Flood of recrimination in the Nepal Tarai


With the advent of the monsoon, we will be flooded with stories of floods, landslides and other water-induced ‘natural disasters’ as they ‘wreak havoc’ throughout the land. Floods are natural, disasters are not.

Nepal has nine dry months and three months in which we have too much water. In the rainy season, rivers used to spread along the floodplains, dissipating the force of the water. Nepalis traditionally knew better than to locate settlements on river banks. In the agrarian Tarai, farmers had learnt to live with floods and welcomed the annual replenishment of farms with vital, water-borne nutrients.

To be sure, there were years when natural buffers would be overwhelmed and rivers burst their banks, eroding valuable farmlands as they changed course. But bad planning means that we have turned a predictable annual occurrence into a regular calamity.

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Nepal Tarai learns from past floods, Sewa Bhattarai

Only half prepared, Sewa Bhattarai

More than half of Nepal’s population now lives in the Tarai, and human settlements have encroached on what used to be floodplains.

Deforestation of the fragile Chure hills has increased sediment loads of seasonal rivers, causing them to flow through villages and farms. A river will find its own way to the sea no matter what we do to block its path.

It is true that floods are getting more destructive, but not because there is more rain. Our attempts to control floods are making them worse.

Levees built to ‘train’ rivers end up constricting their flows, embankments often act as dams blocking the natural course and submerging huge tracts of farmlands. Roads have been built on elevated land to prevent them from flooding, but they just make the floods worse.

Many roads just on the other side of the border in India have inadequate drainage and create vast reservoirs on the Nepal side every year. Meanwhile, tv news in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh blames Nepal for releasing water from its dams — not bothering to explain that Nepal has only one reservoir and the sluice gates of the three border barrages are under Indian management.

After every disaster like Sunsari (2008), Bardia and Surkhet (2014), Saptari and Rautahat (2017) and Bhaktapur last year, there is a flood of recrimination, blaming nature and bemoaning our lack of preparedness. Rescue agencies are usually at the scene quickly, but are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the disaster. Relief and rehabilitation is mired in bureaucracy and corruption, with villagers still waiting for help decades later. Poverty-stricken farmers are impoverished even more, and floods force many to migrate.

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Chure denudation and floods

Fleeing flash food, Gopen Rai

Once the monsoon tapers off in September, we will forget about floods for another year. Instead of taking preventive measures to improve drainage and poorly designed infrastructure that block the natural flow of rivers, it will be back to business as usual.

Most of the flood damage in the Tarai is not caused by Nepal’s four big rivers, but by Chure streams that are dry most of the year and become raging muddy torrents during the monsoon. The paradox is that boulder and sand mining in the Chure hills to feed the infrastructure boom in Nepal and India actually make these floods more destructive in the Tarai and downstream in India.

As we learn from a field report from Rautahat this week most flood victims are poor, and neglecting them comes naturally to the state. Because not enough is being done to prevent destructive floods, relief agencies are turning their attention to early-warning systems and the management of disasters after they happen.

Making all these problems more difficult is the climate crisis, which is leading to more extreme weather events. Monsoon cloudbursts are said to be more frequent and intense, and cause localised flooding. And then there are disasters like the Sunsari flood, which have nothing to do with heavy rainfall or global warming, but are caused by contractors stealing boulders from the Kosi’s eastern levee, thus weakening the embankment.

Sunsari was just a rehearsal for a future Kosi mega-flood that is waiting to happen, and will hit millions in Nepal and India. It is a given that floods elsewhere will also get more destructive in the years to come. Preventing them requires understanding nature’s ways, and letting rivers flow free again.

With federalism, flood prevention, management and emergency relief is no longer just the responsibility of the Kathmandu apparatus. In fact, first responders by definition have to be local governments, and the state needs to enhance their flood prevention and management capacity.

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In deep water, Editorial

Disaster geopolitics, Sharad Ghimire and Tom Robertson

10 years ago this week

Ten years ago this week, in issue #457 of 19-25 June 2009, Everest summiteer Billi Bierling wrote a story titled ‘The Bright Side of Everest’. Her words could as valid today:

‘Mount Everest often gets bad press for commercialisation and the lack of morality of its climbers. But I saw a different side this spring. On 22 May, two mountaineers from Austria and the Netherlands found an American climber sitting at the Balcony, just above Camp 4 ,at about 8,400m. He was clearly confused, and he had taken off his gloves and parts of his down suit. Had these two climbers not helped, the man would have died.

Several doctors saved the life of a Sherpa, who nearly died after he had consumed a bottle of whiskey adulterated with methanol. There are gruesome books about Mt Everest: the commercialisation, greed, selfishness and crime. This season, I saw none of that, only humanity, generosity and courage. If I were to write a book about Everest (which I promise I will never do) I’d probably call it 'The Bright Side of Everest.’

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