Remembering the Seti disaster

12 years after the tragedy that killed 72 people, warnings that Pokhara is not prepared for another flood

DOWN AND OUT: Survivors of the 2012 Seti flood at Kharapani. Only the elderly and children are left in the village. Photo: DURGA RANA MAGAR

It was a bright Saturday morning on 5 May 2012, and Capt Alexander Maximov of Avia Club was flying a tourist on a blue two-seater plane on a sightseeing flight of the Annapurnas.

Looking down at the Seti River, he noticed that the water was not its usual white. There was a wall of dark debris racing down the river trailed by a brown ribbon of floating logs. Maximov used to fly MiGs in the Soviet Air Force, and recognised it as a massive flash flood.

He radioed Pokhara tower, and the air traffic controller called up the security forces who immediately informed the city’s FM stations. This early warning saved many lives, but 72 people were still killed 12 years ago this week in the Seti tragedy.

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Screenshot of video taken by remote camera of a plane (left) piloted by Capt Alexander Maximov (right) of Avia Club Nepal.

The plane had a remote video camera on its wingtip which had recorded the source of this flood: a massive rockfall near the summit of Annapurna IV that sent a cloud of brown dust billowing up to the sky.

Scientists have since pieced together the sequence of events and found that ice and rock fell more than 5,000m causing a lake impounded in the Seti’s canyon by a smaller rockfall the previous week to burst. This event set in motion a large debris flow 10m high racing down the river.

Geologists say the entire south face of the Annapurna massif is inherently unstable, so this was not the first flash flood to come down the rivers, and nor will it be the last. Climate breakdown may make such disasters even more frequent, with consequences for settlements and infrastructure downstream.

The latest study by geologist Narayan Gurung three years ago made a hazard map of the Seti in case a similar flood should happen again. The reason is that the 7,525 Annapurna IV is said to be the remnant of a 500m higher peak that collapsed, probably during a mega earthquake in 1255CE.

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The flood as it approached crushers collecting boulders on the river bed as the water arrived at the Pokhara-Baglung Highway. Photo: ALEXANDER MAXIMOV/AVIA CLUB NEPAL

Deposits of that mountain collapse trapped ice and water in the headwaters of the Seti called the Sabche Cirque, which periodically burst, unleashing a series of mega floods more than 100m high. Pokhara today is situated on the debris fan of that cataclysm that also blocked side rivers and created Phewa, Rupa, Begnas and other lakes.

Carbon dating of buried trees match historical records of a major earthquake in Nepal in 1255CE that also killed King Abhaya Malla of Kathmandu. Since then, there are geological signs of other major floods on the Seti, Madi, Mardi and Modi rivers that drain the southern flanks of Annapurna. 

Scientists warn that future floods on the Seti pose a major risk to Pokhara city and reservoir projects like Tanahu Hydropower and Upper Seti that are under construction on the river. 

“Another major earthquake in the region would easily mobilise the sediment in the Sabche Cirque and unleash another sudden flood,” says geologist Krishna KC. “Pokhara must have a hazard map, and strictly enforce zoning laws.”

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A photograph taken at 9:38AM on 5 May 2012 at the point where Seti bursts into Pokhara Valley from its gorge.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority has a district chapter in Kaski that has classified 10 of Pokhara’s wards as well as Annapurna and Machapuchre rural municipalities being at high risk from floods and landslides. But urban pressure means that people are building houses in high risk areas along the Seti’s terraces, and Pokhara Metropolis has been unable to prevent it.

In the 2012 disaster, Pokara’s Annapurna FM was among the radio stations broadcasting urgent messages to people to move to higher ground. The station then worked with the government in search, rescue and relief.

“But we are not prepared for another disaster like this, in fact it could be worse next time because there are now more people living along the very river banks that were swept away twelve years ago,” says Dipendra Shrestha of Annapurna FM.

The sheer west face of Annapurna IV is still highly unstable, and has constant rockfalls that block the Seti, of which the 2012 event was a particularly big one. Says Prithvi Narayan Campus geography professor Ramji Pokhrel: “The Seti is a permanent danger, we must be strict about allowing settlements along its banks. But that is not happening.”

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Seti River. Photo: DURGA RANA MAGAR

Climate breakdown makes the risk more real because of more frequent rockfalls, avalanches and extreme precipitation in the headwaters of the Seti. Geologist Krishna KC says all this does not mean that Pokhara is too dangerous to live in since there is no place on Earth that is without threat.

But he adds, “The idea is to minimise the threat, take measures to adapt to the risk factors.” 

It was Saturday, and downstream in Kharapani people were bathing in the hot springs, and washing laundry on the banks of the Seti. Many had not heard the warnings, or did not heed it. 

Kharapani has been wiped off the map, and there is a memorial column here for those who died that day and those still missing. It is also a testimony to the tragedy that struck here 12 years ago, and a  stark reminder that, given the topography of the Annapurnas, it is best to be prepared for another big flood.

