Nature’s fury

  • Early warning systems can be instrumental in combating disasters like the Sunkoshi landslide
- Deepak Chamlagain

Aug 6, 2014-

The inherently fragile, seismically active and unstable nature of the mountainous Himalayas has made the area a hotspot for geological disasters like landslides and earthquakes. The region’s yearly monsoon rainfall further tends to adversely accelerate the fragility of mountain slopes. In addition, accelerated deforestation, rampant urbanisation, high frequency of seismicity, fragile geological structures and steep topography in the Himalayas have induced a number of fatal landslides, resulting in losses that increase year by year.

The Sunkoshi landslide of August 2 is a typical consequence of slope dynamics, as the fragility of the slope had been adversely affected by both natural and anthropogenic factors. Based on the preliminary damage assessment report, the early morning disaster killed at least 33, with more than a 100 people still missing, and washed away 180 houses located along the already cracked hill slope and river bank. The landslide also severely damaged seven hydropower projects, increasing loadshedding hours nationwide.

More importantly, the narrow gorge of the Sunkoshi river was blocked for several hours due to a huge dam formed by the slope debris, resulting in the accumulation of about 8 million cusecs of water. The temporary lake posed a severe flashflood threat to the lower reaches of the river, as the Sunkoshi joins with the Koshi river in its lower reaches. This incident clearly demanded cross-country efforts as the panic of a probable flashflood was felt in the densely populated northern states of India too. At this juncture, the incident has seriously raised multiple issues, including the state’s capacity and preparedness level to manage large-scale disasters; a strategy to manage multifaceted disasters; the availability of state-of-the-art technology to forecast natural disasters; and cross-border coordination in disaster risk reduction.

Capacity and preparedness

The Sunkoshi disaster is a local landslide with significant international impact because the menace of the disaster had the potential to cross Nepali territory into the south. The fatal landslide also had a severe economic impact in the form of damage to various hydropower stations and the vital Araniko highway. On the other hand, it also shed light on our shortcomings when it comes to preparedness and response of crisis situations.

According to victims, a number of tension cracks had been reported uphill of the disaster site last year. Those with the resources had migrated to safer places but the poor and marginalised lost their lives because a lack of preparedness measures against the disaster. It is certain that victims will not receive sufficient relief materials and funds as there is no provision in the existing disaster act for compensation per the actual property lost. Furthermore, Nepal’s capacity to cope with disasters was also reflected in the damming of the river for days and Nepal’s immediate seeking of support from the northern and southern neighbours. Thus, the existing situation has clearly shown how inadequate our awareness, preparedness and capacity levels are, even for a disaster in such an accessible spot.

National strategy

Nepal has been actively participating in international forums to show off its commitment to disaster risk reduction and has been working according to the Hyogo Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Along these lines, Nepal formulated and approved a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management (NSDRM) in 2009. The document has been seen as a key strategy paper for overall provisions to cope with natural as well as man-made disasters. The NSDRM has clearly identified five priority areas that are in line with the Hyogo Framework. However, the vision, plans and recommendations have not been put into action yet. As a result, disaster risk reduction efforts are being conducted on an ad hoc basis, resulting only in relief and rescue operations.

The major task of institutional development—ie, the formation of a National Disaster Management Authority as per the provision in the NSDRM, which would be key to disaster risk reduction—has not materialised yet. The authority, as envisioned, would consist of a pool of experts (both technical and policymakers) related to disaster risk reduction that can pave the way to resilience. Simultaneously, the existing Natural Calamity Act 1982 should be revised or a new comprehensive and broad-based Disaster Management Act should be put in place as the current legislation focuses mainly on rescue and response operations. These legal provisions certainly help to initiate several instrumental steps like research on multifaceted disasters, preparedness, reconstruction, rehabilitation and disaster risk insurance.

State-of-the art technology

Several state-of-the art technologies are available, based on which, at least rainfall-induced landslides can be forecast and alerts issued to people in and around the risk zone. Doppler Weather Radar (DWR) and Numerical Weather Prediction Model (NWPM) can be useful in mountainous terrain like the Himalayas to predict flash floods, cloud bursts and landslides. Data obtained from these techniques can also be applied for the development of early warning systems.

As Himalayan rivers are the sole tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, mega disasters in upstream rivers can have great impacts on the northern states of India. In this regard, Nepal, along with its southern neighbour India, should initiate a pilot project in the Himalayan river basin to monitor rainfall patterns, aiming to predict landslides and floods. Successful operation and accurate and effective forecasting of weather systems can extend their application to landslide-prone areas of the Himalayas.

In the end, geological disasters like landslides have short onset times, so proper awareness, preparedness and early warning systems can be instrumental in saving lives. Mega disasters in the Himalayas—like the 2005 Pakistan earthquake or the 2008 Koshi flood—are trans-boundary in nature. Hence, multilateral cooperation is necessary for effective disaster risk management. Nepal should, at least, implement the NSDRM at the national level and develop cross-country mechanisms with its neighbours for disaster risk reduction in Nepal’s major river basins to prevent looming disaster like the Sunkoshi landslide.

Chamlagain is former Geological Disaster Management Specialist at the New

Delhi-based SAARC Disaster Management Centre and an Assistant Professor at Tribhuvan University

Published: 06-08-2014 08:18

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