Is It a New Local Water Cycle ?


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Impact of the April 25 earthquake on local water sources has begun to appear in the Kathmandu valley. The increased discharge in the local water spouts following the earthquake and the joy it brought to the people in a locality in Katunje in Bhaktapur didn’t last for more than 3 weeks.  The Tin Dhara (three spouts in Nepali) of Katunje village had increased water discharge after the earthquake, but the discharge declined rapidly and the spouts dried after the strong aftershock of May 12.

Women wait for hours to collect drinkgn water

One of the three spouts (seen in the picture) is barely flowing with a discharge of about 2 liters per minute. Women from around the village gather to collect water which they use for drinking purpose. About 50 households, who do have VDC built piped water connection to their houses depend on this dying spout, because the water in the tap is murky and therefore not suitable for drinking. People come here to collect water, because they they can drink this water without filtering let alone boiling.

And there is another spout in the next valley (seen in the picture below), which had dried for the last three years  but, started to flow after the quake.  Amazingly the discharge in this spout is at least 20 liter per minutes – 10 times more than the dying spout of Tin Dhara.

2015-06-25 17.34.40

The earthquake has significantly changed the water cycle in these small watersheds. What are the changes and how permanent are they can only be assessed in the next winter. Hope these preliminary measurements will provide an important benchmark for Katunje.

Monitoring the discharge in local water sources where changes have been seen within the EQ affected area would provide crucial information for water scientists to evaluate EQ impact on water cycle, and for water managers to mitigate water problems.

With Irene’s support

Until next



The Neglected Hills


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This is a follow up to my previous blog about ‘The Third Mountains and Beyond’ posted on May 30, 2015. On the blog, I had indicated that villages faraway from road heads and beyond the second valleys are often ignored by state agencies, while collecting information about the situation there, and because of the lack of information of the situation, the state fails to provide even essential services to people in need. This has been the story for more than half a century since we embarked on a planned development path. Consequently, a large part of Nepal still remains disconnected from the state and has remained in a very sorry state in terms of health, education and opportunities for economic development.

The point that I was trying to draw home was that the earthquake did not differentiate between the first and the third mountains. People in the third mountains have suffered even more because they are among the weakest of the Nepali society and hence will find it be very difficult to recover and re-establish from the ruins.

My speculation about state agencies not reaching these areas in the Third Mountains, unfortunately, came  true. The government had constituted a technical team comprising of geologist, soil conservation expert, and experts from other relevant fields to collect information about the situation and assess the potential threat that the monsoon rains might bring in the district of Lalitpur, which has been badly damaged by the earthquake with landslides and cracks on the ground. The south part of the Lalitpur is mountainous and every valley makes the next mountain even more remote. The village of Thula Durling, which lies at the border between Lalitpur and Makawanpur, is the farthest from the district headquarter and probably a day’s walk from the nearest road head.


According to the news (snippet above) the technical team decided to return without visiting Thula Durlung, because they were running out of time to start writing the report from areas they visited in the first and the second mountains. Not a bad excuse because the team was given a limited time to submit the report, based on which the government can make a plan to take necessary steps and ensure safety of the people in the monsoon. But it is certain that the plan will not have anything for people in Thula Durlung because there is no information about their situation in the report (unless the team decides to make some story based on hearsay).

Some questions:

When will the state begin to realize that a large part of Nepal lives in the Third Mountains?

No matter what the macroeconomic indicators say, the living condition of the people in the Third Mountains is generally beyond one’s imagination. When will the state take note of it and begin to value the outcome rather than the process?

Thanking  Irene for her support

Until next


Sunkoshi isn’t blue this year.

The water in the Sunkoshi River and increased this week due to snow melt in the catchment. With the rise in temperature the snow has started to melt, which happens at this time of the year. With sufficient snow-melt water to augment the flow when the river is at its lowest before the monsoon,  the river  is supposed to look most beautiful because of  sufficient water  from bank to bank looking bluish green in color,  and so clean that one could easily see the pebbles and boulders  under water where it is shallow. This is what makes the areas round the river beautiful because one has tingling cold water to take a deep in, of a hot summer day under the scorching sun.  But, Sunkoshi this year is not bluish green. It has snow-melt water, which is muddy and sediment laden, probably contributed by landslides in the upstream triggered by Gorkha Earthquake of April 25, 2015.  It also indicates the extent of lose sediment in the river bed.

