Land, Water and the Earthquake


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[This blog post is the English version of the Nepali article published in Kantipur Daily on May 27, 2015].

What we learn in Geography 101 about the processes of the formation of mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and streams and rivers do not make sense in a real way until one sees the glimpse of that massive power of nature changing landscape around us. And then those lessons make very good sense when one has the opportunity to witness the landscape, taken for granted to be standing for ever; crumbling, falling and collapsing when big earthquakes shake them. Not many people have the opportunity to witness such event that occurs every 80, 90 years.  We in central Nepal had this opportunity to witness one of those tens of thousands of rare events that have shaped the Himalayas over a period of tens of millions of years – the big earthquake of April 25, 2015.

The big jolt of 25th April moved Kathmandu Valley to the south by 3 meters and  raised it by about a meter. Some of the mountain areas in the north have subsided by perhaps a meter too. We may not know what these shifts have done to the natural resources and the subsequent impacts on the lives of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on them, but there are clear indications that the earthquake and the following aftershocks have changed the land and water sources in the earthquake affected area for ever.  This may eventually be a big challenge for our rural economy and livelihoods.

It is difficult to say at this stage to what extent the big jolt and the hundreds of aftershocks have affected the poorly understood interrelationships among land, water and vegetation. Because these are the same aspects upon which economic aspects of our livelihoods depend. However, we can judge, with some level of confidence, the damage caused by the quake to the very foundation of the livelihoods – land and water. Needless to say that the land is the foundation of water sources, and the changes in the shape and the structure of land, which the quake has already inflicted, affects both land and water sources. First, let’s see the impacts on the land in EQ affected areas.

Just by looking at the dry landslides seen across the mountains and the cracks on ground , any one can say that there will be widespread erosion and landslides this monsoon. This speculation is reinforced by reconnaissance of the EQ affected area conducted by a team of experts which noticed more than 3000 dry landslides mostly in the northern part of the country. The landslides had already caused damages to the landscape with threats of blocking the road and the river. Numerous and widespread cracks on the ground were made evident by another study conducted using satellite imagery immediately after the quake. Those studies have predicted that large numbers of landslides are likely to occur with monsoon rain.

Damage to land

It is clear that we will have to deal with three types of problems regarding landslides and erosions.

  • Firstly, the dry landslides in the steep rocky faces of the northern mountains. Massive landslide in Rasuwa have already wiped out the village of Lantang. Several of them have damaged a large part of the mountain slope between Barabise and Tatopani near Chinese border in Sindhupalchok blocking the highway between these points. In some places, people fear that the entire mountain may collapse. Tatopani area was deserted for sometime after the quake as people fled the area. The list of landslide damaged places could be very long. There may be many other damaged areas that we have no information about. These landslides capable of blocking the road and the rivers are still active. A landslide that occurred in Ramche of Myagdi on the 30th day of the big earthquake blocked Kali Gandaki River for 16 hours causing threats to the nearby settlements. These dry landslides may become more active once the monsoon begins.
  • Secondly, landslides that may start with the onset of monsoon. There are numerous cracks on the ground in most of the settlements and farms. In some places the cracks are very dense which have shattered the land. There may be similar cracks in the forest areas as well. These cracks are going to divert monsoon water to places that may be weak and cause landslides and gully erosion. They may also wash villages. The entire blocks of forests may collapse in some places. These slides and gullies have the capability of causing damage from the ridge to the valley and hence are difficult to control.
  • Thirdly, the debris generated by such erosion on the upper areas are going to get deposited on the fertile land of the valley and turn them onto waste land. Similarly, the debris on the river bed will raise the river bed causing changes in the direction of flow, which causes threats to the river banks. In the process the areas along the river far away from the EQ affected area may also get damaged.

Though water induced disasters such as floods and landslides are not new to us and we have the institutions and the expertise to deal with them, the landslides and gully erosion problems in the EQ affected areas will cover a large area and is likely to continue for some years to come on a bigger scale. The existing institutional setup does not have the capacity to work in such a big area at once. The technologies used in dealing with landslide and erosion control are not only expensive, but take a long time for implementation. Our institutional and technological capacity to deal with the expected scale of gullies, landslide and floods will be far less than required to face the challenge.

Damage to water sources

The other important source that the EQ has damaged in the hills and mountains is its water sources.  With our limited knowledge of water science that operates in the mountains it is difficult to assess the damage caused to water sources.  However, there are some indications of the damages. The readers may well remember there were reports about rise in discharge in springs, wells and streams in the valleys immediately after the earthquake. Wells and springs in areas such as Ramechhap, which have been suffering from drought for some years also saw rise in discharge. Wells in parts of Kathmandu saw increased level of water.  Stone spouts that had gone dry for more than two decades began flowing. There were 2 to 3 times more water in some streams. Even in Panchkhal that has been reeling under drought for more than a decade now, the wells had increased discharge.  Though the increased water brought happiness to the users, it is important to understand that the sudden and perhaps a momentary rise in water discharge is an indication of yet another crisis in waiting.