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  1. At 9:10am on 5 May 2012, a huge chunk of ice and rock breaks off the south ridge of Annapurna IV.
  2. A remote camera on the wing of a sightseeing plane captures the dust cloud from the rockfall.
  3. The debris fell 3,000m first into an ice shelf and then into a lake impounded by a smaller rockfall the previous week, preceded by an air blast that flattened trees down valley. 
  4. The Sabche Cirque contains eroded sediments from a possible collapse of Paleo-Annapurna IV 800 years ago.
  5. The Seti gorge is hundreds of metres deep but only a few metres wide.
  6. Possible location of impounded lake.
  7. The combined force of the water and melted ice from the avalanche races downstream.
  8. Kharapani

Lucky ones …

The sun was shining that hot Saturday morning on 5 May 12 years ago, and families in the village of Sandal were on the banks of the Seti, bathing and washing. Children were swimming to cool off. The monsoon was more than a month away, and a flood was the last thing in the minds of people.

Sandal, 20km north of Pokhara, is a recent settlement, and the inhabitants are mostly from the Tamang and Magar communities. This is the last settlement along the Seti, upstream from here the gorge is narrow and wild. 

Because they migrated here from outside, the inhabitants did not have inter-generational memory of floods, and the 11 households lived close to the river. Even 12 years after the deadly flood, Sandal still bears signs of the devastation with massive boulders strewn along the riverbed.

Dilmaya Pun had neighbours over at her house to help out with work, and food preparation was late that morning. The guests were getting impatient, but it was this delay that saved their lives.

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Dilmaya Pun, who survived because of delays in cooking a meal. Photos: DURGA RANA MAGAR

“We were all preparing to go down to the river to volunteer in building a temporary log bridge, and if the food had arrived in time we would have been right there in the path of the flood,” Dilmaya says.

A neighbour, Sanu Magar, still cannot believe her luck. “It was a weekend and the kids were joining the team putting together the bridge. Thank goodness the food was late.” 

The survivors remember the flood approaching with a thunderous roar in a wall of angry grey water that immediately swept away the logs for the bridge, corn fields and two houses. Dilmaya and Sanu gathered their children and ran to higher ground and watched their homes being washed away.

Relief agencies resettled them higher up at Khobang where they built small makeshift huts, and did odd jobs since the land there was not suitable for farming. But after four years, the fear subsided somewhat and they returned to Sandal. There is now a new metal suspension bridge, and better off residents have moved to Pokhara or gone abroad. Only the elderly and children are left.

In 2012, Uttam Tamang was 14 years old. He remembers watching in horror as the pasty sludge washed away the nearby market town of Kharapani. He says: “I will never forget that frightening day, it was just chance that saved me.”

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Uttam Tamang, who is still traumatised by what he saw 12 years ago as a boy.

Since it was a holiday he had walked from Sandal to the hot spring at Kharapani for a dip. He remembers some foreign tourists and many locals bathing in the sulphurous hot water. Suddenly, someone shouted “Flood (बाढी) coming!” But many heard “Tiger (बाघ) coming!” And thought it was a joke, but Uttam saw the wall of grey water approaching and ran back up the hill.

He was so traumatised that he was afraid even to go back to his home in Sandal, and went to live with relatives in Pokhara. He dropped out of school, and regrets not being in college by now. 

“I am happy I survived, but the Seti took away my future, it took away everything,” says Uttam, now 24.

During the monsoon, Sandal’s families move together to higher ground in Khobang, but even there the Upper Seti hydropower is digging a tunnel and the dynamite blasts shake the whole area. 

… and not so lucky

Twelve years ago, Kharapani was becoming a popular destination for foreign and Nepali visitors drawn by the hot spring. But in a matter of minutes that Saturday morning the entire market town was swept away. Of the 72 who perished that day, 69 were from Kharapani — three of them Ukrainian tourists. 

Min Bahadur Bhujel used to work as a labourer hammering stones for a construction contractor at the Bhujrung Khola confluence upstream from Kharapani. His wife Rama and daughter Dipa had tried to convince him not to go to work that day because it was time to plant corn.

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Min Bahadur Bhujel's wife Rama Bhujel with a framed photo of her husband.

“I’ll go, at least I will earn some money,” Min Bahadur, who was 46 then, had said. That was the last his family saw of him.

Dipa is now 28 and married, her brother is 23 and works as a driver. Both dropped out of school. The family had struggled after losing the sole earner. For Rama, the only hope is now from her children, she looks lovingly at a framed photo of her husband and says, “All I have now is this picture of him.”

Kumari BK also has a framed photo of her son, Anil who at age 15 was already aware of his responsibility to take care of his family. He worried about the hardship his mother faced raising him and his brother.

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Kumari BK with a photograph of her 15-year-old son Anil who was swept away.

He was not going to school regularly, and saw no reason to. That Saturday he had gone down to the river to crush stones. “He went to earn a little daily wage so he could take care of us, but he left us for good,” Kumari says. “By now he would have been earning enough to take care of us.”

Even more than the bereavement of the family of those who were killed that day is the unending grief of the families of those whose bodies were never found. They know their relatives are gone, but there is still a sliver of hope. 

Gopal Tamrakar, who was 71 at the time, and his son and daughter-in-law owned a shop in Kharapani, and were making a decent living. Gopal had come to meet his son Kalyan briefly, and headed down to the market. That was the last the family saw of Gopal. Now there is only a photo on Kalyan’s mobile phone.

Kalyan’s brother was also caught in the flood. He held on to his wife, Basundhara, and daughter with both hands but the force of the water took his wife away. Basundhara’s body was never found. Kalyan’s brother has not been the same since.