Mountains to move

  • No government agency is monitoring or mapping the landslides triggered by the earthquake and its aftershocks
- Navin Singh Khadka
Mountains to move

May 21, 2015-

One of the mountains overlooking Springe in North-West Germany, where I was this week, disturbingly caught my attention. The otherwise lush green mountainous area had a small strikingly brown stretch. This patch of steep rock and exposed soil amidst the rich vegetation cover looked alarming to my eyes. “Landslides? Here as well?” I asked, so pre-occupied as I was with the aftermath of the major earthquake in Nepal last month. It wasn’t, I was quickly assured; it was a place for rock climbing. But the sight of that rocky bit standing out amid the alpine trees and some houses on the foothills reminded me that settlements in the mid-hills and the mountainous districts near Kathmandu that have been left more landslide-prone by the earthquake and its aftershocks.

But more than the rock-climbing cliff in Germany, it was how the Nepali state was dealing— or, actually not dealing—with the imminent danger that caused my concern. It is testament to the severity of the situation that this column has focussed on landslides for the second time in a row in the past two weeks. Here is the crux of the issue: no government agency in the country is seriously looking at the threat posed by possible landslides in the earthquake-hit districts.  

A dysfunctional department

That the mountains in these areas have been badly shaken by the quake and its aftershocks and the soil on them have been set loose is a no-brainer. Already known as landslide-prone mainly during the monsoon, these districts now are even more vulnerable to landslips. Given that there are so many mountains, the key question is to identify which ones are now more unstable and pose a threat to human settlements and infrastructures. Basically, what we need now is monitoring and mapping, followed by evacuation of communities in villages that could come in the way of rocks, boulders, and soil hurtling down. And no one is doing that—at least not the government agencies that should be.

In principle, it is the job of the Department of Mines and Geology to study what impacts the earthquake has had on the geology of the main shaking-zone—and landslides are definitely one of them. After a study, the Department is expected to recommend to the government which human settlements need to be urgently relocated. But, here is what the Department’s Director General Sarbajit Mahato said in an interview I did for the BBC, “There are still aftershocks happening and we cannot go to the affected areas now. The government is collecting information from the Chief District Officers (CDOs) of these districts and on that basis, the villages that are at risk will receive help.”

The CDOs can only do so much; they are already overwhelmed with relief and rehabilitation responsibilities. And how can you expect a bureaucrat to understand and communicate the threat of landslides? If only it was all about watching from helicopters—as Home Ministry officials seem to have done—you would not need geologists. When asked if his department had the budget to do this urgent work, Mahato said, “There is no budget as such but if required, the government can make it available. We will first need instructions from the Home Ministry.”

When this scribe visited the massive landslide site in Jure last year, two officials from the Department of Mines and Geology were also there. Guess what they were there for? To estimate the financial values of the rocks and boulders that had come down, burying entire villages. No wonder the Department is under the Industry Ministry. Mahato says his men had been there earlier to study the risks of further landslip as well. Villagers in the area said no official had visited the site to assess the risks and no one had told them if it was safe to live in the area.

You can only hope that the government has been shaken and awakened by the earthquake to make the Geology Department do something more than just measure the magnitude of earthquakes and monetarily value landslide-triggered boulders, mud, and sand.

Seeking help

In the meantime, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has approached the World Bank with a proposal to map the landslide-prone zones. Understandably, it would be interested in the risks of landslips blocking rivers, like it happened in Jure last year or on the Seti River in 2012. Given that 6,000 rivers and rivulets gush down the Nepali mountains, amounting to more than 70 percent of the lean season flow of the Ganges, the risks of landslide-dammed outburst floods are quite high and the mapping proposed by the Hydrology Department would certainly be helpful for villages perched perilously on mountain slopes. But the usual working speed of the Bank and the country’s bureaucracy may mean that the project might be too late to deal with the current crisis, unless the international agency exhibits an extraordinary response, as it did by providing huge financial assistance to the Indian government in the wake of the devastating Uttarakhand floods. Let us, however, not forget this: while India got so much help from the Bank after the disaster, the Nepali side in Darchula, which too saw massive losses because of the same weather event, got nothing. Much of the blame must go to the Nepali administration that simply chose to forget the catastrophe.

Now that the country is faced with the calamity brought about by the major earthquake and its aftershocks, there should be no dearth of scientific help. NASA, the US Geological Survey, the European Space Agency, among others, all have their satellite images and experts in these countries and have well analysed the data. They have shown precisely which stretch of the Himalayas has dropped because of the quake. The government needs to reach out to them to map the landslide risks. And this better be done before the monsoon clouds arrive, because the rainy season could exacerbate the situation many fold.

The time is now

But first, a government agency will have to be designated to do the job on a war-footing. And it can’t be like what is happening now: the Geology Department waiting for the aftershocks to stop and the Hydrology Department hoping to work with the World Bank on the issue in the future. This is an emergency and the state needs to act accordingly. Chief Secretary Lila Mani Paudyal has gone public, asking people to support the government and make it strong or else “the vacuum will be occupied by someone else.”

This crisis can really be an opportunity for the government—the present one or any other to be—to strengthen itself, provided that it prevents further tragedies from the earthquake-triggered landslides. Or else, it could be buried under an avalanche of criticism.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London    

Published: 22-05-2015 08:09

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