Nepal | September 28, 2020

Mountain people’s lives: Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

Dipendra Gautam, Vishnu Prasad Pandey, Suraj Lamichhane and Rabindra Adhikari
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Kathmandu, July 19

Had it been a sunny day, Jambu’s vibrant neighbourhood would have been rejoicing in the fast progressing Middle Bhotekoshi Hydel Project; trucks would be passing by and people would be yelling at each other amidst the noise created by the roaring Bhotekoshi River, steep falls and ongoing construction all around.

A big quake first devastated the area in 2015. Scarred settlements, scared of more landslides, searched for flat terrain, and Jambu saw its form expand overnight, with hundreds of houses erected on both banks of the Bhotekoshi River. The settlers thought they were safe.

But the night of July 8 was unusual, unlike other drizzling nights. The Handi Khola and Kali Khola, swollen by the incessant rains, and the mudslides along these seasonal streams devoured dozens of lives, leaving one of the banks barren and uninhabitable.

Our research team reached Jambu on July 10, hiking through dozens of landslides as the Arniko Highway had been swept away by the Bhotekoshi right above Bahrabise. The entire settlement after Bahrabise was facing the challenges of slope failures. Agriculture was heavily damaged, and life was uncertain.

The local people told us that they had been spending countless sleepless nights almost every year since the 2015 earthquake that triggered around 3,500 landslides, making Sindhupalchowk one of the most affected. The steep, unstable slopes, non-engineered agricultural road construction and haphazard settlements are collectively threatening the lives of the people in Sindhupalchowk.

People have been constructing houses along the highway, hoping to catch some business from the passing buses and trucks. However, many of such constructions start from the river bank, and when the river starts eating into the banks, buildings collapse, if not the entire neighbourhood.

The nexus between natural hazards and anthropogenic activities has caused enormous losses and unimaginable damage. People are forced to opt for vulnerable areas, knowingly or unknowingly. For instance, everyone sees the unstable slopes, bank erosion and likelihood of flooding. However, in the absence of proper resettlement planning and lack of law enforcement, it’s been difficult to develop a settlement that is resilient.

Most settlements like Jambu do not follow any strict construction codes nor do they have any evacuation plans. People trapped between the two steep seasonal streams that caused the mudslides did not try to cross the suspension bridge; rather they ran along the highway. This claimed more lives due to the destructive mudslides. It is high time the government identified the impending risks and at least prepared an evacuation plan. This will save many lives in case of an emergency.

The Bhotekoshi corridor has witnessed huge devastation since 2014 or even earlier. The Jure landslide, 2015 earthquake, numerous landslides year after year, and the recent collapse of several bridges and destruction of the neighbourhoods are just some examples. The strategic Arniko Highway seldom gets a chance to connect Nepal to China. Water-induced hazards such as landslides and flooding have allied with other hazards such as earthquakes to turn the entire corridor into a hotspot of multiple and cascading hazards.

Natural causes apart, anthropogenic activities are adding fuel to the fire, and lives are under threat. It is not too late to start local level disaster risk reduction planning. Such efforts should identify habitable areas, and people should be made to establish settlements in the desired locations only. Rather than investing millions in relief and rescue, it would be wise to invest in real-time risk sensitivity studies and preparing some guidelines to counteract the impending hazards.

Furthermore, now that the multiple hazards are so intertwined, the vulnerability level should be revised after each natural calamity. This is because every torrential rainfall could trigger landslides; quakes do the same, and mostly such phenomena are vicious. The scattered settlements in Nepal are a prime challenge when disaster strikes. The local authorities could effectively plan and implement local level land use planning. This eventually will reduce risk to lives.

Infrastructure planning has also become a necessity. Due to lack of adequate studies and critical combination-based designs for multi-hazards, infrastructure projects must cope with the challenges of multiple natural disasters every year.

Apart from this, revision of the challenges and adequate countermeasures is seldom practised. Awareness building at the local level may prevent haphazard settlements across the highways and unstable areas. Alternative occupations may also divert people from constructing their houses in areas that are hazard-prone.

Investment in capacity building would be effective in downscaling the impacts of natural hazards. Apart from this, a housing permit system should be strictly enforced in all local administrative units in Nepal, and any kind of structure and infrastructure, from cow sheds to bridges, should require mandatory approval from the concerned authorities.

A technical audit system for bridges and roads should be imposed to assess the condition of infrastructure together with identification of impending risks. Thus, timely action would reduce the impacts of natural hazards. Rather than investing millions in repair and rehabilitation every year, shifting the priority or location may be easier and sustainable.

It is sad to mention that infrastructure planning in Nepal is based on individual natural hazards only. However, cascading and independent multiple hazards are inevitable, and anthropogenic impacts only aggravate the level of risk. Thus, focus should be on multi-hazard risk assessment and timely revision of the level of multi-hazard risks.

Thus most of the settlements and infrastructure across Bhotekoshi corridors need relocation or resettlement. To do this, rigorous assessments and planning are urgently needed. If this is not done, future events could be more disastrous due to multi-faceted impacts and challenges.

Resource allocation, prioritisation, preventive actions, community-oriented approaches and wise countermeasures are the key in risk reduction efforts, hence, there is a need for an action plan. People across the Bhotekoshi corridor are indeed being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea for their survival.

Gautam is an Associate Fellow at Nepal Academy of Science and Technology; Pandey is a researcher at International Water Management Institute, Nepal); Lamichhane is assistant professor at the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk; Adhikari is a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for Sustainability, Kathmandu

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