Letting landslides lurk

  • There is neither early warning against disasters nor comprehensive plans to minimise the impacts of landslides
- Navin singh khadka

Jul 14, 2017-

As long as there are mountains, there will be landslides. Earthquakes and extreme weather events including those related to climate change will make them more frequent and intense. No surprise then that we are seeing increasing incidents of landslips and rock falls in the country and the region—more so during monsoons like this one, when heavy rainfall loosens soil and triggers disaster. Making things worse are massive amount of rains within a small span of time—in line with climatic changes as predicted by scientists. And if an area has issues like deforestation or rampant infrastructure development, the risks grow manifold.

Risks on the rise

Although no official figures exist, experts say they have observed a significant rise in landslide incidents in recent years. In interviews I conducted for a BBC report, geologists with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc’s) Disaster Management Centre in Delhi said the rise is particularly evident in northern parts of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and some areas of Bangladesh.

Figures from the centre show that of the total landslides that happen across the globe, nearly 60 percent are in South Asia and this might go up in the future.

It means the disaster is killing more people, damaging more property and infrastructure, displacing more people and disrupting lives more frequently and intensely.

So the question is: what is being done about it? And the answer is: hardly anything. Many politicians and policymakers are still hardwired with the argument that it is a seasonal disaster and we will have to live with it the way our previous generations and ancestors did.

If this argument holds any water, the world needs to stop talking about disaster risk reduction—a buzzword these days in good governance, development and foreign aid worlds. If we are doing something about floods, sea level rise, wildfires and other natural disasters, there is no reason why landslides should be an exception.

A 2015 report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 90 percent of landslide fatalities in Nepal take place during monsoon.  This is also the season when the country receives as much as 80 percent of the annual total precipitation. Of that rainfall, if, say, more than 50 percent is seen within a few weeks or days, would mountain slopes be able to cope? And this does not apply to Nepal alone. Other countries in this part of South Asia share the same fate.

Managing the problem

This was why Saarc organised a workshop on landslides seven years ago in Bhutan. “It is now well established that unlike earthquakes, most landslides could be predicted through a systematic programme of geotechnical investigation, instrumentation, and real time monitoring”, a paper presented during the workshop said, “It may be a good question to ask in the workshop—why then the entire SAARC region does not have even a single inspiring example of early warning against landslides?”

That was in 2010. Countless landslides have occurred in the region ever since, with thousands of lives lost, tens of thousands displaced and properties and infrastructure worth billions of rupees destroyed. And all these are happening right now as you are reading these lines, as torrential rains lash our mountains and hilly regions, cutting off highways and supply arteries. And yet, that question still remains unanswered.  

“What every SAARC country requires is a set of user friendly large scale landslide hazard maps which are ground validated and certified for their reliability,” the paper presented in the 2010 workshop read. “The landslide hazard maps at appropriate scales are required as much for the advancement of our knowledge base as for planning, design and construction purposes. An agreed approach and methodology of landslide hazard mapping and risk assessment will give a big impulse to hazard mapping programmes, create base for scientific exchange of information between the SAARC countries and place the landslide risk management national initiatives in a much higher orbit.”

A number of devices for early landslide warning were mentioned then. These included simple wires or special switches actuated by the pressure of moving debris coupled to a decision-support system that releases early warning alerts; electrical switch poles which turn to an upright position upon displacement; photo electrical barriers, especially for a rapidly moving debris flow or earth flow; pulsed radar for snow avalanches; fibre optic sensors and technology; acoustic emission technology; auto actuated photographic systems; and GPS observations.

Technology has made huge leaps since then. There has been a whopping increase in foreign aid and assistance for disaster risk reduction and climate-proofing finances. Why then are we not seeing anything happening on this front? A few non-government and foreign-aided agencies might be doing what they can on their part, but for the government this largely remains a non-prioritised issue.

By and large, natural disasters are still recognised as a godly act—“daivi prakop” as they are known in Nepali. Most of the works the government’s line agencies do are rescue and relief, and they are basically post-disaster.

If there is a real will to do something, several initiatives can be taken. Satellite images, including those from Nasa—that did offer help last year—can be used for landslide hazard mapping, for instance. The country is planning to have its own satellites in space—if this ever happens, perhaps they could well be used for this purpose.

In the meantime, on the ground, bull dozers and excavators for road and other infrastructure building will have to be used only after assessing landslip risks or the fragility of soil conditions. We are now hearing about tunnel-building equipment coming into the country. It is certainly good news for development but, again, whether or not that could lead to disasters is something to remember.

If you think this is too much to expect from a government so pre-occupied with other “important” issues in the centre, perhaps we can hope for something more from newly elected local bodies. But these local leaders will first need to be oriented as to why we should worry about landslides and what can be done about them.

Are geologists in authorised agencies listening? 

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London

Published: 14-07-2017 08:12

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