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Nepal faces serious risks from climate change, most of which are already being experienced. Every year, floods and landslides have resulted in unprecedented devastation, but this year we faced one of the most severe monsoon-induced disasters. Within a week from the start of monsoon season, exactly on June 15th, Melamchi (Sindhupalchowk) endured intense catastrophic flash floods which resulted in massive human, ecological, and economic loss.
According to the study conducted by ICIMOD on the Melamchi flood disaster, many factors contributed to the disaster: climate change, anthropogenic, and geological.
The significant rise in precipitation and heavy snowmelt before June 15th resulted in erosion of glacial deposits mainly in the Pemdang river. The deposits then flowed into the old landslide dam at Bremthang and the continuous flow destroyed it, causing further flow downstream into the newly occurred landslide near Melamchi river, which gradually overflowed.
Sindhupalchowk was also heavily impacted by the April 2015 Nepal earthquake and an additional study done by the Nepal Engineers’ Association mentions the possibility of debris flow being mainly triggered by rainfall due to the geological instability in the area.
In the past five years, there have been more frequent landslides due to the destabilization of the landscape caused by the earthquake as rainwater penetrates into the soil, making it loose. Combining information from both studies, it can be said that the Melamchi floods resulted primarily from the breach of a landslide dam that released debris into the settlements, and for nearly 10 days, there was continuous debris flow.
At present, along with the impacts of COVID-19, people in Melamchi are continuously suffering from flood disaster.
They are completely displaced, have no proper source of food or income, health care facilities are not available, education has been disrupted, and they fear for their survival. The scale of infrastructure damage is also significant as houses have submerged, highway bridges are destroyed, and the Melamchi Water Supply Project, which only started supplying water from March 2021 after a 23-year-long history, had to be shut down again for repairs.
Nepal is no stranger to floods and landslides and for those who live in Southern Nepal, such events are indeed a part of life. There is nothing unusual about such disasters and the damages they create. However, it is important to notice that the intensity of destruction caused by such disasters is increasing and most likely will continue to increase.
As we read, watch, and experience disasters many of us are showing deep concerns about climate change. We advocate for the need for more scientific research, government collaboration, and funding to help adapt to disasters. But moving forward in an unknown future with possible frequently intensified climate-induced disasters, it is crucial for us to rethink our disaster risk management strategies.
Currently, our disaster risk management strategies are centered on adaptation which is equally important. However, this is not sufficient as disasters will continue to exacerbate. We need a paradigm shift from solely focusing on adaptation to diversified approaches that help address both adaptation and mitigation risks. For instance, flood risk management should not only include building check dams but also prioritize proper planning of settlements done after thorough research in the area.
There is a need to have an inclusive approach to disaster risk management and participation at all levels is a must. As explained by Dr Ojha in his paper (link) on the need for engaged Himalayan sustainability science, it is crucial to have co-production spaces that allow academic knowledge to include community knowledge through proper engagement with everyone in the local community. This is required because we cannot simply talk about the impacts of disasters and put forward solutions without considering the knowledge of local people who experience the disasters first hand. Due to their lived experiences, local people know what solutions are suitable and realistic in adapting and mitigating flood risks. Failure to consider their opinions will never make a solution effective because of the lack of relevance to the situation they are actually facing.
A research done jointly by the Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD) and Southasian Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS) on water security in Bidur, Nepal sheds light on the importance of considering community knowledge for relevant solutions. As a developing country, Nepal heavily relies on international funding for development projects. Oftentimes, we submit proposals and immediately start the project without properly considering the impact it will have on the community. This very situation was found in Bidur where the 2015 earthquake destroyed their drinking water and sanitation project.
The community started their own small water schemes which sourced water from local springs. In 2016, Asian Development Bank started a large-scale water supply project with the hopes of solving the water security problem in the area. However, frequent disasters continuously damaged the project and could not operate due to technical issues. On the other hand, the small scheme water supply provided water at times of need to everyone despite their economic and social status. In this case, the community- led project is the better solution when compared with the larger project and accordingly policy suggestions were provided to support the local efforts.
The Bidur case also brings into attention the importance of communicating local knowledge to the key policymakers, either on the regional or national level. If it is not communicated then again effective disaster relevant policies will never be implemented.
As the planet warms, climate change will continue to wreak havoc in every corner of the world. The urgency to act is imperative, but actions should have a holistic participatory approach by co- creating knowledge achieved through active participation with local communities which then is communicated to relevant policy makers.
Two questions are crucial to be considered for proper disaster risk management:
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