The increased water came when the aquifers in the upland leaked rapidly due to ruptures in the structures that held the aquifer. The aquifers that were supposed to provide water in a regulated manner were forced drained, which obviously increased water in the springs at lower elevations, but when the aquifer drains out completely there will sever water shortages in the upland. The springs will dry first. Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat [the finance minster] mentioned in his twit a similar instance of drying spring in the upper areas and excess water in his constituency in Nuwakot.  The changes in the structures of the substrata of the mountains will affect the watersheds in their functions to regulate the hydrological cycle, which will affect the local water sources significantly. The time for which water will flow and the extent to which it is available at a particular place in the hills will eventually change the existing land and water relations.  Opening of the new cracks and loss of old ones will shift the locations of the springs. Muzzafarabad in Pakistan experienced similar changes in the location of springs when the area was hit by the earthquake in 2005. What this means is that the water supply systems need to be reconstructed. Springs in the mountains have  been drying since some years, and people in those areas have been displaced due to lack of water. With cases like drying of water sources in Nuwakot, we may expect many more to leave the mountains.

What can be done in the mean time?

It is a critical time. We need to start thinking about restoring land and water along with relief works. But there is hardly any time before the rainy season which is only two weeks away. After the monsoon begins it will be even more difficult to travel in the area. Nevertheless, some priority activities need to be done.

Of course, the first thing to do is to move people from hazardous areas to safe places.  But it may not be possible to move all those people in hazardous places simply because of the large number of people to be moved. It is also likely that we may not get safe locations in all places.  Therefore, we need to categorize the hazard level, and start thinking of measures to reduce hazard in areas that are not as hazardous. The local people can be asked to send information about land condition, which can then be matched with the expected rainfall to evaluate the hazard level.

It is very likely that in some places diverting monsoon runoff from the hazard areas can reduce the risk. People in South Lalitpur had done good work in reducing gully and landslide hazards by diverting monsoon runoff. Such experience may be useful at a time like this in the EQ affected area too. Reducing even a slight amount of the risks that people face would be a great relief.

However, restoring land and water must be a priority after the monsoon. It may be a long time before we realize the full extent of the damage caused by the earthquake to the mountains, the valleys and the streams; however, we may be in a position to assess the extent of damage caused to the land and water by next winter.

In the past, the State did not give the priority it deserved to help restore the resources when people were displaced after their productive land was converted into wasteland by  floods and landslides or when the water sources in the hills dried up for various other reasons. But it does not have the luxury of turning a blind eye to the problem this time, because the problem is going to appear over a large area involving a large number of people.

Acknowledgement: Irene Upadhya for her support

Until next


We will rise again …but not without a changed approach


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Nearly  a month after the April 25 earthquake, the aftershocks, which have otherwise become no more than statistics – five today and three yesterday, with the epicenter north of Kathmandu or faraway in Dolkha – continue to be of some concern. The USGS advisory issued on May 20 haven’t ruled out possibility of stronger aftershocks, though their probability is decreasing. People, whose houses are unaffected, have moved from makeshift tents to the ground floor, unsure about the safety on the first or second floor.

Now, the focus is gradually shifting to what will happen when monsoon begins. What worries the scientists, the authorities and the people in general are the looming threats of landslides and slope failures in the EQ affected hills. Experts from around the world are focusing their attention on gaining understanding of the changes caused to the landform by the earthquake and the likely threats they might pose when the monsoon rain begins. An Ariel reconnaissance conducted by a group of geo-scientists and disaster experts from various organizations reported that two earthquakes within a fortnight triggered at least 3,000 landslides causing large landmass movement in the EQ affected area. Another study, conducted using satellite imagery, concluded that many more landslides may occur in the monsoon, because the zone of intense landsliding corresponds to areas with high rates of seasonal rainfall-triggered landslides. The study also warns that the rainwater will wash landslide sediment downstream onto valley floors and floodplains causing damages to areas downstream.

Landslide hazards aren’t uncommon in the hills of Nepal inhabited by almost half of the country’s 27 million people. It is a problem we face every year. In fact, roughly 12,000 landslides/slope failures occur in Nepal every year. Though some studies were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s to highlight how landslides damage lives and properties, the problem could not draw the ‘attention’ it deserved in the development programs because landslides were one among many problems facing mostly rural population. Interest in landslide mitigation and stabilization rapidly began to grow with increase in development of infrastructures such as roads, reservoirs, irrigation canals, drinking water intake sites, and power plants, which were somehow connected with the well-being of the inhabitants of the capital and other urban centers. Any damage to these infrastructures would mean a concern for the urban economy as well. Most of the studies carried out on landslides have been focused on road corridors, while there, are many landslides that have caused problems to properties in road-less areas too. The concern of saving the villages from sliding is equally, if not more, important than saving vital infrastructures. Do we have the capacity to deal with the size and nature of the problem?

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope (referred to later in this article as “BOTE”) calculation to see  our capacity to deal with landslide problems. At least five agencies working under four ministries with different expertise, skills and priorities are involved in works related to landslide stabilizations.

