Lost and damaged


On the evening of 15 June 2021, Baburam Bhandari was sitting down for dinner with his family, when the police sent out a warning about a flood on the Melamchi River. 

The family quickly started packing, but the debris flow soon engulfed the house. While Bhandari, his wife, daughter-in-law, and grandson survived, the flood took away his son Madhav. 

“All I have now is a piece of paper,” says Bhandari, holding up his land ownership certificate (pictured above last week). "Everything else, my son, my home, my crops, they are all gone.”

The flood claimed the lives of 25 people in Helambu, 360 families were displaced, their homes and farms destroyed. Downstream in Melamchi Bazar, two motorway bridges, six suspension bridges, 41 government buildings and 322 houses were destroyed with losses estimated at Rs57.3 billion.

Nepal sustains infrastructure damage worth 2% of its GDP annually, amounting to Rs80 billion to calamities like this. The state spends Rs 700 million in reconstruction.  

A 2021 postmortem of the Melamchi flood by ICIMOD blamed extreme weather caused by climate change and human factors, concluding that glacial moraines collapsed and washed down older sediment deposits. 

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The Nepal Engineering Association also concluded that the flood was due to a localised cloudburst at the headwaters of the Melamchi River with slopes destablised by the 2015 earthquake contributing. 

“While rainfall was evenly distributed over monsoon seasons in the past, it now rains heavily in short localised bursts due to climate change,” explains geologist Basanta Raj Adhikari at Pulchok Engineering Campus.   

Lack of accurate local weather forecast and early warning has also been cited as contributing to disaster-related loss and damage. 

Floods similar to Melamchi hit eastern Nepal in June this year, causing damage worth Rs121 billion, affecting 15 hydropower plants and washing away highways in Panchthar and Taplejung. But Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology was still predicting that the monsoon was a few days away.

What caused the deadly flash flood was that a later westerly front blocked the progress on the monsoon, forcing it to dump the rain over eastern Nepal.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) says 34 people have been killed in the first 23 days of the monsoon, with disaster-induced losses amounting to Rs10 billion. 

At COP27 in Glasgow, there was a proposal for developed countries to help climate vulnerable nations by compensating for climate change-induced loss and damage. However, this fund has not got anywhere due to a lack of commitment from rich countries. The Biden administration in the US has flatly refused to fund loss and damage. 

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But there are things Nepal can do with its own resources to adapt to the climate crisis. Rajendra Raj Sharma Nepal, formerly with the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport says substandard infrastructure and their location in high-risk areas adds to the loss of life and property and the cost of reconstruction and rehabilitation after disasters. 

“The mayors themselves want the work done before the assessment is complete to cut costs,” says Sharma. 

The National Planning Commission's ‘Sustainable Development Goals, Status and Roadmap: 2016-2030' states that physical infrastructure construction must be strong, well-planned, safe, and sustainable. In reality they are anything but.

Nepal's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Strategic Plan of Action (2018-2030) focuses on disaster risk reduction, relief and rescue.

The head of the NDRRMA Anil Pokharel says there is little hope that the West will keep its pledge for a loss and damage fund, but feels successive governments have also not done enough. He says, “Houses, roads, and bridges are a priority but as much attention needs to be paid to the suffering of families affected by disasters.”

All this is no relief at all for the family of Baburam Bhandari and others in Melamchi Valley two years after the disastrous flood that upturned their lives.

Read also: Better forecasting reduces flood impact in Nepal