Abnormal rise in monsoon lightning in Nepal

The heavy toll in landslides and floods during this year’s rainy season in Nepal have overshadowed another frequent disaster: lightning.

This week’s incessant rains left 12 more people killed and nine are still missing in landslides, taking the total this monsoon season to 350 -- the deadliest in the past decade.

However, the high death toll in landslides have masked the second biggest cause of death: lightning. Nepal’s high terrain, frequent thunderstorms and densely populated mountains make it one of the most dangerous places to be during a thunderstorm.

Lightning kills more people than floods in Nepal, Sonia Awale

Although lightning can strikes anywhere, the most deadly ones are in the mountains and the most dangerous time is the pre-monsoon. However, there have been a surprisingly high number of lightning strikes during the monsoon this year.

Four women were killed in a lightning strike in Kalaiya on 3 July while they were planting paddy in the fields. Four more were killed during a thunderstorm in Saptari district on 25 July.

At least 62 people have been killed and 200 injured in lightning strikes so far this year. Of them, 32 have died and 81 have been injured in the three months since the onset of the monsoon.

Forecast: more thunderstorms, Om Astha Rai

Meteorologist say such a high number of deaths from lightning strikes during the monsoon is unusual, and blame the increased intensity of storms on climate change. Nepal is the country with the most annual lightning fatalities – more than the whole of North America.

Besides human deaths, lightnings also cause colossal damage to livestock, with Jumla district leading in sheep and cattle killed by lightning every year. But even by Jumla’s standards, this year has been particularly deadly.

On 25 August, an unusual series of freak electric storms killed 500 sheep in several pastures in the mountains near Patarasi of Jumla district. Gauri Budha alone lost 40 of his sheep when lightning struck a shed where they were sheltering from the rain at 1 pm.

Budha is devastated because he was rearing the sheep to pay for the education of his two sons. "After our sons started school 10 years ago, we paid for their education by selling sheep,” he said. “Now the elder son is studying science and the other son will graduate from high school next year. How will I pay for their education now?”

Budha and other farmers whose livestock were also killed applied to the village municipality for financial assistance, but it has been a month and they have not received anything yet. The farmers traditionally take the sheep up to high pasture to fatten them up for sale during Dasain, when each sheep can sell for up to Rs20,000. That was when the storm hit the ridge where they were grazing. Kali Bahadur Rawat, Ward Chairman of Patarasi rural Municpality says that the loss have been devastating for the farmers because they do not even have the ewes to rebuild the herd.

Some 500 sheep were killed in a series of freak electric storms in Jumla on 25 August. Photos: Krishna Shah

"It will be difficult to replace them right away, which adds to the burden of the farmers whose income have already been hit by the pandemic,” Rawat says.

Rawat understands the loss because he himself has suffered the death of his own livestock during a thunderstorm seven years ago which killed 20 of his sheep. Since he is now the elected Ward chair, he says he feels the people’s pain and will expedite compensation for Budha and other farmers.

In Kathmandu, the head of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority’s chief Anil Pokharel says that the Ministry of Home Affairs gives Rs200,000 in compensation when a person is killed by lighting, or Rs100,000 if a family home is damaged in a landslide, but for livestock the understanding is that farmers should have been insured.

Chitra Bahadur Shrestha of the National Farmers Organisation says: “It is unfair that farmers are not compensated for loss of livestock to lightning. And it is the job of the government to tell farmers that they have to insure their animals.”

Lightning expert Shri Ram Sharma says other calamities like landslides, floods and earthquakes get all the attention in Nepal, and despite the loss of life and cost to farmers, lightning is often ignored. “It is seen as an act of god, and since most of those affected are poor villagers, there is no policy to compensate the farmers for the losses,” Sharma explained. “For a country that has such a high exposure to lightning risk, there should be more study, research and thunderstorm forecasting.”

The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has installed a series of Doppler weather radars in Surkhet, Hetauda and Udaypur to detect supercells and forecast major thunderstorm activity, but that information needs to get to farmers in time.