Nepal braces for monsoon-pandemic double hit
By any measure, the past year has been disastrous for Nepal. The Covid-19 lockdowns devastated the economy, the 2020 monsoon killed a record number of people, and this year the second wave hit with full force even as governance was paralysed by a prolonged power struggle in the ruling party.
Now, Nepalis are bracing themselves for their second monsoon season during the pandemic, one which meteorological modellers say could dump above normal precipitation over most parts of the country.
The other difference with last year is that the second Covid-19 wave is even more virulent and widespread. This means crowded shelters after a flood or landslide will be hotspots for new infections at a time when only 4% of the population is vaccinated.
“Covid and floods are contradictory in nature, as one needs physical distancing while the other makes it impossible to do so. This will add to the existing burden,” says epidemiologist Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa.
She adds: “We can’t prevent floods, but we can reduce its impact. We must concentrate on identifying risk groups and their emergency evacuation, set up shelters with physical distancing, stockpile tents, food and emergency medicines including oral rehydration salts and water purifiers.”
Even though last year’s southwest monsoon was said to be 'normal' in Nepal, it triggered numerous flash floods and landslides, killing at least 400 people and destroying over 1,000 houses. Entire villages in Sindhupalchok, Jajarkot, Myagdi, Baglung, Kalikot and Bajura districts were buried.
The South Asian Seasonal Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF) has forecast ‘above normal’ rainfall for most of Nepal this year, with more than usual precipitation in most of the Mahabharat and Himalaya, and slightly deficient rainfall in the eastern Tarai.
"There is a possibility of floods, landslides and other water-related disasters occurring together during the third and fourth week of July this year when the second wave of the pandemic will still be peaking,” states the government’s National Monsoon Preparedness and Response Plan 2021.
The probability of flash-floods and landslides are even higher this year because of the wildfires. There were 7,000 fires affecting 75 of Nepal’s 77 districts from November 2020 to May 2021, the highest number ever recorded.
The fires reduced forested slopes to ashes, incinerated the undergrowth, thus reducing the absorptive capacity of the soil. When the rains come, the water will therefore rush down the slopes instead of seeping into the topsoil.
“This year’s rainfall is forecast to be higher than last year's average. Based on this analysis, it can be estimated that there will be a significant increase in landslides and floods during this year's monsoon,” says meteorologist Shanti Kandel at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.
She adds: “Forecasting is preparedness in some ways. But it has to be effectively communicated, so if we are to wait until landslides have occurred to act, it’s too late and there is no point.”
In the past, the government has faced criticism for prioritising relief over prevention. This could change with the formation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA), which works primarily on preparedness and mitigating risk, while delegating more rescue responsibility to first-responders in local governments.
“In earlier years landslides were not discussed as part of our monsoon preparedness plan, only floods were, and this year we set landslides as a priority for preparedness and response also looking at the intersection of wildfires, Covid-19 and the monsoon,” says Anil Pokhrel, who heads NDRRMA that has produced a workplan for monsoon preparedness and response.
The NDRRMA with DHM recently trained officials in 36 municipalities in nine of the most high-risk districts (Myagdi, Gorkha, Kalikot, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchok, Bajhang, Jajarkot, Syangja and Dailekh) on Impact Based Forecasting which predicts extreme weather events so that at-risk groups can be ready.
“We are dealing not just with floods and landslides this time, but also Covid-19. Local communities are setting up rapid response teams to best prevent an outbreak in shelters and maintain health protocols, and spreading awareness through FM radio in local languages,” says Liladhar Adhikari of the NDRRMA.
Despite the ‘above normal’ forecast in the models, climate scientist Ngamindra Dahal expects the monsoon to even out unless Nepal experiences cloudbursts over the Mahabharat and Chure ranges. These sudden heavy showers have been the cause of the deadliest floods and landslides in recent years.
“We now have the technology to predict localised cloudbursts through Impact Based Forecasting which is crucial in saving lives, all we need now is real-time action so local communities get advance warning,” says Dahal.
But predicting and determining the impact of floods and landslides only from the perspective of weather gives us an incomplete picture. The climate crisis has changed precipitation patterns and made extreme weather events more frequent and destructive. Poorly designed and built roads, bad engineering, and unplanned settlements have disturbed fragile mountain slopes, making them more disaster-prone.
“We have in recent times recorded 105mm rain per hour in Surkhet, 100mm in Bajhang and 73 in Kulekhani which is a clear indication that the monsoon is getting more intense, but we are only now trying to understand this trend,” says Dahal. “We need to see whether there are indeed more frequent cloudbursts, or if the disasters are more noticed because they affect new settlements in floodplains and roads that follow river banks.”
At the NDRRMA, Liladhar Adhikari agrees that in addition to rapid response and rescue, a new development model is crucial in preventing multiple hazards in the long term. “New infrastructure has to adhere to environmental safeguards so that they do not drastically alter the rural landscape and make them more vulnerable to disasters.”
Unfortunately, Nepal’s approach to development has been at the expense of nature preservation. The annual budget announced last week will allow quarrying on the already-unstable slopes of Himalayan foothills to export stones and aggregates to India.
Epidemiologist Lhamu Yangchen Sherpa has been to several emergency shelters recently, and points out that there is an additional burden on women during disasters.
She says: “Like before and during this coronavirus crisis, women are especially vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster, we must support them with security in shelters, physical and mental health care during this monsoon in the middle of a pandemic.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.