  1. DSCWM (the Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management) of the Ministry of Forests is mandated to work on watershed protection. With its management programs in critical watersheds of 61 districts in the country, the department appears to have been stabilizing roughly 200 small to medium landslides a year.
  2. DoR (the Department of Roads) of the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport stabilizes only those landslides that pose threats to the roads or to vehicular movements. The DoR may be stabilizing about 200 small to large landslides along the road in the hills every year.
  3. DoI (the Department of Irrigation) under the ministry of irrigation also works on landslide stabilization, but only when they pose threats to the irrigation canals. It can be safely said that the DoI also works on roughly 100 small to medium landslides along the irrigation canals a year.
  4. DWIDP (the Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention) of the Ministry of Irrigation is mandated to deal with floods and landslides, but it is more involved in flood control works. Again let’s say DWIDP has the strength to stabilize another 100 medium to large landslides a year.
  5. DDCs (the District Development Committees), a strong local body authorized by Local Governance Act to plan its own development program, provide financial support to VDCs for climate change, resource conservation and environment related works, which often include landslide stabilization works too. We can say that a DDC supports roughly another (in addition to what other departments have done in the district) 20 landslide stabilization works a year.

The BOTE calculation shows that if we pull together the total strength of the departments (1-4 above), we can treat about 600 landslides a year. Adding DDCs strength, we might be able to pull another 600 ( in 29 EQ affected districts). With this estimate based on a very rough but higher side figures, it appears that we are hardly near halfway to deal with the problem of 3000 landslides, which do not include the landslides that might get triggered with monsoon. In addition, by the time we stabilize 1200 landslides, there will be new ones initiated by the monsoon. And there will be other districts as well where new landslides may require immediate attention.

Although sophisticated methods have also been used successfully in landslide stabilization works in Nepal, the conventional methods used in landslide stabilization involve use of retaining walls to hold the sliding mass supplemented by application of bioengineering measures to reduce surface erosion. Landslide stabilization work, essentially, is expensive, and hence out of reach of poor farmers. Since retaining walls seem to do a quick fix, it has discouraged developing less expensive methods.

Although many landslides may get stabilized by themselves over a period of time, those that pose threat to lives and properties need our immediate attention. However, judging from the point of view of physical capacity and the financial strength that we have, stabilizing this overwhelming number of landslides across the EQ affected region or at least minimizing the likely damages, could simply be a nightmare, if not planned in a manner that is quick enough to implement and simple enough to allow involvement of all sorts of ways of treating landslides that have been proved successful elsewhere.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Until next


After the Aftermath


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People, in general, are slowly beginning to come to terms with the widespread destruction of lives and properties that we witnessed two weeks ago in central Nepal. Relief materials have started to reach even the most remote places. Tens of thousands of hands have come forward to help salvage belongings and build makeshift shelters. Pledges have been made at national and international levels to restore and reconstruct; buildings, infrastructures and cultural heritage. We are somehow coping with the tragedy and getting used to the aftershocks.  But, sadly, the tragic saga of the earthquake (EQ) will go much beyond these rehabilitation and reconstruction and continue to hound the poor who struggle to manage two meals a day for the family. Yes, it is the loss of livelihood base – the farms and the animals. Thousands of animals, a large number of which were kept for selling milk, have perished in the rubble. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland have been damaged and terraces have given up. Water sources have been displaced or damaged. Poor farmers have become poorer.

The extent of damage caused by this powerful EQ to the landscape and subsequently to the livelihood base and the economy is so deep and wide that it will take some years for us to begin to realize what it has done to mountain life in Nepal. It is because the seeds of many potential problems have been planted now.  They will only grow over time, but unfortunately, the attention the destruction has received now may no longer be there to address them.

Information coming out suggests that thousands of landslides of various scales and sizes have been seen in the EQ affected districts. The landslides were reported being very serious in the districts of Sindhupalchok as they blocked vital roads. The highway between Barabise and Tatopani near the Nepal-Chinese border was blocked by landslide debris at numerous places. An amateur video posted on the net showed violent shaking and destruction of mountains in another area of Sindhupalhok, in which the entire mountain slope seemed to have collapsed. The districts of Kavre, Nuwakot and Gorkha may have been jolted in a similar manner too, but information has yet to come. There were also some reports of landslide debris blocking rivers and Khola (streams). So far we haven’t received any information about the damages due to bursting of landslide blocked lakes. The rivers probably washed the debris before the lake behind the dams reached some critical level.

What is worrying is that a large number of cracks on the ground have been seen in all EQ affected districts. The sizes of the cracks are as large as a meter wide and 3-5 meters deep in some places. They may be even deeper in other places, which need lots of field work to verify and assess. These cracks are likely to develop further when monsoon sets in, which is a little over a month away. Depending upon the nature of rainfall and the size and the depth of cracks, which we do not know at this stage, a large number of landslides and gullies are likely to occur in the coming monsoon. These landslides and gullies will destroy the farms and villages in the upland, and deposit debris on stable farmlands located at lower elevations. In turn food producing land below that has not been damaged by EQ will be lost too. Along with it, we can also expect a massive amount of sediment in the streams, which will get deposited along the rivers and in the fertile farmland in the valleys. In the process, the river flow may change with further implication of bank cutting and undermining the stability of river terraces, which are generally resourceful areas in the mountains. The cycle is very likely to repeat in the next monsoon too.

