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On August 14, Pratap Lama, Lidi’s village chief, was still stranded in Chautara, the district headquarters of Sindhupalchok, when a massive landslide washed away 37 households in his village. Over a week before, Jugal Rural Municipality had requested the Sindhupalchok District Disaster Reduction Committee (SDDRC) to relocate at least five landslide-prone villages within its jurisdiction to safer locations. But the district authorities had turned a blind eye to the locals’ plea. Lama had rushed to Chautara to bolster their plea and convince the SDDRC that an intervention was required immediately.
“It’s already been nine days since we appealed to the SDDRC to initiate the resettlement process,” said Lama. When he finally returned to his village, he found that the landslide had ravaged it. As of now, 25 dead bodies have been retrieved while 13 are still missing.
“The situation is extremely heartbreaking. Up to six members of a single family were buried by the landslide,” said Lama. According to him, it took five days of search and rescue to retrieve the 24 bodies, while many more are still missing. Lidi, a remote village in northern Sindhupalchok, bordering China, was devastated by 2015’s earthquake. Shortly after the quake, a geological study conducted by the government categorised it as a yellow zone, deeming it fit for reconstruction only if it could be fully protected from landslides. According to government officials, 45 out of a total of 174 households resettled to Silang out of fear and disillusionment, setting up makeshift tents for themselves.
Concerned by the destruction wreaked by 2015’s earthquake, seismologists recommended that reconstruction authorities relocate at least 56 settlements across quake-affected districts immediately, and that further study about risky settlements be conducted. The official relocation process has been painfully slow and earthquake survivors have not received incentives from the government to relocate. Given the government’s sluggish response, many earthquake survivors felt cornered and started to rebuild despite the apparent risks. Instead of facilitating their relocation, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) gave its approval for the rebuilding of homes in many risk-prone areas like Lidi, altogether stopping the flow of people to safer places. The negligence on the part of the NRA made the post-earthquake reconstruction process far riskier.
According to a study conducted by the NRA, 1.5 percent of reconstructed houses in 14 of the worst earthquake-affected districts needed to be relocated. In Sindhupalchok, owing to its complex and fragile geography and history of landslides and earthquakes, this number was up to 3.5 percent.
Hilly regions like Lidi were particularly devastated by the 2015 earthquake. To add to that, the initiative to build roads had made use of heavy machinery, which further destabilised fragile land. This year’s unprecedented rainfall has made Lidi even more vulnerable, and the recent landslide proved to be fatal for many residents who hadn’t made their own ad-hoc plans for resettlement like some of their neighbours.
But Lidi is just one example of a far deeper crisis faced by many rural communities across Sindhupalchok, a district that has become a hotspot for landslides in the last few years. The prevalence of landslides shot up after 2015’s earthquake, although the district had witnessed deadly landslides before the earthquake. For instance, a total of 156 people died in 2014’s Jure landslide.
The impact of the 2015 earthquake has only made the district more vulnerable to more frequent and more fatal landslides. This year, incidences of landslides were reported since June. The monsoon season is still ongoing and this could mean more landslides, leading to more destruction of property and more casualties. Landslides have claimed a total of 39 lives in the district, while a similar number of people are still missing, according to the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC), a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
According to scientists, the likelihood of landslides in earthquake-affected districts like Sindhupalchok continues to be high. But earthquakes aren’t the only reason that this is so. Melting glaciers and glacial lake outbursts are adding to the woes of the people living in these areas. In 2016, scores of houses in Sindhupalchok were swept away after a glacial lake outburst in Tibet. In the last week of July this year, local authorities had to alert locals living along the Bhotekoshi River as well as downstream after the water level increased in the Kerung Chhyong glacial lake in the Nyalam region of Tibet.
Since 2015, cases of landslides have multiplied in the 14 worst quake-affected districts. The rest of the hilly region is also not impervious to landslides. Experts say that, apart from the impact of earthquakes, erratic rainfall, haphazardly constructed infrastructure — mainly roads — and scientifically unsound farming practices are making the region more vulnerable to landslides.
Across the nation, more landslides have occurred in locations with recent road construction projects that have used heavy equipment while neglecting environmental impact assessments, showing an unmistakable correlation.
Last year, Ruru Kshetra Municipality in Gulmi constructed a 200-metre section of the Ramche-Dumrikharka road, using excavators. With a torrential downpour that persisted for several days, the hilly and unstable land was weakened further. Eventually, a huge boulder underneath the road rolled down to a human settlement, triggering a massive landslide and taking the lives of four members of a poor Majhi family. Bina Majhi, the 30-year-old mother, died in her sleep, along with her sons, aged seven and nine, and her 20-month-old daughter.
Bina’s husband, Raju, is the only remaining survivor in their family. “He was in India seeking employment. That’s why he survived,” said Harihar Gyawali, the village chief.
A total of 10 people, including the Majhi family, have lost their lives in Gulmi, which has recorded 25 landslides since the start of the monsoon season this year.
Three days before the Gulmi incident, a similar tragedy occurred in Malkot Village of Narharinath Rural Municipality in Kalikot. Nine people, including seven members of a single family, were buried under debris after a landslide swept their homes away. In Kalikot, more than two dozen people have lost their lives over the span of 17 landslides this season.
In Nepal, landslides are common mainly during the monsoon, which typically begins in June and lasts until September. “The monsoon season isn’t even over yet and, already, we have had an unprecedented death toll,” said Anil Pokhrel, Executive Director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA), adding that the two-three weeks ahead are very critical as most disasters happen during this period.
According to the details provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, 71 people died and 22 went missing due to landslides in 2013. The number of deaths increased to 116 in 2014, 127 in 2015, and 147 the following year. In 2017, reported deaths had come down to 75 and seemed to have stabilised in the 80s in the following two years. But even as this year’s monsoon season is still underway, 214 people have already been reported dead while 58 are still missing. This year’s landslide toll is already nearly three times higher than last season’s.
Alarmed by the increase in the frequency of landslides, the NRA and NDRRMA have jointly started a study on unsafe settlements in the 14 worst quake-affected districts in the country.
“Once a fresh study is conducted in these districts, we will finalise incentive structures for people living in vulnerable zones in order to protect them from landslides,” said Pokhrel.
Bhadra Sharma Bhadra Sharma is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist. He is also co-author of the book 'Impunity and Political Accountability in Nepal'.
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