Double trouble

  • Climate change did not cause the earthquake but it can worsen its impacts
- Navin Singh Khadka
Double trouble

Jun 18, 2015-

As news of Nepal’s devastating earthquake begins to lose global attention, one of the issues to increasingly hit the international headlines will be climate change. Expect that at least until the climax in December when the world is expected to have a global treaty to deal with it. News, including that of  G7 leaders having committed to wean their economy off fossil fuels by 2100, warnings against fast depleting ground water resources globally in connection to climatic changes, and more recently, Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, will all set the stage for the rest of the year to be ‘climatic’.

Drought and dams

Whether all of this will result in a meaningful climate deal remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that the earthquake-hit Nepal could now be even more vulnerable to climatic changes. Climate change had nothing to do with the earthquake—let us be clear about it—but it will have a lot to do with aggravating the impacts of the earthquake.

An immediate example can be quake-torn mountains that are either already slipping or have become landslide-prone. Such rattled mountains with landslips, cracks and fissures would have been vulnerable to rainfalls even under usual circumstances. But what we now have is unusual erratic patterns of rainfall—massive amount of rains in a short span of time—which does no good to top soil. This changing behaviour of monsoon could spell even more trouble for the loosened mountain slopes.

Drought is another factor that could make the post-disaster situation riskier. Lack of rainfall for a long time could cause severe dry conditions, further widening the cracks and fissures on the mountains. Then, heavy rainfall within a short period of time could press the final trigger.

Climate change is also blamed for the increasing incidents of landslide dam outburst flood. If the landslip deposits block the river forming an artificial lake. as the pressure mounts, the water finally bursts out breaking the landside dam. Sometimes, they can cause huge damages downstream, just as it happened in Seti River in 2012. And sometimes, the water simply flows off the landslide dam benignly—it is just a matter of chance.

These events have indeed happened before the earthquake as well. But post-quake, the risks have increased. Following the major aftershock on May 12, for instance, a massive landslide in Myagdi district blocked the Kaligandaki River. A huge lake was formed threatening everything downstream. But fortunately, the river found an outlet and the lake has shrunk. But there have been continued landslips on the same mountain and the erratic rainfall expected during the monsoon could mean troubles ahead—that is how climate change could be at play.

Himalayan worries

And it is not just about the Mahabharat and Chure ranges. The Himalayas have an equally, if not more, worrying situation. Two small glacial lakes have already burst out in the Everest region after the quake. The last one even resulted in floods in the Dudhkosi River. Although officials have confirmed that the most-feared Imja glacial lake is intact, local Sherpas have seen disturbing changes including cracks on glaciers and grounds, outlets of small glacial lakes appearing elsewhere and glacial debris popping out of nowhere.

Again, these earthquake-triggered changes were not because of climate change. But the disasters these changes could lead to could be exacerbated by the changing climate. If, for instance, the quake has caused cracks on the moraines of glacial lakes, the global warming-led rapid meltdown of glaciers and filling up of glacial lakes could be worse news now. Of course, in the wake of rising temperature, these lakes were feared to burst before as well. But now, if the earthquakes have ruptured them, the risks of such an outburst are much higher.

The same is true with avalanches—they happened before as well, with or without climate change. But if the quake has caused cracks on glaciers, especially the hanging ones, chances of ice avalanches are high. What will raise the risk further, however, is the rising mercury in what should have been an ultra-frigid zone.

Tell the donors

It will take satellite geodesy science to understand what changes the earthquake has actually brought to the Earth’s crust and underneath the Nepali territory. Analysing the findings in the context of climate change will not be easy.

But these are things that cannot be ignored either. Especially when Nepal is hosting a major donors’ conference next week to secure aid in its bid for post-disaster reconstruction. Many donors are mindful about factoring in climate change in their assistance these days. Some even go to the extent of ‘climate-proofing’ the projects they are involved in.

So, making them understand that post-quake Nepal’s vulnerability to climate change has gone up should not be so difficult. But first, it needs to be understood by the host.


Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London

Published: 19-06-2015 08:03

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