Soon, monsoon

Still reeling from last year’s flood, Kagbeni braces for another rainy season

WAR ZONE: Nearly one year after the August 2023 flash flood, Kagbeni is still in ruins and is bracing for another rainy season. Photos: WEN STEPHENSON

The hallmark of climate breakdown in the Himalaya is that it does not rain when and where it is supposed to, but pours at the wrong time in areas it ought not to.

The trans-Himalayan Mustang region has had successive snowless winters but has experienced heavy monsoon downpours most characteristic of the southern foothills. But local and national governments seem ill-prepared to deal with this anomaly.

The lack of readiness was seen in unprecedented wildfires in March-April, which was partly due to a long winter drought. Soon, the monsoon will be upon us and the government appears to be doing little more than quantifying the death and destruction from floods and landslides.

On 13 August 2023, Namyak Gurung of Kagbeni in Mustang saw a flash flood that he had never seen in his 50-year life. Cloudbursts the day before set off landslides that dammed the Kag Khola, a tributary of the Kali Gandaki.  

The lake burst, destroying 30 of the 125 houses in the village. A police station, monasteries, bridges, a hospital, and a school were damaged. No one was killed because there were warning calls from people upstream. Nearly a year later, Kagbeni still looks like a war zone and the people dread the coming rainy season. 

Kagbeni flood

“I couldn’t leave the place of my ancestors," says Namyak who has relocated to his brother’s place after his two-storied building was destroyed. “I’m now building my new house a long way above the river. But I keep getting nightmares of another flood.” 

Tenzing Gurung, 36, was rescued from the second floor of her lodge in Kagbeni. Grey sand and boulders still cover the yard and the river now runs through what used to be the gate to her lodge.

“I had never thought something like this could happen here,” says Tenzing. “We are scared, but where can we go?”

The flood also damaged the local Janashanti Secondary School where two of Tenzing’s sons study. The school needs immediate relocation, but nothing has been done. “I just pray that the next flood doesn’t happen when my sons are in school,” adds Tenzing.

Mustang and Manag districts are supposed to be in the Himalayan rainshadow, but precipitation patterns are changing. Light monsoon rains have turned into destructive torrents followed by long periods of drought.

In June 2021, Manang got all of its average annual rainfall of 300mm in just one week. A wall of water, mud, boulders and logs rushed down the Marsyangdi River, washing away the highway, bridges, settlements and other infrastructure in Taal and Chame villages.

“We have seen that the trans-Himalayan regions are now getting more rain than before, the whole rainfall pattern has changed,” says meteorologist Rajendra Sharma of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA).

He adds: “In the past, when it rained in Mustang, it happened gently over a period of time but now, we get everything in a day or two. Such heavy downpours increase the risk of floods and landslides.” 

In the last 10 years, a total of 1,500 floods, 2,500 landslides, and 1,549 high rainfall events occurred across the country and killed 2,141 people, second only to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Yet the state appears ill-prepared to prevent the loss of life and damage — even though not all the destruction can be blamed solely on climate breakdown. 

“From the Manang and Melamchi floods in 2021 to last year’s Mustang, all of these are weather-related disasters, and the rate of these incidents has increased due to climate change,” says climate expert Dharma Upreti.

Although climatologists do not directly blame individual disasters on climate change, they say there is a correlation between rising global temperatures, higher sea surface temperatures contributing to more water vapour in the atmosphere. 

The Himalaya is also heating faster than the global average due to a phenomenon called ‘Elevation Dependent Warming’. Melting mountains also pose the additional risk of glacial lake outbursts and avalanches. 

The South Asian Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF) has projected above-normal rainfall for Nepal this monsoon. And with less than a month before the onset of the rains, Nepal is not prepared. And here in Kagbeni, people have still not recovered from last year’s disaster.

The NDRRMA’s primary focus is post-disaster humanitarian aid and relief such as stockpiling food, medicines, tents, electricity supply and connectivity — not so much on preparedness.

“We do not have sufficient resources to manage damage caused by disasters year after year, the local government should step up,” says NDRRMA chief Anil Pokhrel. The lack of preparedness and coordination between line agencies means slow response to floods. Local governments are first responders, but do not have the financial support or technical know-how to deal with disasters on their own.

Says district administrator Hom Bahadur Thapa Magar in Kagbeni: “Another monsoon is coming, and given what happened last year, we urgently need to build embankments but we do not have the resources or manpower to do so.”

  • Most read