Plan and prepareFloods should not be forgotten after the monsoon because they are a national issue
Nepal lost a staggering Rs60 billion due to flood damage in 2017. To put that into context, we could have bought five wide-body jets with the money that went to waste because of the deluge that year. The recovery cost of the flood damage has been estimated to be about Rs73 billion. It will take many years to rebuild the damaged infrastructure, and while we continue to rebuild them, there is no guarantee that we will not get another rainfall event even half as bad as that of 2017 to cause further destruction.
The year 2018 has not been a bad year when one takes the damage and destruction caused by floods and landslides in previous years into account, but the number of lives lost and the hardship caused by landslides alone is already mounting. Landslides have so far killed 59 people and injured 60. The most tragic mishap has been the death of eight young children in Jajarkot district who perished in the house where they were studying when it was buried under landslide debris in the morning. Landslides damaged bridges on the highways at Barhabise and Nuwakot, disrupting vehicular traffic on the routes which are vital to the local economy. The loss and increased hardship caused to the local people by such destruction will never be known.
To get an understanding of the issue, we need to ask some naïve questions. Could the landslide that killed young children in Jajarkot have been avoided? If yes, why didn’t we take timely action to avoid it, and if not, why did the state allow people to live in areas that are at obvious risk? The same question can be asked about the collapse of roads, bridges and other losses. The bridge at Barhabise had endured many devastating floods for five decades until it was damaged in 2018. What went wrong this time? We could ask further: Are floods and landslides a rural problem or a national problem? The fact is that floods and landslides, besides being a financial burden on the government due to the huge costs of infrastructure repair, have been destroying the base of our livelihood and the economy.
Sixty years ago, the government recognised floods and landslides as two of the major problems affecting livelihoods and the economy. However, substantial work did not start until the 1970s when the government formulated policies, set up institutions and took measures to reduce risks. Work intensified when the UN declared the 1990s as international decade for natural disaster reduction that emphasised disaster preparedness. Since then, millions have been spent on disaster preparedness, but the problems do not seem to be waning. Sadly, the loss of lives and properties to floods and landslides is rising every year, and many of them have been exacerbated by our actions.
Much of the damage caused by floods and landslides in the hills can be attributed to development works carried out with utter disregard for rain-land-flood relations. We hardly realise that the Himalaya are young mountains and still rising due to the pressure exerted by the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The 1-metre rise of the Kathmandu Valley floor in the 2015 earthquake is a recent reminder of how active the mountain building process is. In addition, we get intense monsoon rains every year which help to produce food and refill our aquifers and soil water. At the same time, they create floods which is an important part of the rain-land-flood relations.
It is during this process that a balance in relations is renewed and recalibrated annually to reach an equilibrium that
lasts until the next monsoon. Our economy, livelihood and even existence hinges upon this equilibrium.
The floods and landslides that we see during the monsoon are part of the larger processes to maintain the equilibrium. However, when we divert runoff to a common drainage while building infrastructure or pay no attention to hundreds of small channels that drain monsoon runoff down the mountain while using the land to meet our needs, we inadvertently upset the rain-land-flood relations, ruining the equilibrium. In response, nature has to rework to reach a new equilibrium, and in the process, its actions are usually damaging to our lives and properties.
What killed the children in Jajarkot was technically a debris flow. Debris flow was also seen coming from the ridge which damaged the bridge in Barhabise. Debris flows are amplified both in coverage and magnitude when we fiddle with natural drainage leaving practically no place in the hills safe. Debris flow can be prevented from happening only when we pay attention to the rain-land relation of the local area.
In that sense, nature is an open book for us to learn from. Failing to learn the limitations of the natural phenomenon only increases the likelihood of falling into the same trap repeatedly.
What lies ahead
It must be stressed that a new phenomenon in cloud movement has been observed recently in which clouds stay over a particular area pouring heavy rain there. The phenomenon was observed during Hurricane Harvey that dumped record-setting rain on Texas and caused heavy monsoon downpour in the Nepal Tarai in 2017. This occurrence was also seen in Kerala this year which received once-in-a-century rain.
With global warming, the phenomenon could be repeated more frequently, and we may have to be prepared to deal with even greater problems in the future. Unfortunately, addressing floods and landslides is not a priority for the state like building unplanned roads in the mountains. Assumptions like perennial forest cover will reduce problems have not been helpful. Floods and landslides are becoming increasingly destructive with huge socio-economic implications. They should not just be swept under the rug after each monsoon, rather they must be dealt with as a national urgency.
- Upadhya writes on issues relating to watershed, climate change, disasters and their intersections with society.