Preparing for floods during a lockdown

Villagers in Rautahat move to higher ground along a road embmankment to prepare for the flood season. This year it coincides with the pandemic, and experts warn that crowded shelters can be hot spots for the spread of the virus. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

Even as Nepal braces for the full socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown, the monsoon brings the risk of yet another disaster – floods.

The lockdown has lasted three-and-half months, causing not just a public health crisis but also mass unemployment and economic dislocation. Experts have warned that because the lockdown has not been accompanied by adequate test-trace-treatment, there is a looming threat of community transmission.

If that happens, the pandemic peak in Nepal could coincide with the monsoon peak which brings with it an increased risk of landslides and floods.  This year, unusually heavy early monsoon rains have already triggered landslides across the mid-mountains, causing at least 36 deaths.

The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has forecast 100-200mm of rain in 24 hours from Friday onwards into the weekend, warning of flood risk in the central and eastern Tarai. It is not just the precipitation that has intensified flood risk, but also poor drainage, denudation of the Chure Hills, and road and embankment construction across the border in India that impound water in Nepal.

“This is the new normal,” explains Bimal Regmi, a climate change expert at the Policy and Institutions Facility (PIF), a program funded by the British aid agency DFID. “Extreme weather causes floods, but change in land cover and loss of vegetation are aggravate their intensity.”

Experts say awareness about flood risk preparedness in Nepal starts when the rains start, and by then it is usually too late. The government also invests more on relief and not enough on prevention. This could change with the new Disaster Risk and Management Act 2017 which puts more emphasis on preparedness and mitigating risk, and also hands more responsibility to first-responders at local government level.

“We are now looking at disaster risk management much more comprehensively, and addressing early warning and immediate response at the district and provincial level,” says Anil Pokhrel, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority.

This rainy season, there is the additional risk of COVID-19 and the need to maintain physical separation and maintain personal hygiene in shelters. Unlike the previous years, the pandemic has also brought returnees from overseas and in-country migrants, increasing the population living in areas at flood and landslide risk. People also need to be made aware of maintaining hygiene and physical separation in shelters.

“These factors will magnify social, economic, health and political problems,” says retired Nepal Army general and disaster management expert Balananda Sharma.

Nepal has enhanced its flood early warning system on major river basins like the Gandaki, Kosi, and Karnali and issues regular bulletins through social media and the mobile network, reducing the loss of life and property in recent years.

Says Dinanath Bhandari, an expert on early warning and adviser to the Authority: “Because of limited data, early warning does have its limitations in Nepal. But when there is heavy rainfall, we send out alerts to at-risk communities.”

While the national government usually springs into action after a disaster, more emphasis is needed before floods strike. Preventive measures and preparation like better designs for road embankments and drainage need to be integrated into plans.

Tapendra Rawal, the Mayor of Tikapur in the floodplain of the Karnali in western Nepal, is aware of this, and uses community action to clear blocked drains and ensure proper outflow before the rains arrive, and he has rafts on standby for flood rescue. This year, he has added  public awareness about COVID-19 precautions to his preparedness plans.

At Mahakali Municipality, Mayor Bir Bahadur Sunar says the presence of returnees from India and overseas can be channeled for flood prevention and rescue. He says: “Many people who came back from foreign work are unemployed at the moment, and many have raised concerns about their livelihoods. We could deploy them for flood mitigation efforts.”

While the country braces for the coming months, there is also the need to look at the longer term so that the Land Use Policy 2015 is closely followed to discourage settlement in high-risk areas, and in planning for flood risk reduction through livelihood enhancement measures.

There are success stories like the villagers of Kailali and Kanchanpur which have been supported to manage flood risk through agriculture. They plant bamboo and napier grass on embankments and sugarcane on riverbanks to not just protect them from floods, but also augment income from the cash crops.

Says Bimal Regmi: “Many communities have used the areas affected by the floods as vegetation for livelihood, degraded land rehabilitation, tree plantation, bioengineering, and other disaster risk management methods to minimise the impact of floods.”

It is obvious that these best practices need to be scaled up.

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