The water in the Sunkoshi River increased this week due to snow melt in the catchment. With the rise in temperature the snow has started to melt, which normally happens at this time of the year. With sufficient snow-melt water to augment the flow when the river is at its lowest before the monsoon, the river is supposed to look most beautiful because of sufficient water from bank to bank looking bluish green in color, and so clean that one could easily see the pebbles and boulders under water where it is shallow. This is what makes the areas round the river beautiful because one has tingling cold water to take a deep in, on a hot summer day with scorching sun over the head But, Sunkoshi this year is not bluish green. It has snow-melt water, but muddy and sediment laden, probably a contribution of landslides in the upstream triggered by Gorkha Earthquake of April 25, 2015. The muddy water also indicates the extent of lose sediment in the river bed.

Photo taken at Khadichaur on June 8, 2015


When Will Water Become a Priority?


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The safety of millions of people in the earthquake affected districts is of concern in view of the approaching monsoon and loosened mountain slopes with widespread cracks on the ground. Many settlements are said to be extremely vulnerable and may not stand a chance when the monsoon rains arrive –they may just get washed down by landslides. Therefore, while relief, recovery and construction of makeshift shelters are on, the government has also started sending technical teams to assess the situation in the ground. The Ministry of Home has formed a technical team of geologists and other experts to conduct a preliminary ground assessment and recommend possible measures so that the government can take necessary steps possibly in the following key areas.

  • Identifying extremely vulnerable areas from where people must be relocated to safe places before the monsoon begins.
  • Identifying some ‘quick and dirty’ measures, if any, to reduce vulnerability in areas where hazards can be reduced to ensure safety of the people.
  • Identifying possible measures to ensure smooth functioning of the infrastructures including the roads, the highways and the power plants.

Similarly, the Ministry of Environment has formed another committee with support from the WWF to study in detail its one point agenda – the damages caused by the earthquake to the environment.

Ministry of agriculture has already assessed the damage caused by the earthquake to the agriculture sector and has developed plans to distribute seeds and fertilizer for summer crop. It is believed that the farmers have lost their paddy seeds when the houses collapsed.

Though, it has not come out in the news yet, it can be assumed that other technical departments have also assessed or are in the process of assessing the damages to their area of interest.

The point that needs to be emphasized is, though these initiatives are important as they bring valuable information, it is unclear how and who will pull them together to develop an understanding of the overall impact of the earthquake and formulate plan of actions that needs to be done in a coordinated manner. This brings us to the issue of the structural shortcoming that we have unwittingly become victim to.

The weakness of the sectoral ministerial system is that there are no agencies to address cross cutting issues. The ministries are not interested in areas outside their official area of concern. The core area of ministry’s interest is even reflected in naming the ministry. The classic case in hand is the changing of the name of the Ministry of Environment several times, from Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE),  to Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology (MoEST), to the current name of Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE). It only shows the intention of reinforcing the boundary of its scope.

In principle, the role of the planning commission is to coordinate the development activities among the ministries and monitor their progress. Since, it strictly goes by the ministry, the commission has no role either to influence in the area not represented by ministry. This is one of the reasons that the government creates a new ministry if it is deemed necessary to emphasize particular area. Ministry of Poverty is another classic example created three years ago to lay emphasis on poverty alleviation, while the issue should have been (and in an informal way it probably is) at  the focus of all ministries.

Now, coming back to the impacts of earthquake, I believe that the most critical of all the impacts will be that on water sources, which will then impact the other areas of concerns.  Because, when the picture of local water regime changes; when the local water cycle changes; when the availability of water at local sources changes;  it will have tremendous and lasting impacts on the environment, agriculture, economy, health and sanitation, energy, and the overall living condition at local level. But there is no way we will have sufficient information about impacts on water sources, simply because there is no responsible ministry to emphasize the study of earthquake impact on water sector. The Ministry of Water Resources has now been split into Ministry of Irrigation and Ministry of Energy. The role of Water and Energy Commission seems important, but not sure what it is doing. At present, it looks like ‘water’ is not a priority.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Until next


The Third Mountains and Beyond


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This diagram has been taken from a chapter titled ‘Bhattedanda Milkways’ in the book Ropeways in Nepal

The risk with trying to step into an unknown territory is that you have to be ready to confront many questions from just about everybody, and if you don’t have answers to all the questions you don’t get the support you need, which can be quite frustrating, especially if you are convinced that the idea you want to implement would work and all you were looking for was that ’yes’ from the people. But sometimes you come up with such an answer that not only convinces people right away, but the answer lingers in your memory for a long time, and you see its reflection in many other occasions.

