In Nepal, either too much or too little water

Nepal Police rescue villagers in Kailali district parts of which were flooded following a heavy rainfall. All photos: RSS

Those drawing attention to the water crisis in Nepal usually focus on the problems associated with the drying-up of wells and springs, and access to water for irrigation and drinking, particularly in the mountains.

While this constitutes one aspect of Nepal’s water crisis, at present the news is all about floods and landslides. This is nothing new for Nepal -- the monsoon comes every year, and there are annual floods, and landslides at great cost of lives and livelihoods.

There is too much water, in the wrong places, and land is washed away, submerged, ruined. And it is getting worse. There significant changes in the patterns of rainfall, with pre-monsoon rain increasing and falling in greater intensity and post-monsoon rain decreasing.

And there are a growing number of  ‘extreme events’ associated with climate change. Even after four decades of program and projects funded by loans from foreign banks and ‘development agencies’, there seems to be no effective response at national, provincial or local level.

After floods in the 1980s, there was a call for more effective responses to so-called ‘natural disasters’. This gave rise not only to new ‘aid’ programs and projects, but also to new institutions for more effective response.

The Natural Disaster Relief Act was passed in 1982, amended in 1989 and then again in 1992. In response to floods in Chitwan in 1989 the Grass Roots Institute for Training and Services-Nepal' (GRITS-Nepal) was established by a group of students from Rampur College of Agriculture, which became the precursor to Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN).

Japan has been in the forefront of ‘disaster prevention and response’ in Nepal since 1991 when it helped establish the Water Induced Disaster Prevention Technical Centre in Pulchok. The main objective was ‘to promote prevention/mitigation of water induced disasters in Nepal and to strengthen capability of HMG Nepal to cope with water induced disasters through technology development, provision of training and establishment of a database’.

The collaboration continued into a second phase when, in September 1999, the two governments agreed to launch a Disaster Mitigation Support Program for a further five years.

Many other foreign agencies, governmental and non-governmental, have also provided funding and technical assistance for ‘disaster prevention’, ‘disaster mitigation’ and ‘disaster response’.

During the early 1990s’ UNDP/UNDRO/UNDTCD provided technical as well as financial assistance in improving the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the focal point of disaster management in Nepal, through their International Support to Disaster Preparedness and Relief Plan to strengthen institutions and develop human resources.

Landslide in Baglung cuts off the district's roadways.

In the 1980s and 1990s, humanitarian relief was provided on a significant scale, whenever there was a ‘greater-than-usual natural disaster’ by agencies of all kinds – but always ‘after the event’.

In 1996, a National Action Plan consisting of four main sub-plans for disaster preparedness, disaster response, disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation, and disaster mitigation was presented in the form of a matrix indicating priority item groups, activities, time schedule, and executing agencies. It seems that it was not implemented.

For the Nepal Country Report for 1999 (produced under the direction of the under-secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, which continued to be responsible for ‘disaster response’) admitted that Natural Disaster Relief Regulations or NDRR (that is, the provisions guiding disaster relief action by different agencies) had still not been put in place.

The Act itself does not describe the functions and duties of all district disaster management related agencies, the problem of cooperation, coordination and mutual understanding between various district disaster management related agencies are seen. Consequently, sometimes, disaster victims do not get immediate, efficient and effective rescue and relief services.

Delayed relief works often brings very serious and unpleasant results. Duplication of relief works have also happened due to the absence of dialogue and mutual understanding among disaster management related agencies.

In addition, some of the district disaster management related agencies try to shift their responsibilities to the other as there is no clear-cut job description in the Act. The immediate formulation of NDRR is therefore  necessary, where disaster management-related agencies have ToRs.

Recognising this inadequacy, and also the insufficiency of focusing only on ‘relief’ after the event, the Ninth Plan (1998-2002) underlined the need to strengthen disaster management capability. It proposed the prevention, mitigation and reduction of natural disasters through more advanced geological, hydrological and meteorological technology.

It stressed hazard mapping, vulnerability assessment, risk analysis and early warning system with trained technical staff. The Plan suggested that  policies and regulations concerning disaster management should be amended.

In response to a suggestion by the UN, a high level National Committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) was created, to be chaired by the Home Minister and represented by other officials. A National Action Plan (NAP) for disaster preparedness, response, mitigation, rehabilitation and reconstruction, was to be formulated.

The Nepal Centre for Disaster Management (NCDM) was established in February 2002 and proposed to work in ‘a pragmatic way in the field of disaster risk management to transform Nepal into a country safe from disasters’, working with all ‘stakeholders’ including the ‘vulnerable local communities’.

It undertook a number of projects over the next decade, funded by the UNDP, DfID, Save the Children, Care Nepal International, OXFAM GB, and others. Most were on a small scale and many involved workshops and inputs into documents, including annual national workshops on ‘pre-monsoon disaster preparedness’ and a contribution to the National Report on ‘Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in Nepal’ in 2005.

Even towards the end of the decade, however, the NCDM reported that ‘presently, Nepal lacks a comprehensive National Policy and Act on disaster risk reduction’ and that it had collaborated with OXFAM GB to draft a new National Policy which was submitted to the National Planning Commission, and an Act on Disaster Management which was submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs’.

In 2009, a National Strategy on Disaster Risk Management (NSDRM) was developed as were disaster preparedness and response plans at district and local VDC levels, with emergency operation centres also established. But there was little progress over the next decade in developing effective procedures to enable an effective response to annual flooding and landslides across the country.

Most tellingly, when the earthquakes of April-May 2015 occurred, it took six months to create a National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), and has taken more than five years to re-build the homes and lives damaged and destroyed across the areas most affected.

Despite all the policies, program and projects, floods and landslides continue to damage and destroy property and livelihoods, and to ruin the lives of tens of thousands every year. The reasons include political inertia and corruption, inadequate institutional development, lack of appropriate technical and human resources for effective preparation and action at the different levels, from national through provincial and district down to local levels.

The contribution of development agencies has been costly and wasteful, and largely inappropriate and ineffective. There is now another Disaster Risk Reduction National Strategic Plan of Action (2018-2030). What are the chances that this will prove more effective?

David Seddon has undertaken research and consultancy on development issues in Nepal over several decades.

Ranjan Prakash Shrestha, PhD,  has research experience in climate change and indigenous knowledge and practices related to urbanization and sustainable water resource management.