The third and very critical aspect of these changes is the changes in availability of water. With the violent shaking of the upper aquifer in the mountains, most springs in the higher elevations are likely to disappear because water yield in the springs and streams have been temporarily increased at lower elevations. It only indicates that the aquifer is depleting faster.  In such cases, making domestic water available to the villages in the upland will be seriously hampered. Quite a large number of drinking water systems are likely to be dysfunctional as the springs or streams they are hooked to have shrunk.

With shrinking of upper aquifers and the change in the landscape it is very likely that the regulatory function of the watershed has been altered and may not yield the same amount of water in the dry season as it did prior to the EQ. It could very well mean that the flood events in sub-watersheds would also increase.

In sum, the long term implication of the EQ to the livelihood bases would be seen in loss of:  a) food producing land, 2) grazing land, and 3) water sources; within the watersheds. A genuine support to restore livelihood bases would require a serious reading into the developing scenario of land and water resources as well as into the supposedly altered water regime. The restoration of land and water is, therefore, key to restoring livelihood bases.

However, that no program was ever developed in Nepal to reclaim damaged land and water resources only reinforces the fact that they were not genuinely viewed as important.  Consequently, even when a large number of springs have gone dry in the hills in the last decade and even when thousands of hectares of fertile land in the valleys have been buried under debris across the country in the last five decades, not a single project has been developed to address them. Nor is there any agency to even register them as an environmental problem. This EQ, sadly, is going to bring to the fore the land and water problem at a very high cost.  Let’s hope, a new chapter begins in understanding limitations as well as opportunities in building livelihood bases in mountains.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Madhukar Upadhya

A Peculiar Case Arises


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The April 25 Earthquake destroyed 13 houses in Jomsom, Mustang, but the way they were destroyed was different than elsewhere.

When the area was hit by the 7.8 magnitude earth quake, there was no visible damage to the houses, however people in Jomsom spent the night in the tents outside the houses as per the advice of the government. The next strong earthquake jolted the area on April 26th, which shook the buildings violently and that is when minor cracks began to appear, but the buildings were still intact. However, the cracks continued to grow in size and on the third day of the earthquake (April 27th), the buildings started failing. By April 28th 13 buildings collapsed as the cracks continued to expand rapidly. Unlike other places where the damages occurred with the first jolt on April 25th, it happened on the third and fourth day in Jomsom. Why did the buildings stay upright for two days and collapsed without major aftershocks after two days? Though it will be premature to pinpoint particular reason(s) for the delayed response without some level of field observation, an interesting event in progress in the area following the earthquake could help explain it.

The interesting event is as follows. The Kali Gandaki River flows through the middle of the valley with villages located within a short distance from the river bank on either side of the river.  During the earthquake, cracks were seen developing on the ground in most places on both sides of the river downstream from Jomsom. It was likely that the some cracks also developed in the river bed few meters upstream of the area where the houses collapsed.  According to the local people part of the river water began disappearing for sometime into the ground through these cracks on the morning of April 27th. Following the lowering of the river water level, the cracks on the ground and those in the buildings began expanding visibly. Fear spread among the residents. They removed valuable personal belonging from the houses to safe places in the tents. They were able to move stuff to safety by eight in the morning. Then buildings began collapsing. Two buildings collapsed by 9 in the morning.  Eleven other buildings collapsed by April 28th – the fourth day of the massive earthquake.

Thank God, people are all safe.

Title courtesy : Irene Upadhya

Until next


Wrung Mountains: Changed Hydrology


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Disturbing statistics in the aftermath of Nepal Earthquake have drawn attention of many to the economic side of the calamity. But what would be even more disturbing is the likely long term impact of the earthquake on the overall water resources that support livelihood and economic activities. On the third day of the quake there was news about bursting of new springs in some earthquake affected mountain villages Dolakha where land subsided, which generally happens in such earthquakes. What is surprising this time is that people in Panchkhal and Bhakunde Besi villages of  Kavre, which has been experiencing drought for almost a decade saw increased water flow in the local springs in April – the driest month of the year. Water level in some of the tributaries of Roshi Khola in Kavre began rising too. Similarly, owners of private wells near Swayambhu in Kathmandu reported rising water level in their private wells by more than a meter. And there were some in Lalitpur who felt that water level in the wells declined in their locality after the earthquake. Two streams in Barpak of Gorkha – the epicenter of the quake – have also been reportedly dried up. Perhaps the rise in the water level in Roshi Khola or wells in the Valley or dried up streams indicates something crucial in managing local water sources with long-term implications.

In a strong earthquake, springs in the mountains generally get displaced due to disturbance that causes water flows to change course within the mountains. In the process, some of the springs disappear while some reappear in a new area. When location of springs changes it affects water supply systems that have been collecting water from spring sources. But what was unique to the April 25 Earthquake was that there have been reports suggesting a shifting of the land in Kathmandu Valley by 10 feet to the south. There is also speculation than some part of the valley in the north-eastern side has risen by about a meter and some subsidence in the western side. The entire quake affected area must have gone through similar changes and shifts.

