15-21 August 2014 #720

Adrift

Nepali politicians are too busy protecting gangsters to prepare for future Bhote Kosis
Damakant Jayshi
In the early hours of 2 August, a massive landslide obliterated a village and blocked the Bhote Kosi river. Although only 33 bodies were recovered, more than 150 are presumed dead – at least 50 of them children from one school. Some families have already performed the last rites of missing relatives, even though their bodies were never found

The Nepal Army has tried to cut a channel to drain the 4km long lake, but because of the huge rocks it is proving to be difficult. These boulders are a blessing in disguise because if the river had been dammed by sand and mud, it would have been easier to breach, unleashing a catastrophic flood downstream.

Indeed, the tragedy is a wakeup call and a reminder of the dangers of living and building in the Himalaya. Settlements along river banks, on steep and fragile slopes are at risk even during a year with scanty rains as this monsoon season. Building highways and hydropower projects that factor in the danger of flashfloods will make them more expensive than they already are, and even then, they will not be fully protected.

The seismicity of the Himalaya adds another layer of threat to this already perilous situation. Combine earthquakes with heavy monsoons, and you compound the risk even more. But now, we have to factor in one more danger: climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 5th Assessment Report in Islamabad last week with this dire warning: ‘The impacts of climate change will influence flooding of settlements and infrastructure, heat-related deaths,and food and water shortages in South Asia.’

The weather has gone crazy is a familiar refrain. Older people in Tarai shake their heads about never-before cold, the trans-Himalayan district are abnormally snowless in winter, or there are erratic monsoons like this year.

Photographs of the glaciers below Mt Everest taken 80 years apart show lakes where there used to be ice, and are stark reminders of the creeping catastrophe of climate change. These lakes can burst because of their fragile moraine dams, and during a major earthquake there could be multiple bursts of several lakes simultaneously.

Unfortunately, while the tragedy unfolded in Jure and the Bhote Kosi timebomb ticked away, the state’s attention was divided between the Narendra Modi visit and the alleged encounter killing of a UML-affiliated gangster.

This week, UML lawmakers raised a ruckus in parliament alleging that the police killed the mafioso in cold blood. The debate in parliament was final vivid proof - if proof was still needed - about the criminalisation of Nepali politics. The idiocy of the UML MPs is astounding: they don’t even realise how they have foolishly incriminated themselves. Or maybe they don’t care about what the public thinks. And that is even more worrying.

With the priorities of the media and the politicians on gangland killings, there was little attention on the plight of the survivors of Bhote Kosi. The danger of a dam collapse is not yet over, and the Kodari Highway is still cut off.

This time it was a landslide. Next time, it could be a glacial outburst flood or an earthquake. Bhote Kosi was a test case for a national level response, which (except for the Army) was woefully slow and inadequate. Both the political parties and the government need to have their priorities right: the protection and welfare of citizens. This week we saw living proof that the state’s priority is elsewhere.

@damakant

Read also:

Landslide survivors struggle to survive the aftermath, Naresh Newar

A flood of floods, Kunda Dixit

Calculated risk, Editorial

Coping mechanisms, Ashutosh Tiwari

Watered down

Lake 464, Bhrikuti Rai

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