Every monsoon it is the same old story. The monsoon rains trigger landslides and floods, roads and bridges are washed off and villages in the plains get inundated. The media likes to call them ‘natural disasters’, they are natural but are disasters only because of man-made interventions. Encroachment into the floodplains of rivers, deforestation of the Chure, haphazard road excavation along slopes, growth and lack of priority for drainage, have turned what should be a predictable annual phenomenon beneficial for agriculture into a calamity.
The Chure makes up 12.5% of Nepal's area and stretches from Ilam to Kanchanpur, spanning 36 districts, with 164 rivers that are dry most of the year but turning into raging torrents in the monsoon. One of the reasons for the destructive floods in Saptari last week was the denudation and mining in the upstream Chure watershed. The other reason is inappropriate road and urban construction which have blocked natural drainage for these rivers in the monsoon.
Eighty per cent of the total flows on Nepal’s rivers are derived from monsoon rains in three months. Till a decade ago, the monsoon floods on Chure River were a boon for agriculture. Today they are a bane. Destruction of the Chure puts more than 10 million Nepali plains-dwellers and millions more in India at risk of floods. This is not a natural disaster, but an environmental one.
With the advent of the monsoon, we will be flooded with stories of floods, landslides and other water-induced ‘natural disasters’ as they ‘wreak havoc’ throughout the land. Floods are natural, disasters are not. Nepal has nine dry months and three months in which we have too much water. In the rainy season, rivers used to spread along the floodplains, dissipating the force of the water. Nepalis traditionally knew better than to locate settlements on river banks. In the agrarian Madhes, farmers had learnt to live with floods and welcomed the annual replenishment of farms with vital, water-borne nutrients.
Most of the flood damage in the Madhes is not caused by Nepal’s four big rivers, but by Chure streams that are dry most of the year and become raging muddy torrents during the monsoon. The paradox is that boulder and sand mining in the Chure hills to feed the infrastructure boom in Nepal and India actually make these floods more destructive in the Madhes and downstream in India. As we learn from a field report from Rautahat this week most flood victims are poor, and neglecting them comes naturally to the state. Because not enough is being done to prevent destructive floods, relief agencies are turning their attention to early-warning systems and the management of disasters after they happen.
With federalism, flood prevention, management and emergency relief is no longer just the responsibility of the Kathmandu apparatus. In fact, first responders by definition have to be local governments, and the state needs to enhance their flood prevention and management capacity.