Nepal Tarai learns from past floods


At Saraswati Primary School in Bhalohiya village in the central Tarai last week, children in Class 5 sweat in the humid heat, waiting attentively for a signal. A sharp clap from Disaster Focal Person Mukesh Jha, and they are down on the floor, covering their heads with their hands. Then they walk out single file from class, form a circle in the playground and start counting aloud their pre-assigned numbers.

The students are practising a drill on disaster response in these flood-prone plains bordering India.  Two years after a devastating flood that displaced more than 400,000 people, destroyed 65,000 homes and killed 143 people, parts of the Tarai are beginning to incorporate disaster management activities.

Eighteen lives were lost and 325 schools were submerged here in Rautahat alone, including Saraswati School. It was repaired under the Flood Response Project funded by theBritish agency, VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) and implemented by local partner Mandvi, and supported by Be Capable Project funded by EU Aid Volunteers .

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Yet while disaster management is starting to attract the attention it deserves, rampant construction in the district, and across the country, is increasing vulnerability to disasters, say experts. Much of the new infrastructure actually blocks the natural drainage of rivers, resulting in flooding, especially along Nepal’s southern border.

“Disruption by roads, low capacity bridges, urban expansion and embankments along the border in India constrain water flow,” says climate expert Ajaya Dixit.

Inundation in the Tarai has got worse after roads were built on the Indian side, which act like dams. The damage is more severe because river basins in Nepal are already encroached by roads and human settlements where there used to be only fields or sandy riverbanks. As a result, floods that could have passed by in a few hours with minimal damage now submerge farms and towns.

In 2017, heavy rainfall in the Chure catchment of the Tarai caused damage worth more than Rs60 billion, according to estimates. But such cost is set to increase, especially as rainfall patterns have become more unpredictable with the climate crisis. Higher intensity storms that drop more rain in shorter periods are becoming more common, raising the risk of sudden inundation.

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Among the 49 disasters monitored by the Disaster Risk Reduction Portal under the Home Ministry, flooding is among the mostly minutely monitored. Water levels of major rivers are watched in real time, and if they cross the danger mark, the government sends out text messages to all at-risk residents or informs local disaster management committees. This early warning system was instrumental in evacuating residents and minimising the loss of lives in 2017.

The Disaster Risk and Management Act 2017 prioritises the role of local governments in disaster management. “After these policies came into effect, we have prepared for floods by stocking boats, tents and other emergency materials,” says Arun Kumar Yadav, mayor of Durga Bhagwati rural municipality in Rautahat. Security forces at local levels have been trained for rescue and relief and are alerted when disaster is imminent.

Though Nepal has improved its performance in rescue and relief, many parts of the Act are yet to be implemented. The government is still working on a comprehensive Disaster Information Management System, which is supposed to include information about areas at risk of hazards and the resources available nearby.

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“We have asked local level governments to start sending us this information, but they must conduct a hazard mapping in their area first for us to create a nation-wide risk atlas,” says Bed Nidhi Khanal, the under-secretary at the Home Ministry who oversees the Disaster Risk Reduction Portal. The law also requires the government to conduct drills for disasters, but until now it has only held sporadic simulations along five river basins, and has no immediate plans for systematic, nation-wide drills.

Many other aspects of disaster management are missing from the law, especially prevention activities.

“With increasing human encroachment on rivers, the natural drainage systems of rivers are being blocked. The reasons for the increasing severity of floods are manmade and not natural,” says watershed expert Madhukar Upadhyaya. “But there is little understanding of these processes. If we continue to ignore it, we will continue to face heavy economic loss and have to start over every year.”

India must also do its part, Upadhyaya notes: “We need to take not just national but also diplomatic steps to get India to address such construction on their side of the border as well.”

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Gaur gears up for another deluge

Most of Nepal’s southern plains were already vulnerable to floods from snow-fed rivers and streams from the Chure hills swelling during the monsoon. Rautahat is surrounded by rivers on three sides: Jhaajh in the west and Bagmati in the north and east. The district capital of Gaur is often inundated.

In 2017, floodwaters blocked by boundary walls and embankments rose 1.5m in a matter of minutes and entire settlements of mud house were washed away, leaving residents with nothing.

The Flood Response Project has built a safe house in Badharba village as an immediate relief structure. The ground floor is an open space, which can be used as a local market during normal times, and the first floor has separate rooms for men and women.

Three schools in the district have been repaired (see main story), and raised hand pumps have been built at every location for drinking water during floods.

Says principal Tripurari Yadav, “Drinking water is a big problem during floods because the hand pumps are submerged too.”

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At Badharba, villagers were gathered around a local pond under a sweltering sun for a drill. Rescuers staged a simulated rescue of a drowning man, and trained locals to make temporary life jackets from plastic bottles. Drills are compulsory under Nepal’s Disaster Risk and Management Act passed in 2017, but until now the focus has been on early warning, rescue and relief.

“The Tarai does not just have flood risk, there are multiple hazards. Wild animals and snakes pose a great threat, and so do earthquakes. We identify these and plan for them,” says Anjoo Jha of Mandvi.

After the risk assessment, residents who panicked in 2017 and ran to road embankments, say they feel better prepared to face future floods. Lalita Kumari Ram says the drills are reassuring: “Now these exercises have made us better prepared for future floods that are sure to come.”

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In the driver’s seat

In many communities in the Tarai, women are still semi-veiled in public and hesitate to speak to strangers. But Geeta Devi is quite a sight, driving her e-rickshaw around town with a big smile on her face, waving at passersby.

The 32-year-old mother of four was trained to drive an e-rickshaw by Mandvi, an NGO that works on flood management in Rautahat. Geeta Devi lost her farm and livestock in the 2017 flood, so she has joined her driver husband behind the wheel.

Her teenage son and daughter are studying in Kathmandu, and their mother is determined to earn enough to give them the education she never had. Mandvi, which is supported by British volunteer agency VSO, trained six other women and helped them get loans to buy e-rickshaws.

Geeta Devi earns an average of Rs500 per day ferrying people around Gaur for up to three hours after her husband comes home. She does not take fares outside the municipality because the roads are bad.

“When they see a woman driving, some are surprised,” she says, “and some laugh out loud. But that is their problem. They can laugh all they want. I like what I do.”

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