This monsoon is a wake-up call. We ignore these moving mountains at our own peril.
Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI
For centuries, Nepalis have been migrating to seek their fortune. Poverty, indebtedness, discrimination and disasters drove them out in droves.
Even while young men lined up to be enlisted in the British military in India, some trekked down to Gorakhpur to be shipped out as indentured labour to colonial sugarcane fields in Fiji and Trinidad. Others went to Assam, Bhutan and Burma.
Not much has changed. Lack of opportunity is still pushing Nepalis out to India, Malaysia, the Gulf states, or further afield. The money they send home is the backbone of the economy. Migration and disasters are interlinked.
But what will really lift Nepal into a golden age will be our vast hydroelectric potential — or so we were told. Over and over again, the mantra has been repeated that we sit on 73,000MW of energy that will propel Nepal into a golden age of prosperity.
That figure was a myth, and persistent political failure means that Nepal today is importing half its electricity needs from India. School textbooks try to instil pride among Nepalis that we have the highest mountain in the world, but gloss over the fact that we share Mt Everest with China.
We are also not taught just how fragile and disaster-prone these mountains are.
Our forebears knew they could farm floodplains, but not live on them. They settled on higher slopes, set up towns along ridgelines to be safe from landslides, and left the fertile flats below to farm. Today, educated Nepalis can read and write, but this traditional wisdom that protected us from disasters is forgotten.
The Himalaya is the world’s youngest mountain range, and its geology makes the terrain inherently prone to slope failure. The Kosi has some of the highest sediment loads of any river in the world because of the constant weathering of the mountains. Himalayan topography blocks the southwest monsoon, forcing it to dump 80% of annual precipitation on its southern slopes in three months.
All this means that landslides and avalanches, earthquakes and cloudbursts, flash floods and cataclysmic bursting of dammed rivers are all natural phenomena. These events have been happening for millions of years. But just as a tree falling in a jungle has not really fallen if no one is there to record it, they became ‘disasters’ only when humans started settling along the foothills.
We may be tempted to conclude after last year’s deadly landslide season and last week’s devastating floods that these disasters are getting worse. But are they?
It may just be that more people are settling in high-risk areas, and visuals of the destruction can be immediately disseminated because of the spread of media. There are just more of us now to post videos of the tree falling in the jungle.
At least 12 hydropower projects that were either under construction or already feeding electricity to the grid, were knocked out of action in Central Nepal on 12-14 June. One of them was the 44MW Super Madi project in Kaski. The damage runs into billions of rupees, and it will take at least a year for many of them to be rebuilt.
The much-delayed $500 million Melamchi water supply project has been badly damaged at its headworks, and although it was officially inaugurated in April, its real operation may now be pushed back by six months.
On 18 June, China sent word that the Rongsi River had been dammed by a landslide and it could affect the Tama Kosi valley downstream in Nepal. Dolakha authorities alerted the population. Luckily, the landslide was cleared and the danger passed. But for a time, the Rs 70 billion 456MW Upper Tama Kosi project that was slated for opening next month, was at high risk.
The only good thing we can say about the destruction so far this rainy season is that it could have been much worse. It has warned us to be more careful about where and what kind of infrastructure we build, ensuring proper engineering, construction that does not cut corners. It is a wake-up call that we ignore these moving mountains are our own peril.
Just as poorly-designed roads are being constructed haphazardly, hydropower licenses have been issued in geologically fragile sites without vetting, and with little risk assessment of future maximum flood intensity. Allowing river beds, slopes and the Chure to be plundered will mean worse disasters in future. The climate crisis has added the threat of glacial lake outburst floods to an already high-risk region.
Hydropower plants have to be spread out so that if one is knocked out, it will not have a serious impact on national power supply. If Upper Tama Kosi was already operational and had been damaged by the flash flood from China, it would have taken out nearly one-third of Nepal’s present power capacity.
The other lesson is not to put all our energy eggs in the hydropower basket. Nepal now needs a more flexible energy mix with cheaper and quicker to install on-grid solar farms generating power for daytime use. This will reduce over-dependence on hydro-energy, and also lessen the pressure to ruin more rivers by disturbing their natural flow and endanger biodiversity.
Nepalis must be aware of what we are up against when we live in the Himalaya. An apocalyptic flood like the one 800 years ago that buried Pokhara Valley in sand and boulders 100m thick can happen again. Geologists say it was caused by the bursting of a lake on the Seti River upstream that was blocked by a landslide in the 1255 mega earthquake. If that had happened today, the death and destruction would be unimaginable.
They may not occur on the same scale as Pokhara, but other smaller disasters are waiting to happen. The climate crisis will make them more probable. The last two monsoons created disaster refugees — people were forced out of their villages because they have become unliveable, adding to the push factor for migration.
Times like these call for a political leadership that understands the threats that Nepal faces, how they are being exacerbated by human intervention, and prepares to minimise the impact.