#NepalFloods2017: Understanding, and Learning From It

As tens of thousands of Nepalis directly affected by the floods that started at the end of the first week of August continue to gather what’s left of their lives and cope with traumatic personal tragedies, policymakers have once again called for disaster preparedness.

That the State apparatuses mandated for disaster management and emergency response is caught by surprise by the scale of the recent floods in Tarai makes clear the fact that we have not yet learned to deal with Nepal’s recurring disastrous floods and landslides.

Catastrophic flood events have been a part of our distant and recent history, and will certainly be a part of our future as well. However, the looming concern is the national capacity to deal with the increasing losses and damages caused by floods and landslides.

 

Above: The 2008 Koshi flood refugee camp a year after the flood.
Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha /ON

Top (main image): Manish Paudel

A Brief History of Floods

In the last 25 years, Nepal has experienced enough flood disasters to teach us to be better prepared in the future.

In 1993, more than 1300 people died in the floods and landslides in Nepal’s central region.  An estimated 85,000 families were affected and nearly 5,000 hectares of cropland were damaged or destroyed.

In 1995, floods affected more than 128,000 families while an estimated 41,000 hectares of cropland were damaged. Another heavy casualty occurred in 2002, in which 44 districts across the country were affected by floods and landslides. 441 people were killed then. In 2008, a breach in the embankment along the Koshi River left several thousand homeless.

All these events had one thing in common: The losses and damages were concentrated in a few regions. The 2017 flood, however, has turned out to be unusual in several ways.

2017 A Different Monsoon Event

This year, Nepal has experienced a distinctly different rain event that led to massive floods. The high intensity rain was concentrated over a narrow band south of Mahabharat Hill, all the way from Jhapa in eastern Nepal to Kailali in the west. This caused all big and small rivers originating from the Mahabharat and Chure range to flood at the same time causing tremendous devastatation.

This is not to say the government did not make any effort. Using all available means of communication, the government had issued early warnings (EWs) to residents in the river basins. This helped minimise casualties during the catastrophic floods. But preparations for other eventualities, particularly for rescue and relief, were sadly inadequate.

However, there was information made available on the unfolding weather events by the government. This was also the first time the government used social media platforms like Twitter for EWs, and this initiative did save lives.

Nearly a week before the floods, the government, starting on August 5, issued numerous warnings about possible heavy rains and floods. Some of the warnings included alerts on rare and unprecedented weather events too.

On August 8, it sent a mass SMS to people to stay alert and away from the raging rivers. The warnings and alerts were not to the public alone, even the police were alerted for necessary preparations as water levels crossed the danger level in Kankai. In fact, the heaviest flooding since 1970 was recorded there.

Understanding Increasing Flood Incidents, Rising Economic Losses

Loss of human lives aside, floods and landslides have also played a major role in stagnating our economy.

The estimated cumulative loss of the past events between 1983 and 2005 is at about Rs.28 billion. This increased to Rs. 16 billion between 2010 and 2016. The early estimate of damages by the 2017 floods is already crossing 37 billion rupees. The figure may be even higher after the final estimation.

Some obvious reasons seem to be responsible for increased losses due to floods and landslides. For long, floods have been considered a result of widespread deforestation and hence solutions such as protecting forests were sought. This simple solution was prescribed for a complex problem. This approach needs a revisit now because despite great success in greening of hills, floods have not decreased.

Another reason economic losses have increased is simply because in the last decade, both human settlements and economic activities have greatly expanded in the flood plains that were originally used for farming.

Additionally, most of the natural drainage channels have either been encroached upon by physical infrastructure or partly blocked by roads, irrigation canals, and similar structures. This is further exacerbated by the change in the nature of rainfall.

High intensity short-duration rains have become more frequent than in the past leading to intense floods. A recent study by the Central Bureau of Statistics noted that about 84% of its respondents have noticed delayed monsoon, which simply means that the same amount of rain pours over a fewer number of days.

Moreover, the absence of village youth, who are mostly employed abroad, has reduced local capacity to respond to floods. Needless to say, it is usually the poor and vulnerable who are severely affected by any disaster.

What can be done?

It is always after a major disaster that we find ourselves asking: What can be done to prevent this in the future? Taking into account the changing nature and scale of flood disasters of the last 25 years, the answer is pretty straightforward.

Conventional methods of containing floods within river channels by using structures such as embankments are not only horrendously expensive, they also provide security for only a short period. When they are breached, which normally happens following aggradation of the riverbed, damages are even greater. The breach of the Koshi River embankment in 2008 is an example of the limitation of flood control structures. Our aim must be to reduce loss and damages by adapting to floods and landslides.

Flood events like the one we witnessed this past week are likely to occur with increased frequency in the years ahead due to a changing global environment. Planned responses through state-owned institutions often fall short of expectations because of procedural complexities and changing priorities. For example, the flood victims of 2014 are still waiting for resettlements and rehabilitation.

This photo was taken from the Prime Minister’s helicopter during his visit to flood affected regions, last week.
Photo: Prime Minister’s Media Secretariat

Three Factors To Reduce Flood Loss, Damages

First, we must ensure that the natural drainage channels are kept open by avoiding congestion while building infrastructure. When physical infrastructure is constructed on a slope, attention must be paid to ensuring the highest possible run-off in the area. This simply means that hydrological consideration must be at the core of infrastructure development.

Second, strong local institutions are a prerequisite for effective disaster management including immediate response. In order to make this possible, our approach to addressing floods and landslides must be based on the improvement of economy at the local level. Our aim must be to increase employment opportunity for youth in the villages, so they remain in the villages. Improved economic conditions will enhance the capacity of the local people to help each other reduce loss and damages.

Third, the early warning systems must also cover small rivers, which at the moment are left out.

Madhukar Upadhya’s book Pokhari ra Pahiro is considered an essential read to understand water -induced disasters and management in Nepal. Upadhya is a watershed practitioner with experience in local water management in mountain watersheds. He is currently working on policy improvements to mainstream climate change and climate finance in Nepal’s national plans and budget.

Flood Timeline

1993

>1300 people die in floods and landslides in Nepal’s central region. ~85,000 families are affected. ~5,000 hectares of cropland damaged or destroyed.

1995

>128,000 families affected. ~41,000 hectares of cropland damaged.

2002

44 out of 75 districts across Nepal were affected. 441 people killed.

2008

~65,000 people and 700 hectares of fertile land affected in Nepal (~ 2.64 million people in India and Nepal). A December 2014 study found 25% of the affected cultivated land of Shreepur, Haripur and western Kushaha villages in Sunsari district were still barren and remained filled with flood sediments of clay and sand even 8 years after the flood.