The violent shaking of the mountains perhaps squeezed the aquifer in the mountains in such a way that the groundwater in the upland was forced to drain rapidly increasing discharge in the springs and wells. It is difficult to say how long this rise will last, perhaps not for long time. But the adverse impact that the forced draining of the aquifer in the upland have caused, could last long because the springs and village-wells in the hills could dry faster adding to the water shortage problem.

We will be able to rebuild houses and reconstruct damaged structures. We will also begin building livelihood bases and strengthen them, but if the indication of the increased water level or drying streams is pointing to a permanent shift in local hydrology it may mean a completely new picture of the water sources in the hills. It could be that there has been massive disturbance to the internal structure of the mountains. If that has happened there will be less water stored in the aquifer. A reduced aquifer capacity would mean a permanent loss of some water source. This will mean a new set of local environment with implications to all aspects of livelihood and economic activities. Some places may get more water for sometime but changed regulating function of upland watershed would mean change in water yield perhaps with water shortages for longer period.

With Support from Irene Upadhya and Munni Gautam


Water Isn’t Mere Number of Cusecs

The purpose of education is to broaden the minds and expand the horizon of one’s imagination, but modern education seems to have done the opposite by making one more of a reductionist. It has taught us to simplify a complex issue in order to understand it better but in the process we have forgotten that we tend to simplify beyond a point and often distort the issue.  The approach has helped in biology and other streams of science but not in the field of environment. By focusing on one or two aspects we gradually detach ourselves from the larger picture of the issue. We’ve become simple consumers of the information without any idea of its value in  nature. The whole society grows to become a consumer of environmental information without any meaning in real sense.

Let’s take an example. Talk to any educated water manager in Kathmandu valley, you will hear three things: Nepal is second richest in the world in water resources; Nepal has a capacity of producing 83000 megawatts of hydroelectricity, and the demand for water in the Kathmandu valley is 32 million liters a day, but the supply is around 11 million liters. The fact is that none of this information is meaningful, because these are produced by reductionists using information generated by best estimates. Hence, we don’t know if Nepal is rich or not in water resources, not to mention occupying a second position. What we know is that there is so much water in the monsoon period that we don’t know how to manage it, and an acute shortage of it in winter and summer that makes life difficult both in cities and villages. Agriculture, which is a key economic sector in Nepal is largely monsoon dependent and any fluctuation in the monsoon adversely affects Nepal’s growth rate. In so far as producing hydroelectricity is concerned, Nepal has been able to install capacity of nearly 700 megawatt in last 100 years. The scenario of supply and demand of water in Kathmandu Valley is even more confusing. If the official figures were to be true, two third of the population of the valley would be marching on the streets demanding water, which has not happened, though long queues are seen around water taps. Water somehow reaches households, and thanks to the successful water market which has tapped all possible sources within the valley to meet the demand. So, the figures don’t mean much, and yet just about everyone takes it as water knowledge.

Gaining knowledge about water begins quite early. As a child we all have enjoyed splashing water with tiny little hands when we were learning to crawl. It is perhaps the first encounter with nature that we experienced while learning about things around us, and what else could be more fascinating to start learning than this unique and precious gift of nature, which is safe, soft, cool, and freely available.  The learning about water begins at that age and continues as one grows (and perhaps never ends), and yet we seem to know so little about it, let alone our relationship with it. Water is not just a commodity, it is our very existence. But, our learning has been quite shallow and so has our ability to understand our relationship with water. As a result, water for our new generation remains to be a product that one can buy in a bottle or a jar and comes through taps in the washrooms. Deteriorating relations with water has made managing water further more difficult.

Let me try to explain what I mean by relationship. All parents; rich or poor, urban dweller or from rural area, educated or illiterate; sacrifice everything in their command to give their child the best. Despite the fact that they know when the child start earning they will be too old to enjoy the material comfort which money can buy or they may be even not be there anymore.  They are also aware that the child may leave them to settle elsewhere, and yet the sacrifice for the child never ends.   We call it love for the child, but it is the relationship between a child and its parents which is essential to sustain evolution, so that the new generation grows to be smarter and capable than its predecessor. This is the essence of nature. It has to maintain its services (may not be the right word, but burrowing it from ecosystem services) through its components such as water, land and so on to support life on earth for hundreds and thousands of generations to come. Hence our concerns should be beyond these numbers and try to see the relationship with nature.

We should be aware of and concerned with all other areas through which mother nature makes water available to support lives of millions and millions of other organisms including grass, trees and all vegetation. FAO says that a tablespoon of soil has more micro-organisms than the whole population on earth. . They all need water too. But we have never bothered to ask who provides them water. What happens to nature if water is not available to this organism? To understand the vastness of water and how it relates to larger picture of life and nature, the religious texts are quite helpful, but it could be termed as a wrong start because in this age of science and technology why would one depend on what the religious text says about water. But, let me take help of an article that appeared in The Hindu in the aftermath of Uttarakhanda disaster in 2013.

