The devastating flood of 1954 first exposed Nepal to the geopolitics of natural disasters
60 YEARS AGO: A bridge destroyed in the 1954 floods (above). Dil Bahadur Chhetri and his family in Rodi Gaon were resettled in Chitwan after their holdings in Tanahu were destroyed in a landslide.
Sixty monsoons ago, in late July and August 1954, devastating floods swept through central and eastern Nepal. The disaster did not just leave a trail of death and destruction, but also reconfigured Nepal’s political terrain.
Undermining the legitimacy of the coalition government then in power, the floods aided King Mahendra’s rise to power. They also ushered in an era of politically-driven Cold War foreign aid.
Environmental history and political history in Nepal often go hand in hand.
The floods arrived in two waves, first in the last week of July and then a month later, wreaking havoc in the Gandaki, Bagmati, and Kosi watersheds. Hundreds of villages were swept away and inundated. Over 1,000 people perished and 25,000 families lost their homes. Fields were washed away, trails, wells, and bridges destroyed. A US report spoke of ‘destruction of disaster proportions’.
At the time, the Himalayan political landscape was also being remade. India had cast off British rule in 1947, and in 1950 Mao Zedong moved into Tibet. Nepal was in a state of flux: the 1951 revolution removed the Ranas and politics was shaky as the new parties, the monarchy and Rana figures wrestled for influence. Six months before the floods, an ailing King Tribhuvan dissolved MP Koirala’s government, leading to a precarious all-party ruling coalition.
In stark contrast to the 1934 earthquake that flattened Kathmandu, Nepal’s government sent out a worldwide appeal for help in 1954. A new player in the region, the United States, answered the call. Because of events in Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam, the US was concerned about spreading communist influence, including in Nepal.
US Ambassador to India and Nepal Chester Bowles wrote in 1952: ‘The invasion of Tibet by Chinese Communists and the activities of the Government of India in maintaining neutrality in the world conflict with Communism, have catapulted Nepal into the frontline of the cold war.’ A 1954 US document described Nepal as ‘the most vulnerable of the South Asian countries’.
Despite this, American development programs, having started only in 1952, were very modest agriculture, community development, public health, and mineral surveying projects. The emphasis, according to one US document, was ‘to spend little at this stage on equipment or in financing large projects’. State Department higher ups worried about provoking Chinese involvement and annoying India, which wished to oversee Nepal’s external relations.
“Great care,” a US official explained, “is always necessary in order not to generate friction with India.” Such a limited effort displeased Paul Rose, the director of US programs in Nepal. Rose’s multiple requests to Washington for more dollars and technicians were repeatedly turned down.
The 1954 floods changed all that, as humanitarian assistance provided political cover with both India and China. At the same time, Rose knew how to convince Washington, stressing in internal documents how flood relief programs would create ‘significant favorable political impact’. In late 1954, the US announced a $2 million relief package. A new era -- with some parallels to today’s post-quake situation -- had begun.
Early relief efforts exposed the Nepali government’s failings. An American disaster expert complained that Nepal’s cabinet seemed ‘lost’ and had ‘no idea as to what actions to take’. Perhaps this was imperial condescension, or perhaps justified frustration.
The visiting official also lamented a problem that seems all too familiar today: ‘The almost total lack of local governmental mechanisms to administer relief’. Kathmandu lacked not only the capacity to help ordinary people, but also the very idea of helping. The US observer decried the ‘utter inexperience of government officials in the concept that effective action can be taken by government to meet an emergency’. Sadly, similar critiques are still common 60 years later.
It was not just outsiders who criticised the government’s flood response. So did opposition leader BP Koirala and powerful figures within the ruling coalition such as Tanka Acharya and Balchandra Sharma. An already unstable coalition slid closer to collapse.
One beneficiary was King Mahendra. A few months later, in March 1955, as his father lay on his deathbed in a Swiss hospital, Mahendra terminated the national assembly and dissolved the cabinet, seizing direct control. He would give up power in 1956, only to seize it permanently in 1960.
Meanwhile, the US relief program developed into what another observer called ‘America’s prestige effort in Nepal’: a malaria eradication, road-building, and resettlement program in Chitwan’s Rapti Valley that set off three decades of often flawed aid from competing Cold War powers. Although the Rapti project was successful in some ways (many landless farmers received land, the road to Bharatpur was built, and malaria eradicated) it also suffered from deep problems: elite capture, environmental degradation, and the dispossession of many indigenous Tharu.
These problems arose, it’s worth stressing, not because of lack of effort to distribute benefits equitably but because even though outside planners and government officials thought they understood Nepal’s complex social and environmental context, they actually didn’t. Delivering relief and development fairly turned out to be far more difficult and complicated than anyone envisioned.
Sharad Ghimire is a graduate student of global environmental policy at American University, Washington, DC and Tom Robertson teaches environmental history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
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