Every monsoon, television screens and column inches of newspapers are flooded with news of floods. Our region is in an area of either too much water in the monsoon, or too little during the dry season. Sometimes, like this year, this paradox of penury and plenty is concurrent. While the eastern half of Nepal is reeling under floods, the western side is in the grip of a serious drought.
Ever the since the Himalayan mountains started forming after the Indian plate bulldozed under the Eurasian landmass 60 million years ago, the rising terrain acted as a rain trap. Prehistoric monsoon rains lashed the young mountains as they rose, depositing vast sediments on the Tethys Sea, ultimately filling it up to form what is today the Indo-Gangetic plains. Earthquakes, flashfloods, cloudbursts and landslides are the dynamic effects of the processes of mountain-building and erosion. They have always been going on, and they always will.
As human habitation in the mountains and the plains downstream grew, we started calling these seismic and water-induced events 'natural disasters'. The events may be natural, but there is nothing natural about the increasing loss of life. The death toll and displacement is a man-made disaster. They happen because the landless have nowhere to go and settle along vulnerable floodplains, expanding cities encroach on rivers, highways cut the drainage basins and expensive embankments designed to control floods make them worse.
Just like earthquakes don't kill people (poor housing and lack of preparedness do) floods won't kill people unless we get in the way. Bangladeshis have learnt to live with floods, in fact they are a vital part of the agricultural cycle as the flood-borne silt replenish nutrients in their fields.
It is the government's duty to rush relief to the victims of this year's flood in the eastern and central tarai and the drought in the west. But what are we going to do this year so the scale of the destruction is reduced next year? The monsoon season is not the time to be worried about floods, by the time it starts raining it is already too late.
Nature is neutral, it is neither malevolent nor benevolent. Floods are natural phenomena. We have to learn to live with them by being smarter about where we live, how we live, and not tampering with nature to make problems worse. The Ganga-Bramhaputra basin includes at least five countries, including Nepal. Rivers do not respect manmade boundaries, and floods happen when someone, somewhere constricts their drainage to the sea. If we keep doing that, then we ain't seen nothing yet.