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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