Author: Anup Uprety
Editors: Motoi Miura, Akihiko Ozaki
Among the many natural disasters that afflict Nepal, the recurring floods during monsoon season have the most catastrophic consequences every year. The year 2017 was no exception, as Mother Nature continued to show no mercy. Disaster struck Nepal’s southern plain, as it was still recovering from the 2015 earthquake and India’s ongoing economic blockade. According to the Home Ministry of Nepal, as of August 2017, 131 people were killed and 30 reported missing. The Ministry went on to announce the inundation of 50,000 houses in the plains and the displacement of more than 22,000 people. Finally, nearly 7,491 houses were utterly destroyed and 3,700 community structures, including schools, hospitals, and government offices, were damaged (Rural Reconstruction Nepal, 2017).
Local healthcare and the general health of the affected population also sustained significant damage. The flood-struck areas were short of basic medical supplies. Nepal has only 0.67 doctors and nurses per 1,000 population, which is far short of the World Health Organization’s recommended density of 2.3 health personnel per 1,000 population (Mishra et al., 2015). A shortage of water and food in those areas is compounding these problems. According to health officials, hundreds of flood-displaced people have contracted various infections from the contaminated drinking water and the polluted environment caused by the floods. Diarrheal disease, fever, common cold, gastritis, conjunctivitis and skin infection have become prevalent among flood victims.
Further, according to the Ministry of Agricultural Development, the floodwater has wiped out 8.1 billion Nepali rupee (79.8 million USD) worth of crops, as the massive floods inundated huge tracts of land in 31 districts (Prasain, 2017). Agricultural output comprised 29% of Nepal’s GDP in 2016; it provided critical support for the major recovery effort after the 2015 earthquake (Prasain, 2017). This damage to the agricultural sector by floodwater has shattered the prospect of continued growth. Bouncing back again will be a Herculean task, though not an impossible one.
Nepal confronted numerous disasters before last summer’s flood.. The Climate Risk Index, which quantifies the effects of extreme weather events in terms of vulnerabilities and economic losses, estimates that the losses incurred by a 2014 disaster in Nepal came to more than 140 million USD (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015). That year, Nepal was ranked seventh on a list of nations at risk of being affected by climate-related hazards (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015). The country’s geographic features are a major source of its vulnerability. The majority of residents in Nepal live on high hills susceptible to landslides, or in the lowland southern plains that are inevitably subject to annual floods during monsoon season.
Nepalese culture may be another source of the nation’s disaster vulnerability. Given the national frequency of flooding during monsoon season, we should be alert to potential problems and ready with possible countermeasures. However, after each monsoon passes, we tend to forget the tragedy have just experienced. When the monsoon strikes again the next year, we start debating and complaining… allowing the cycle to continue the following year…
This popular mindset is accentuated by the attitude of the Nepali government: the government’s passivity and lack of disaster-preparedness exacerbate the aftermath and reflect a failure to learn from past mistakes. The Central Natural Disaster Relief Committee, led by the Prime Minister, is regarded as the only functional government mechanism for disaster relief (Wagle, 2017). Nepal seems to lack dedicated and functional institutional set-ups for emergency response. Every time a disaster strikes, the Home Ministry moves at a crawl to mobilize security agencies and coordinate with local administrations; without proper institutional set-ups and processes, this is all it can do. This practice has been so ritualistic that, during large catastrophes, the government only deploys security personnel for rescue and relief purposes (ibid). The lack of permanent functional set-ups for emergency response consistently leads to a failure to deliver the so-called rapid response, which increases casualties and property losses sustained by victims. Of the several natural disasters which Nepal has experienced in the recent past, the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake was particularly destructive. The government responded ineffectively to the earthquake when it happened. Two years later, the government responded to this summer’s flood with bewilderment and inefficiency; the magnitude of the damage soared. Whether the Nepali government has a structural flaw or is simply unwilling to prepare for future disasters, a sustainable disaster plan seems like a farfetched dream. Every time a disaster strikes, the government is left with a single option: mobilizing security personnel as an impromptu response team.
Indian dams and embankment
The water conflicts with India have amplified the issue of flood damage in Nepal. The dams and embankment constructed by India along the India-Nepal border have repeatedly contributed to the inundation of the southern plains in Nepal. India has constructed a 1,355 km road, with an embankment parallel to the Nepal-India border. Further, India has built 18 dams just along the southern border (Sejuwal, 2017). The international convention regarding embankments states that any country should make prior inquiries of its adjoining countries about the potential effects of such embankments. The law also restricts a country from constructing dams in "No man’s land" (Republica, 2017). Nonetheless, the Indian government made the unilateral decision to construct some of its dams and embankments close to the border; by undertaking these actions without consulting the government of Nepal, India’s government may have been in violation of international law (Wagle, 2017; Sejuwal, 2017, Sharma, 2017; Republica, 2017) Further, the Indian government closes all gates during monsoon season, when the water level is high; this results in the inundation of Nepal’s southern plain. India monopolizes control of the floodgates at some river barrages in Nepal, which means that Nepal cannot open the sluice gates unless India allows it; this summer, Indian permission arrived too late (Wagle, 2017; Sejuwal, 2017, Sharma, 2017).
A similar incident occurred in 2008: the country experienced a massive flood, yet India closed the gate of the Sarada dam of Mahakali, causing a huge disaster in Nepal. The local residents were forced to abandon their homes to survive, sacrificing their land and other property. It required repeated pleas to convince Indian authorities to open four of the 32 gates. Indeed, every year, the Nepali government fails to reaffirm its position on these water conflicts with India; the year 2017 was no exception.
The Indian government has cited concern for its citizens’ safety and property, regarding the dangers of floods and other climate-related disasters, as a chief reason for constructing the dams and embankments. However, India should work to mitigate the transboundary water conflict by assuming a cooperative position with regard to Nepal instead of unilaterally constructing dams and embankments in shared territory. Although the Indian government should spearhead an initiative to resolve this water conflict, mutual cooperation and trust are still critical to the process of flood prevention work.
Indeed, in Nepal, no sustainable plan has been formulated for disaster management. It is a huge disappointment that the Nepali government’s only current method of disaster relief is a mobilization of security personnel; this situation should be reformed as soon as possible. The government should increase its investment in equipment, cranes, bulldozers, and so forth, which are invariably required for effective disaster rescue and relief. Further, the government should establish programs for recruiting and training human resources specializing in disaster relief.
Additionally, to mitigate the annual flood damages, the government should undertake a more serious diplomatic dialogue with India to pave the way for a more equitable division of control over the dams and embankments during monsoon seasons. The government should also work with the international community to settle the water conflict with India. Given that global warming is the obvious mechanism responsible for unusual worldwide weather patterns, the Nepali experience could be used to enhance any future disaster-preparedness measures undertaken by other countries.
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