Nepal is bearing the brunt of water-related disasters, once again this year, to such an extent that even the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been eclipsed. Almost 100 persons have already lost their lives or gone missing due to floods and landslides in the span of a month since the onset of monsoon in mid-June. The cost of the physical damages is another issue because they have to be re-built in the hour of already ailing economic condition. The worst part is, we are not even halfway across this year’s monsoon. While we keep ranting about the water-induced hazards like floods, landslides year to year, one question that we need to find an answer to is how natural are these natural disasters? Are these disasters really natural or human-invited?
Hazards and Disasters
Disasters are often confused with the term hazards. Hazards are actually the natural processes like extreme rainfall, floods, landslides, earthquakes, etc. When hazards meet people, physical properties, livelihood (collectively referred as exposure) in hazard-prone zones (vulnerability), that results in a disaster. Hazards cannot be prevented but disasters can be, to a great extent if not completely. A flood in an area with no people and infrastructure (zero exposure) is unlikely to result in a disaster. Similarly, flooding in an area with proper flood-resilient buildings and infrastructure (zero vulnerability) is also less likely to invite a disaster. Disasters are not the acts of God. They are, in most cases, the utter consequences of human actions. Disasters require human-centric exposure and vulnerability. Therefore, it would be logical to state that there exists no such thing as a disaster that is actually natural. As maintaining social distance reduces the likelihood of being infected with coronavirus, moving away from vulnerable areas will allay the likelihood of disasters.
Water-Induced Hazards and Nepal
The topography together with the climatic pattern are the two unchangeable natural components that renders Nepal prone to the water-related hazards. However, these natural factors alone are not responsible for the disasters in Nepal, it is anthropogenic factors or the human-interventions that set a platform for transforming hazards into disasters. So, which of our activities amplify the risks of disaster and how?
The fundamental matter we first need to understand is that the nature hinges on the equilibrium among its multiple components. Moreover, this balance is constantly renewed due to the dynamic nature of the natural processes. Of the several components, the balance among the rain, land and rivers is necessary for reducing the probability of disasters. Any undue alteration in one of these components may have a cascading effect on the other. The crux of the water-induced problems in the context of Nepal lies in the disturbance of this very equilibrium.
Extreme rainfall events are not a new phenomenon in Nepal although their frequency might have been increased in the recent years. Furthermore, in the recent years, the incidents of disasters are on the rise even during the normal rainfall. There is a little or no direct control over the rainfall pattern. Hence, this shifts us to the next component, the land.
The stress on the hills and mountains is greater than ever and increasing rapidly which can mainly be attributed to the unplanned and unscientific construction activities (along with tectonic activities).There is a rising race among the local communities and the local-level governments to open-up road tracks simply by excavating the hills disregarding the engineering, topography, and geology and drainage system. There is no denying the fact that the road networks are vital to the overall livelihood and the development of the hill communities. However, if the roads that are meant for supporting the livelihood are putting people’s life and property further into risk, there has to be something wrong in our approach. To add an example, concrete buildings have replaced the traditionally stone-thatched buildings in the steep hilly terrain. We need to acknowledge the fact that the hills/mountains and the plain areas cannot be treated in the same manner in terms of construction activities. Most of the landslides and debris flow damages consequently are reported in the vicinity of such areas. Rather than moving away from the hazard-prone areas, people are moving toward them.
Hills and mountains which act as a zone of supply of water and the sediments to the rivers downstream, once disturbed, will have an adverse effect on the overall river processes. For example, high sediments eroded from the Chure hills have left the river-bed downstream rise consistently which has amplified the flood-inundation risks in the adjacent floodplain. Furthermore, the indiscriminate sand mining has caused the frequent and unpredictable shifting of river channels and damaged the hydraulic structures. The basic theory of water-science (termed as hydraulics) are seen to be ignored in many of our river management works. For example, the river cross-section is naturally meant to be trapezoidal which can convey the flood discharge in the best possible manner. However, even in the Kathmandu Valley just to provide an extra space to the roads, the rivers are turned into a rectangular canal like shape by constructing the vertical walls along the banks. If we do not give rivers the way, they will find their way which is evident from the frequent flooding of different riverbank areas of the Kathmandu Valley in recent years. Unplanned land use and the consequent urbanization in the Tarai have exacerbated the drainage problem and resulted in persistent waterlogging with every rainfall event. Whenever the media reports issues like illegal sand-mining, river encroachment, hill excavation, etc., they are often treated as a local issue and seldom make any national impact.
To sum up, it is not just the four months of monsoon that is causing the problem rather it is both our actions and inactions in the rest of the eight months that have been reflected in the disasters during the monsoon.
It should be clear that human actions are the catalyst of disasters and how we manage our actions will dictate their impact on the community. Since natural disasters comprises of multiple dimensions, it is beyond the control of a single institution. Every institution involved either with rain, land or water should comply with the disaster management framework. Management of disasters requires interactions and coordination among the multiple stakeholders where the role of the public is even more crucial. Our approach of tackling the water-related disasters might also need a rethink. The development activities should be in coherence with the sustainability aspect because it is not just for us but also for the future generations. There has never been a more urgent time than now to act. However, until actions are taken, these are just the words on a paper. Finally, the disaster management issue needs to be at the center of all other infrastructure development program and policy.
(Karki and Acharya are practitioners of water-resources engineering in the government sector)