The Uttarakhanda disaster in 2013 caused an unprecedented loss of lives and properties. Following this, Chitra Padmanavan, a Delhi Based Journalists who contributes to The Hindu published an extremely powerful article ‘When the Ganga descends’ (,  in which she drew a fascinating picture of how these religious texts and mythology can help us relearn to look beyond and explore the aspects which have been integral part of people’s life in mountains and who lived in full awareness of the towering presence of nature.  The story Chitra connects with the disaster is that of the origin of the river Ganga which was brought from the heaven to the earth by the persistent effort of Bhagirath.  Her narration of the story is as follows.

The seventh descendent of King Sagara, Bhagiratha, was deeply disturbed by the fate of 60,000 sons of Sagara, who were reduced to ash by the wrath of sage Kapila for having disrupted his meditation. He undergoes severe penances (tapasya) in the Himalayas to please Brahma, and when he was pleased Bhagirath asks Brahma for his blessings to bring Ganga to earth. Upon receiving the blessing Bhagirath asks Ganga to flow to earth, but she  threatened to destroy all life on earth by the pressure of her flow. Only Shiva’s powerful hair could control the force of Ganga. Bhagiratha requested Shiva to help him by spreading his hair. As soon as Ganga flowed down, Shiva collected her water in his hair in the form of many small streams. Ganga then followed Bhagiratha across mountains, forests and plains to the end of the world (the land) where his ancestors’ impure remains lie. Having provided mokshya to the ancestors Ganga vanished into the ocean (the Sagara).

According to Chitra the myth of Ganga’s descent resonates at different levels in the lives of the people in the mountains. The story of Shiva’s hair dissipating Ganga’s force seems exactly how streams and rivers behave while flowing from rapid current over ground to changing course, or getting blocked to acquire subterranean existence (the groundwater). A very interesting point was made by one of the commentators to the article, who said ‘‘If Shiva can be equated to the mountains and wiping of 60,000 sons-as subjects of Sagars- lost to forest fire then it adds even more credibility to what could have happened. 60,000 sons could also be different species, plants fauna, who knows. But the ability to visualize what could have happened and its logical flow cannot be questioned but how to and what to equate is what is required’.

These religious texts were in fact the means of educating people. Imagine, at a time when these texts did not exist, how would one have thought of educating people about what and with what material. These texts (taken as religious today) were perhaps developed precisely for that purpose to explain about the nature around us and to make us aware about our role to protect them for the future generation, which could only be done by bringing people close to the nature. But, we tend to interpret these text from within  a narrow frame of rituals. A good example can be that of the famous story of Swasthani, a religious text worshiped and read in the month of Magh (Dec/Jan) every winter. It is suitable because as soon as month of reading Swasthani begins, every newspaper carries one or two articles about how bad is the story of Swasthani with regard to how it treats women. They argue that the Swasthani is completely biased against women, because there is a heart breaking story about the plight of a woman named Goma who was married to a 70 year old man when she was only 7.  The husband dies leaving Goma helpless and with responsibility of raising a son.

But, we never asked ourselves why this story is read out loud every winter. What does the story tell us? First few chapters of Swasthani talk about formation of universe and some chapters deal with the evolution of organisms and animals, which is amazingly parallel to Darwin’s theory of evolution in which smaller organisms appear first followed by larger ones. Then there is a story about war between gods (savior of nature) and demons (destroyer of nature). One could see it as the story of the egalitarians such as the Green Peace and industries producing hazardous wastes of modern day society. There is a chapter that talks about a chariot that has the sun and the moon as two wheels and travels with an annual speed of ayan (a period of six months). This is exactly the time the sun takes to travel from tropic of cancer to the tropic of Capricorn. Meanwhile the season changes and so does the abundance of food and energy in nature in an ayan. The wheels are kept in place by two latches: the east (where the sun and the moon rise) and the west (where the sun and the moon set). These are some of the fascinating accounts of bigger picture of nature. But we never bothered to see what are these religious texts trying to tell. The purpose of these stories is to bring people close to nature (bathing in the river, visiting a lake, make offerings to the poor and so on) and not creating a barrier between them like the bottled water.

As far as the story of Goma is concerned, it is only there to give the story a human face and make it interesting so that people take interest in listening to the story in a similar manner as one would identify with the good guys while watching a commercial cinema.

Until next


Politics of Environment


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In the last few months and more intensely in the last few weeks or so, a very different debate has started within the conservation groups. The issue is so appealing that even the senior government officials could not keep but share their views through social media. The issue is about conservation of Chure: the southernmost frontier in the Himalayan range, referred to in literature as the Shiwaliks.

The culprit is the mining of sand, gravel and stone (SGS) in the Chure Piedmont, which  began drawing attention of many when the story was covered, some weeks ago, by a leading newspaper showing picture of tens of heavy machines including bulldozers, excavators and crushers mining and loading SGS in hundreds of trucks in the plains of Chure. The material is exported to construction sites cross the border to India. The mining is so rampant that many places in Chure area already looks devastated.

Chure has always been in the publicity in conservation because of its vulnerability to erosion due to its fragile formation and increased human interfaces. Anyone driving along the East-West Highway could see the eroded hill slopes and ever expanding flood plains in Chure, which made Chure case visible. It came into focused limelight when President RB Yadav, who hails from one of the districts south of Chure, took keen interest in its protection and ordered the government to initiate a conservation programme, which was later named as President Chure Conservation Programme. (PCCP).

