When it rains, it pours

Below average precipitation is forecast this monsoon, but we must also be prepared for extreme localised rain.


The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology has declared that the southwest monsoon entered eastern Nepal promptly on schedule, and will advance over the whole country in a week.

This was a relief because weather models had suggested the onset of the rains would be delayed by at least 10 days. Let us hope simulations were also wrong about deficient rainfall this monsoon.

News of the arrival of the rains could not have come sooner. So far, this June has been the hottest month on record in Nepal, with half of the country’s population mostly in the plains reeling under heat stress. Wells had gone dry in parts of the Chure and Tarai, and ritual frog weddings were being performed for rain.

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This year’s El Niño effect should be a warning about things to come, as the ocean and atmosphere heat up globally. Here in Nepal, we must now broaden the scope of disaster planning beyond droughts, floods and landslides to lethal ‘wet bulb’ combinations of temperature and humidity.

In the next decades, unliveable heat waves in the plains could force mass migration of people to northern latitudes and higher altitudes. For Nepal, this could mean a future reversal of population movement back from the plains to the mountains.

But Nepal’s rulers cannot pass all the blame for chronic food insecurity on climate breakdown. The Karnali is food deficit because of decades of state neglect, and climate change-induced drought just puts farmers under added pressure.

Crop failure due to lack of irrigation and agricultural input in turn will worsen malnutrition among children, and increase the push factor for outmigration of men. Not all disasters are sudden, Nepal must also prepare for slow-motion calamities like these.

Our coverage from Jumla and Kalikot of Karnali Province in this edition shows how investment in rural irrigation can transform the lives of farmers, making them more resilient to face extreme weather.

The climate crisis is a water crisis, and year-round access to water will improve food availability, raise household income, reduce drudgery for women, and allow Nepalis to adapt to climate change. It is common sense. Why didn’t we think of that before?

The DHM and South Asian Climate Outlook Forum forecast normal to below-normal rainfall this year, and an increase in maximum and minimum temperatures across South Asia. Rainfall in western Nepal is expected to be 60% below normal, and 30% deficient in the rest of the country.

Monsoon 2023
Department of Meteorology and Hydrology has projected below-average rainfall this monsoon.

But those are averages, and we also have to be prepared for cloudbursts of the kind that triggered the deadly Melamchi flood on 15 June 2021. Robust early warning systems and real-time localised information systems are vital to save lives and infrastructure.

Again, we cannot blame loss of life along settlements in flood-prone high-risk areas on the climate crisis. We cannot call them ‘natural disasters’ when the real culprit is bad planning and poor preparedness for calamities that are certain to happen.

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The rampant building spree of mega-infrastructure, primarily hydropower projects along Nepal’s major rivers, without proper Environmental Impact Assessment also spells disaster. So does illegal extraction of riverbed products along the Chure. But perhaps the most glaring example of environmental terrorism is haphazard road construction triggering slope failure and disrupting water supply.

There are things that are happening globally over which we have little control. The Paris Agreement to cap average global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050 is now dead in the water. Last week, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere hit a record 422ppm, and at this rate we are looking at an increase of 2°C or more in the coming decade. The polar regions and the ice-caps of the Alps and the Himalaya are already melting at unprecedented rates.

New York experienced air quality worse than Kathmandu last week as Canadian wildfires sent smoke plumes across North America. Pakistan suffered catastrophic nationwide floods last year due to heavier than usual monsoon rains and melting glaciers.

For us in Nepal, there is no option but to be prepared for what we know is coming. Rescue and relief after a disaster, as is often the case, is too late. Preparations for prevention for this monsoon should have started last winter.

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A strong environmental protection strategy requires long-term vision and commitment, it needs politicians who think beyond immediately visible populist actions to boost vote banks. As with everything else in Nepal, the answer to disaster preparedness is a smarter and more accountable government.

Sonia Awale