Cost of calamity

  • Sunkosi must force planners to reflect on the fragility of Himalayan geology
Cost of calamity

Aug 4, 2014-

Early Saturday morning, at around 3am, a massive landslide came crashing down on the residents of Jure village in Sindhupalchok district. A swathe of land 500 metres in height swept the village and adjoining Sunkoshi river, creating a bishyari, the Nepali term for a temporary dam created by landslide  on a river, 45 metres high. The bloated monsoon Sunkoshi started to swell, creating a massive lake behind the dam, containing up to 8 million cusecs of water. Faced with the very real danger of the dam bursting and downstream communities being swept away, the Nepal Army conducted two controlled blasts, creating pathways to divert the flow of water. Meanwhile, the Army also deployed around 700 personnel at the site and the government declared all downstream areas a crisis zone, beginning the evacuation of people from 11 districts to higher ground.

The damage has been significant. Thirty dead bodies had been recovered from the site at the time of writing and over 120 were still missing, many presumed buried under the debris. The death toll is expected to rise. A kilometre of the Araniko Highway, a crucial trade artery linking Nepal with China, has been damaged while transmission lines from the 46MW Bhotekoshi hydropower project were also destroyed cutting if off from the power-starved central grid. The danger, however, is not over yet. The water is continuing to drain out but smaller landslides keep occurring.

Given the scale of the disaster, the government and the Nepal Army must be commended for their quick response. The controlled blasts, by all indications, helped relieve what could have been a catastrophic flood and timely warnings through cell phones and the radio also alerted downstream communities to the danger. But it was social media that broke the story. Engineer Kapil Dhital’s on-the-ground Tweets with a plethora of photographs helped gauge the extent of the disaster and spread the news to other media.

There is, however, a deeper issue here. These disasters tell us how little we know of Himalayan geology and, worse, how unprepared we are. Nepal’s rivers are notoriously unpredictable, especially during the monsoon. This must always be factored in while constructing infrastructure projects—roads, dams or large scale industries. Though it is still too early to tell conclusively, some experts point to haphazard road building in the hills as a possible cause for the disaster. Around Nepal, hundreds of similar roads are built by a nexus of corrupt officials and construction syndicates further fueled by the absence of locally elected governments. Given the fragility of Nepal’s river valleys, indiscriminate construction dramatically increases the risk of natural disasters like slope failure.

So while there is no way around building infrastructure, it is necessary to conduct thorough studies into the environmental impact the construction is going to have. The government must always think in the long term and account for the environment while planning national strategies for development. In the immediate, communities downstream from the Sindhupalchok landslide must continue to be evacuated, as the danger is not yet over. Rescue efforts must be continued with and victims provided with relief.

 

Published: 05-08-2014 10:12

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