After almost 4 years of its implementation, the PCCP was found to be a failure.  Millions of rupees spent on conservation activities did not produce desired results. In the aftermath of this failure and with increased SGS mining, the government declared it as conservation area and formed a high level committee to oversee the conservation programme there.

This move has opened up a strong debate about the pros and cons of the government’s move in declaring it as conservation area and the actual need to protect Chure. In fact, as in any other environmental case, a real politics of environment is in display. There are basically three logics presented. Logic 1: Chure is the recharge area of Tarai groundwater and hence its degradation means depleting groundwater and desertification of Tarai.  Logic 2: Chure biodiversity is important heritage. Logic 3: Chure is inhabited by poor people and they must participate in its protection.

Though these logics seem quite relevant to Chure protection, a bit deeper analysis would reveal how surficial has been the politics of environment. As far as water is concerned, it is the hundreds of feet of boulder deposit of Bhabar that acts as recharge zone for entire Indo Gangetic plain. What happens in Chure will have little impact on ground water resources in Tarai. Removing debris from Bhabar would obviously not seal the Bhabar Surface. In the biodiversity front, they do get damaged wherever there is human interference. The question is which endemic and vanishing species is being affected or is likely to be affected by the interference.  With respect to the local inhabitants, a lot has been said and written about how they depend on not-very-productive-resources of Chure for survival.

It is the economics of things that hold the reign. It is clear that SGS mining has become important for local governments. The local government act provides full mandate to the local governments to trade SGS. Many studies have reported how beneficial SGS mining could be, if done properly. Some say it could be a sustainable source of revenue for local governments, and at the same time excellent way of adapting to climate change threats by making room for annual debris deposit, which is likely to increase with increase in extreme events ( And there are others who believe that SGS mining can finance Nepal’s poverty alleviation programme, if utilized properly. Speaking of the revenue generation, it is fascinating to see how lucrative SGS trade is. It earns a revenue of about 1072 million a year, while the estimated environmental cost is only about 206 million rupees. The revenue could further increase if resource pricing is enforced  (, which is free at the moment.

The issue reminds one of Godawari Marble Factory in the late 80s, which drew severe criticism from environmentalists saying that the marble factory was damaging the mountains and its environment. But no one has complained about a similar damage being inflicted twenty years later to Shiwapuri Mountains by land developers. It may very well be because it is the private land in Shiwapuri.

These differences are often hidden from view in the debate, but they need to be considered carefully if one is to properly interpret the evidence. It is a question of who gets the benefit and how it is shared among different actors: all in the name of environment. The number of interested parties in the revenue from the SGS mining far outweighs those who actually get hurt by downgrading of Chure resources. 

until next


What happened to water?


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Panchkhal Valley in central Nepal is one of many areas in its middle mountain region that has progressively suffered from drying water sources in the last decade. Unless someone is regularly measuring the discharge to compare with the base line information, the dilemma with water is that when its sources begin to deplete initially, it is difficult to verify let alone quantify it, which many people including the decision makers demand to get convinced and take the matter seriously. Unfortunately, we do not have such baseline figures for water sources in the villages. And of course, no two successive years have the same quantity of water flow anyway: there is variability. So, most people consider depletion of sources, when they are reported, as a normal phenomenon. Some even take the easy way out to blame the users for extracting more water causing the depletion. But the water problem being observed in the Panchkhal Valley seems to be more than that, and if not taken seriously can be lot worse in the next few years.

It was only in 2007, that few springs in the upland showed sign of drying earlier than in the years before. Irrigation channels had reduced flow in May when farmers needed to irrigate vegetables. Some irrigation channels had stopped supplying water due to lack of water at the intake. Farmers in upland could no longer grow vegetables that they had been growing for more than three decades, while the land in the valley along the Jhiku Khola (the only stream in the valley) were covered by rich green farms because farmers there were pumping  water from the Khola using kerosene pumps. In general, vegetable supply from the area suffered. The story of water shortages became news. Government declared some of these areas as ‘drought affected’ especially after the paddy plantation failed.

Since then, the valley seems to be getting drier every year. The springs in the lower parts of the hills, which are supposed to yield sufficient water even in the driest month of May and June have also reduced discharge. As a result, the local water sources such as wells and Kuwa had to be put under lock and key to save remaining water. Further down in the valley, the Jhiku Khola has responded in the similar manner. It has ceased to flow even in the middle of the monsoon. In winter, the dry Jhiku Khola is used as road by trucks that go into the inner villages to collect vegetables.

Potato is grown in winter in the valley. Potato crop requires lot of water which the farmers extracted by digging pits in the river bed. Because the Khola does not have flowing water, every farmer having land adjacent to the Khola dug such pits that cost about 10 – 20,000 rupees to dig using bull dozers. The pits used to provide enough water for pumping daily. Come monsoon, the pits got filled with debris rocks and sand. Farmers had to re-dig the pits the next winter. There are hundreds of such pits all along the Jhiku Khola. As the Khola has not flooded like in the past for more than three years, the pits have not been filled with debris.

