Sunkoshi tragedy exposes failure in hazard mapping

OM ASTHA RA

KATHMANDU, Aug 7: The landslide that killed more than 150 people and blocked the Sunkoshi River last Saturday at Mankha village of Sindhupalchowk district has exposed yawning gaps in NepalĀ“s hazard mapping and early warning mechanisms.

Hours before the dawn of August 2, a massive landslide occurred, creating a huge debris dam that completely blocked the course of the Sunkoshi River for over 12 hours. Only after a Nepal Army (NA) team created a channel through controlled explosions, some of the blocked water started flowing downward. However, almost a week later, the dam is still there, posing flood threats to people living downstream.

As per a report released by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a 1.9 km long slope of land perched 1,350 meters above the river bed collapsed in Jure area of Mankha village, burying around two dozen houses. Within the first three days of the disaster, rescuers recovered 33 dead bodies from under the rubble. On the fourth day, the government declared all 123 missing people dead.

Nepal Army soldiers perched atop rocks in the Sunkoshi River as they set up ropes for possible rescue efforts in view of the continuing threat of flooding.(Phot Couresy: Nepal Army)

Immediately after the Sunkoshi landslide, the government declared downstream villages along the river a flood emergency zone and evacuated more than 100 vulnerable families from the area. As days passed, normalcy seems to be slowly returning to downstream villages. With the NA team trying to release more water through controlled explosions, a lurking crisis seems to have been averted.

However, the Sunkoshi disaster could just be a wake-up call. If serous efforts are not undertaken, immediately, more such disasters could strike Nepali villages in future, say experts.

Haphazard settlements

In Larcha, a little village located between Tatopani and Fulping Katti VDCs of Sindhupalchowk, a massive landslide had occurred in 1996, sweeping away dozens of houses. However, the landslip-affected families resettled in the same village.

The Larcha landslide is a testimony to how hundreds of thousands of families are haphazardly living in flood and landslide prone villages. They are often struck by floods and landslides but continue to live there. Worse, the government has no plans and programs to identify flood and landslide prone villages and rehabilitate people from there.

Even in Jure, the hill where the Sunkoshi landslide occurred had collapsed around 60 years ago, according to Amrit Kumar Bohara, a CPN (UML) leader who witnessed the disaster when he was just a six-year-old child. But, the locals of Jure neither relocated to safer locations nor the government ever tried to evacuate them.

Suresh Nepal, who was Vice President of the Sindhupalchowk District Development Committee (DDC) when the Larcha landslide occurred, says, “People always want to live near the road even though there is constant fear of flooding and landslides. This is why the locals in Larcha and Jure did not move elsewhere even after being struck by landslides in the past.”

It is not just the locals who choose to overlook the threats of possible disasters. Even big companies have built hydropower plants fully knowing the risks of possible floods and landslides. Along the Sunkoshi (Bhotekoshi) River, there are at least three major hydro power plants apart from many other micro hydropower projects.

“Some people know the risks but are too poor to go elsewhere,” says Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior climate change specialist at the ICIMOD. “But, if you look at houses built along the Sunkoshi River, it would be hard to say that all the locals are poor and therefore incapable of moving elsewhere. In fact, they take calculated risks. So do hydropower companies.”

Risks can be reduced

The Sunkoshi river basin is vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) and Landside Dam Outburst Floods (LDOFs). In the last 30 years, one GLOF and two LDOF events, excluding the August 2 tragedy, have already occurred in this region.

After a GLOF event in 1981, the level of the Araniko Highway was raised and taller bridges were built in an effort to minimize damages that future GLOF and LDOF events could cause. Beside, early warning system was set up by the Bhote Koshi hydropower plant.

What was done in the wake of the 1981 GLOF needs to be scaled up, say experts. They say hazard mapping and early warning system need to be developed not only in the Sunkoshi basin but across the country. “Although we cannot control natural hazards like landslides and floods, there are many things that can be done to minimize their adverse impact on lives, livelihoods, and valuable infrastructure,” says the ICIMOD report on the Sunkoshi landslide. “More efforts to map landslide risks are needed, and much more frequent monitoring of potential landslide sites is necessary.”

Can what the ICIMOD report recommends be done? “It is not a question of whether we can,” says Dr Shrestha. “We can and we must do it. If we cannot do it across the country at one once, let us start it from the most vulnerable village. But, let us do it right now.”

Published on 2014-08-08 03:06:2

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