hazards elsewhere in the country and international standards.”
In its recommendation for the Annapurna region, the engineering company said: “It appears that the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary trails covered in this study are largely undamaged by landslides following the earthquakes. However, there are some areas that have been identified as having a particularly high hazard level due to their existing features or geometry. For example, very high rock slopes and areas with evidence of historic large rockfall and slope instability.”
The assessment, funded by the UKAID, therefore, also recommended a detailed risk-assessment study of these areas. The reports were made public last July and the detailed assessments they recommended were to be carried out after last year’s monsoon. That rainy season is long gone and we are just two months away from another one. And yet, no such comprehensive study is on the horizon. Officials at the Tourism Ministry were clueless about what was being done with those recommendations. Has the private sector bothered to follow up on this? Should they not have pushed for it?
Some isolated efforts by a few non-governmental organisations and local communities have, of course, been there to repair trails and make visitors feel safe. Officials with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), for instance, said they had begun posting some signposts alerting trekkers about potential rockfall and landslide hazards.They said a team had been sent to do that in the trekking trail from Ghandruk to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). They added that the avalanche which has continued in Annapurna South for the past few weeks could pose some risk to the ABC if it comes towards that direction.
“The continued avalanche is also one reason why we have sent our team to inspect the ground situation and post the alert signs,” said ACAP’s project director Lal Prasad Gurung.The project’s officials, however, said the government had not initiated any work for detailed risk assessments as recommended by the Miyamoto report for the Annapurna region.
Officials from the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology said the avalanche on Annapurna South is not quite unusual. They believe it is basically piled up snow that tends to fall down following a rise in temperature. But there have also been fears that the continued avalanche may have something to do with last year’s earthquake. If the quake could lead to a drop of height of some of the mountains to the north of Kathmandu, it may well have left long-lasting impacts on the mountainous region.
The devastating disaster had triggered more than 3,000 landslides and scientists were worried that last year’s monsoon could have made it worse. Fortunately, that did not happen. But that does not mean there is no more risk, as aftershocks have continued.It is true that the reports by Miyamoto had said both the Annapurna and Everest regions were largely safe, although there was some controversy about the way the assessments were done. But it should not be forgotten that the company had recommended further detailed studies.
And it did so for a reason. It knew that its study was not comprehensive (which it has admitted in its reports) and that the information gap could prove to be dangerous for visitors and for the country’s mountain tourism image. This should have been one of the main takeaways for the travel trade and the authorities.
By just celebrating the ‘good news’ the assessments gave—all in the name of tourism recovery—the government and the private sector are being selective. This does not do justice to the tourists who have put so much trust on the country as a safe destination.
Nor does it do so to the tourism industry itself.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London