Since 2013, the scenario began to change further. Water in the pits also went down. Water can be pumped every other day limiting the area that it can irrigate. What this means is that the green farms that existed around the Khola have shrunk in size. Lack of irrigation at critical times has now cost dearly for farmers.


The ponds have been developing scums, which is an indication that the farmers have not been pumping as much water as in the past. Consequently, many terraces either remain fallow or have dying maize vegetable plants on them.

The efforts of the past four decades to improve agriculture in the valley by making irrigation channels (there are more than 30 such channels) and other inputs have turned out to be going in vain just because the water sources have ceased to exist in many areas. It is a national loss. One does not need to begin calculating what the costs of drought is. It is purely seen in the naked field that have dead maize plants at a time when it is about to bear fruits.

A simple question needs to be asked:  ‘what happened to the water?’

This simple question perhaps is the most difficult to answer. It is not that more people are drawing water, nor is it that deforestation in the watershed has caused drying of springs. And it is not at all, the Climate Change, because no one has yet established if the climate has changed. It is only speculation and projection. The local hydro-met station does not show any sign of reduced rainfall or significant rise in temperature. And yet, the question remains: ‘what happened to the water?’


Until next

NB: Photo by: Arun Rai taken on May 24, 2014.

Things, if improved, would enhance the comfort


I am writing this to reflect upon my experiences of the most public seminars and events organized in Kathmandu, which I, sitting in the audience as a participant, often find quite torturous, not because the programmes themselves are lousy but the manner in which they are organized are.  I have always felt that with little effort and with no extra cost things can be improved a lot to enhance the comfort of those sitting in the audience. So my narrative is about the discomfort that I have always endured while sitting in the audience. Let me share some of them with you.

 First the banner. The banner which is hung to indicate the title of the programme and other key information about the programme is the first thing that welcomes you in the hall. But they are hardly readable from a distance because of their size. They are too small compared to the size of the room. And they are usually done with very bright and dazzling colors that do not match with the color of the wall around. Any sensible designer would go and see the color of the wall and the size of the room size before designing the banner to make it go with the wall and the room.

  1. Banner’s letters. The letters in the banners, especially the subtitles and other details, are too small to read even from the first row. It feels even worse if they are in italics. What is the purpose of having all the details on the banner if they are not readable? It would be unfair to imagine that people would figure them out anyway.  The organizer should realize that there is always someone in the audience who has come for the first time and has little knowledge about the issues being discussed. The banner provides a lead to such audience and hence should be readable.
  2. The multimedia. The common problem with the multimedia is that it does not work at once. When one turns the lap top to show the first slide of the presentation, the screen says: no signals. It is a panicking moment for the speaker. Not knowing what to do, begins to push all available bottoms in the machine; and, all of a sudden the projector begins to work. The probability of fixing the problem is 50:50 anyway, but that short moment is embarrassing.
  3. The bouquet of flowers set in front of the speakers are to decorate the dash, but their heights are just high enough to obstruct the face of the speakers.
  4. While showing a documentary, the sound does not come, and when it comes it is hardly audible at the back. Just pretend that everything is fine, because it is customary to accept these tortures.
  5. Microphones are usually placed all over the place for the audience to interact with the speaker, but when one picks them to say something, it either does not work because the battery is dead, or you get a nasty feedback (that annoying screeching sound you get) to your embarrassment. If you are brave enough you just throw the microphone and begin to ask what you intend to ask in the loudest possible way. Then you face another embarrassing moment: someone rushes to you with another microphone when you are halfway through your question: take the microphone and repeat the question all over again.

 It is not a question of how much extra would it cost to fix these problems, all it requires is that people should start to learn to honor the audience.

 More later.


The Tough Gets Going


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The Tough Gets Going Photo: Shree Bhagwan Thakur, PEI Consultant.

The recent international conference, the CBA8, held in Nepal provided opportunity to representatives of over 60 countries to interact among themselves and learn from each other about how the local communities have been preparing to adapt to the anticipated impacts of climate change and in some cases how have they been already adapting to the environmental stresses likely to have been caused by the change in the climate. The participants had the opportunity to observe local initiatives ranging from protection of forests to new plantations and from managing water (and river) to maintaining agricultural biodiversity in different parts of Nepal. Since Nepal has huge diversity in its landscape and climate, the type of activities being innovated by local communities are also equally diverse and was probably not possible to observe in a short visit. Hence, I provide an example here.
This is a case from a village from Panchthar in eastern Nepal, which has been experiencing drought for some years now. Many mountains springs have dried and access to water sources have become very difficult. Farming is possible only during the monsoon months. Thus, many villagers have abandoned the houses and have moved to new areas in the low land for settlements. However, some in the village have ventured to adapt to increasing water stress and continued to develop ways of making productive use of parched land. Seen in the picture is the tree plantation of Teak.
The striking thing is that each plant has its own container (costing at least Rupees 100 or $1.0, I guess) to water it. The farmer fills the container when it is empty with water carried in a tractor from the Tamor River in the valley. What a way to reduce evaporation loss and continue to maintain the much needed green water in the soil to this valuable plant!


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