A similar answer lingers in my mind even after two decades, and with a strong reflection in the aftermath of the big earthquake. It was during an informal meeting more than two decades ago, when we were trying to explain to a group of planners, journalists, friends and well wishers the beauty of ropeways and how they could bring about a change in the living conditions of the people in the mountains that we all have aspired to see for long.

The case we were discussing was from Lalitpur, where the plan was to establish a short-haul material ropeway to help farmers export milk to the market who, due to lack of quick transport, were instead forced to make Khuwa, which not only was environmentally damaging but economically less profitable than selling fresh milk.  The proposed ropeway would connect the mountains making transport of milk quick and easy. But the explanation was not attractive enough to convince people.  Most of the responses were sort of ‘ok…., you connect the mountains…, then what?’ So, we needed something more graphic to tell people how the economy and the living conditions of the people change across every valley from the nearest road head, and how the ropeways fit in the dairy industry that makes up a large part of the livelihood across each valley.

The story that I explained went something like this.

When you go to South Lalitpur, you see mountains after mountains after mountains separated by valleys with small Kholas (see the diagram) flowing through them, which swell very high during the monsoon making mobility even more difficult.  (By the way, that is the case throughout the mountain region in the country). The villages in the first mountains can be reached within 3 hours from the road head. Since they are close to the road, they sell milk to the dairy corporation. They live in two storied zinc-sheet roofed houses with separate cowsheds. Their children go to high school and colleges, sometimes even in Patan city.

The villages in the second mountains are about 8 hours away from the road, because you have to cross the valley to go to these villages. Hence, dairy farmers there can’t sell milk. Instead, they sell khuwa and earn about 70% of what their peers in the first mountains would earn. They live in thatch- roofed houses.  Their children go to secondary schools.

The faraway villages in the third mountains are more than a day’s walk from the road, because you have to cross two valleys to reach there.  Just because of the distance to the market they end up selling Ghiu instead of Khuwa, and with the same input in raising animals, earn only 40% of what their fellow farmers in the first mountains would earn. They live in one storey thatch-roofed houses, and keep small animals in the same house.  Their children don’t normally complete schooling beyond primary level.

I hadn‘t even finished explaining my last point about the conditions in the third mountain, a senior journalist jumped to ask ‘what is there beyond the third mountain?

Without taking a second to answer his question, I said ‘the Maoists’. Everyone in the room burst into laughter. The Maoist insurgency at that time had just begun and one would hear about stories of their activities in the border areas of the districts where the presence of the state is generally insignificant. But that answer that I gave, which changed the mood in the room at that time, lingers in my mind even today because the villagers beyond the third mountain don’t have anything to sell – no milk, no Khuwa, no Ghiu. And perhaps that is the reality even today. In the case of Lalitpur, the area beyond the third mountain borders with Makawanpur and South Kavre. They are the ones mostly, unreached, unattended to, and faraway from all service centers, which makes them quite vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation from implanting ideologies to conversions.

The answer also stunned people in the room, as it opened eyes and helped them get some understanding of why our [development] efforts normally do not reach the ones most in need, the ones who have been left politically and economically very weak.

The mountains haven’t changed nor have the valleys or the economic gradient across the landscape (the diagram presented still holds true). Amidst this, let’s place-over this physical reality over what might have happened now with the earthquake of  April 25th and try to reconstruct the picture for whatever services the state has to offer in the days ahead.

When the earthquake shook the mountains, it jolted all at once from first to the third mountains and beyond. Perhaps the damages are even more serious in the third mountains and beyond, but, our efforts of rescue, relief and reconstructions begin from the first mountains because that is where we reach first and also because damages there are not any less. And perhaps with more pressure the help reaches the second mountains.  In the third mountains, where the capacity of people to recover and re-establish is very weak, may be the help has not reached yet or if it has, it has reached very late and very little.

Unless, we have plans to bring the third mountains right at the center of our attention, for planning, budgeting and programming, and especially at a time like this, we will not be able to begin to correct the sharp economic gradient that exists in our society.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Until next


Fixing the Designed Problems



Security at the Biratnagar airport was tightened strictly following the hijacking of a Twinottor along with 3 million rupees Indian Currency it was carrying from Biratnagar to Kathmandu in 1972. That was the first hijacking in Nepal’s aviation history. As a response, immediately after the incidence, metal detectors were introduced at Biratnagar to check baggage. But amazingly, the security level at other airports of Janakpur and Nepalgunj did not change. Security personnel were still manually frisking the body at those places. Security at Biratnagar was taken seriously because the authorities reacted to what happened there and not at other airports because nothing had happened at those places, even though they were equally vulnerable to similar events.

The point I want to draw home is the government’s decision of limiting the height of the buildings to only two stories, which came as reaction to the devastating earthquake of April 25. It was the same administration that allowed construction of high rise apartments, many of which are more than 15 storied. The logic used was that the valley is already crowded with residential buildings and there is no choice but use the aerial space. The real estate business boomed in no time making space for the growth of numerous banks and many other financial institutions. The land value went sky-high, which on one side made it near impossible for people to buy a piece of land to build their own house and on the other encouraged people to buy apartments with its modern looking facilities. Building multistoried houses with 5 -7 storey became a lucrative investment sector. The majority of these high rises suffered heavy damages, while other tall buildings had large number of casualties. Approval of designs and quality of construction of these buildings has come under serious questions.

Now the government has stopped construction of any buildings until July. This might very well mean that it will issue new orders to seriously enforce the building codes, which was hardly complied with, and perhaps several other measures before giving permission to construct new buildings. The measures might include provisions from testing of soil of the construction site to approval of the design by qualified structural engineers. These would obviously be a welcome move to make safer houses in future, but most probably the story may not end that way.

A common saying in Nepal goes like this, jindagimaa yeuta ghar nabanaikana manchhe, manchhe hudaina (in Nepali, a man will not be a complete man until he builds a house in his life).  This simply means how complex is this undertaking.

Anyone willing to construct a house would have to first get the land registered in his/her name, which is done at the land revenue office. To get things done at the land revenue office, you have to get the services of a legal advisor because no matter how educated you are you won’t understand the paper works involved. While your legal advisor does the running, you keep standing for hours outside the office, and keep signing papers whenever required. And there is always something wrong with the paper. Again, don’t ask what is it that is ‘wrong’, but ask how can it be fixed? This simply means oiling the wheel. The amount depends on the size of your transaction. Generally it is 10-20 thousand rupees. If the ‘wrong’ is big the amount will go further up.

To save time you could hire an engineer side by side to design your building, which needs to be approved by the municipality authorities. It is better if you get some one from within the agency that does the approval, to design it. You spend some but save some hassle, particularly righting several ‘wrongs’.

The location of your land on the cadastral map has to be verified by the local municipality before your building design is approved. You go to the local office and request the staff to come to your site. First he tells you he is very busy and to come next day. When you go the next day, don’t get surprised if he isn’t in the office. On your third or fourth attempt you will catch him then he asks you if you got the car to go to the site. Then you hire a taxi and take the gentleman to the site. Offer him a good khaja. On your way back he will ask you to give him anywhere between 10 and 25 thousand rupees to issue the letter.

Once you have the verification of your land on the cadastral map, and the design of you dream building prepared by this qualified and registered engineer, submit it with due procedure for approval. The rule requires that your neighbors must state that they have no objection to your constructing building. It adds one more layer to your responsibility to get the notice to the neighbors and their no objection. Approval process may take anywhere around two months, if you are lucky and if you had established the right connections.

When your construction begins, the authority has to check at certain steps to ensure that you have followed the design and not deviated from it. Without his green signal you will not have permission to build further.  Since it is your own building and a lifetime dream coming true, you may want to change certain things as you proceed, but you can’t because the municipal authority is watching it. This is your another chance to correct the ‘wrong’.

So far there is no rule to specify quality standards of the construction material. But, in view of what we went through, quality of construction material may become an issue. However, instead of government making sure that only those materials that meet the quality standards are sold in the market, it will be your responsibility to ensure the quality. Once again you have the opportunity to bribe the authority to get quality clearance.

We are typically a reactive society. Like we did in the hijacking case we react to events very fast and often use neither any logic nor any analysis while making decisions. Government’s decision to ban construction until July has come as a knee-jerk reaction, and additional conditions will be imposed by then again perhaps without much home work.

Who would deny the need for stringent measures to ensure construction of earthquake resistant buildings, but will the government be able to ensure that at every stage of construction a commoner  can ask ‘what is wrong’ rather than saying ‘how can it be fixed’.  As long as the system in places keeps us in a position of fixing the fabricated ‘wrongs’, we will remain vulnerable to disasters.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Until next


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