Nepali Times

Disastrous unpreparedness

Thursday, August 17th, 2017
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Photo: Bikram Rai

Photo: Bikram Rai

Ajaya Dixit

Floods have been part of the life and livelihoods of the people living in the Indo-Gangetic plains for millennia, though written historical records of large floods only exist starting in the 17th and 18th centuries. Understanding the hydrology of South Asian rivers is critical to deepening our understanding of floods. The bottom line is that floods occur when a river channel is filled with water. This often happens during the monsoon season, when more than 80% of annual rainfall arrives in just four months. As long as the Himalayan range forms a barrier for rain clouds moving in from the Bay of Bengal, the monsoon will continue to bring floods. Within Nepal, however, there is great variation in the amount and intensity of rainfall.

Recent advances in meteorology and weather system science have helped us to better understand the causes and movements of the monsoonal troughs that create heavy rainfall in different parts of the country. The movement of similar troughs caused the cloudbursts that unleashed catastrophic floods in central Nepal in 1981 and 1993. In 1981, a weather station in Godavari, Lalitpur got 169mm of rain in 24 hours, while in 1993, 540mm of rain fell in over 24 hours in Tistung in the Kulekhani watershed. More than 1,000 people lost their lives in the resulting floods, critical infrastructure like roads, bridges, hydropower stations and irrigation barrages and canals were damaged, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people were in jeopardy.

Nepalis have always suffered from monsoon floods, and many factors indicate that they will worsen in the future as climate change causes our weather systems to alter and we continue down dangerous and unequal development pathways. Our response to such disasters remains focused on reactive rescue and relief activities, which unfortunately often get politicised. As a society and a nation, we have failed to shift our efforts towards reducing risks by proactively preparing for the next disaster.

Poor planning and a lack of understanding of risks, as well as of the natural flow of rivers, are why current and future floods will be more destructive than past ones. We must learn from the past to minimise the loss and destruction from future disasters. Instead, we seem to keep repeating mistakes that have brought death and destruction. Aiming to control floods, we have jacketed rivers by building embankments without serious attention to local hydrology, resulting in waterlogging of the land along riverbanks. These rivers regularly breach with severe consequences for local people, who live with a false sense of safety because of the embankments. When we construct new roads, we ignore how they may exacerbate future floods by blocking natural drainage channels. When we pave over surfaces with concrete and asphalt, we rarely build the needed drainage.

Unlike some places in the world that face only one type of hazard, Nepalis must learn to live with multiple and regular hazards likes floods, landslides, droughts and earthquakes. This means that minimising disaster risk should become a central part of our development journey.

Recently elected local councils must swing into action to develop disaster management plans for local communities. Early warning information about floods must reach the most vulnerable in risk areas, and we must have systems in place to help them minimise the impacts from such floods. Immediate relief and rescue efforts are critical to save lives and property. But only by preparing now can we ensure that we have the mechanisms and systems in place to prevent a flood from turning into a large-scale disaster.

Ajaya Dixit is a water expert with the Institute for Social Environmental Transition Nepal (ISET-N).


Restricting relief

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017
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Floods triggered by incessant rainfall inundates paddy fields in Saptari.

 

Editorial in Kantipur, 16 August

Various organisations and individuals have voluntarily come forward to raise money and collect relief for the people affected by this week’s floods, which is a really commendable effort. They may have been motivated by altruism, but it is difficult to rule out the possibility of the misuse of relief money and materials. Yet, it cannot be an excuse for the government to restrict volunteers from distributing relief in the flood-affected areas.

It will take a long time to restore the lives and livelihood damaged by the floods. But their immediate need is relief. Despite joint efforts by the government, NGOs and individuals, relief has not reached all flood victims. In many places, people displaced by the floods are hungry. They need immediate support, and the government alone is not able to provide that.

Fearing that the relief will be misused or not distributed equally, the government has introduced a one-window policy, requiring all NGOs and individuals to distribute relief only through government channels. This may delay relief distribution, adding to the sufferings of the flood survivors. The government mechanism for relief and reconstruction is notorious for painfully slow responses and unnecessary procedural hassles. So, instead of channeling all the relief through one door, the government must facilitate NGOs and individuals to swiftly reach out to the flood-affected communities.

The official data shows that the floods have damaged at least 3,000 houses in the Tarai. Tall and sturdy houses were not damaged by the floods, but food grains stored in those houses are not edible any more. And the floods have also damaged water systems, forcing people to drink contaminated water. This could lead to a disease outbreak, and flood survivors have already begun to suffer from typhoid, diarrhea and skin diseases. The Health Ministry should be prepared to tackle this crisis. The government must work with NGOs and people to deal with this disaster instead of alienating them.

There were reports of misuse of money raised for the survivors of the April 2015 earthquake. The government must not allow this to happen again. But the government’s one-door policy for relief is not a solution.


Flood of recrimination

Sunday, August 13th, 2017
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A man and his son wade through a flooded street in Gaur, Rautahat on Monday. Pic: Gautam Shrestha

What is surprising about this week’s floods is that we seem so surprised by them. Nepal is prone to water-induced disasters, we have known that for ages, and the Japanese even helped set up a whole department of government to have an early-warning and management system for floods. Yet headlines this week speak of floods ‘wreaking’ another ‘havoc’ across the country ‘unexpectedly’.

We also like to call them ‘natural disasters’. They are ‘natural’ only in as much as they are caused by heavy rain. These annual monsoon floods are actually man-made, or at least exacerbated by poorly-planned infrastructure. There is a human cost to the floods mainly because we tamper with the natural flow of rivers, damage the watershed ecosystem, and obstruct drainage channels with walls and embankments.

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All pics: RSS

Floods are actually beneficial for farms since they wash down nutrients and replenish the soil. Farmers in the Tarai and the Indo-Gangetic plains downstream in Bihar and Bangladesh have learnt to live with annual floods. It has only become unmanageable because we have constricted rivers with flood ‘control’ levees that try to ‘tame’ rivers.

We have encroached into the floodplains of rivers over which they used to spread to accommodate excess runoff. There has been massive deforestation of the fragile Chure hills directly upstream from the Tarai, which have choked with sediment the rivers that flow down from them, causing them to meander through villages and farms. Haphazard road excavation along the mountains have disturbed natural seepage, triggering landslides even after moderate rains.

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To summarise: so-called ‘modern’ interventions have disregarded traditional building codes and ignored the fact that a river will find its own way to the sea no matter what we do to block its path. We have turned what should be a predictable annual phenomenon beneficial for agriculture into a calamity.

It is true floods are getting more destructive. But that is because we are getting in the way. Meteorologists confirm what farmers have been saying for years: that monsoons are erratic, rain doesn’t fall when it should and there is too much of it when it does fall. Cloudbursts have become more common. But even that is not ‘natural’, because the changes in weather patterns appear to be caused by climate change.

Every monsoon it is the same old story. When the flood water flow into India there is always recrimination from across the border that Nepal has opened the ‘sluice gates’ of its dams. The only two dams on the border are the Kosi and Gandaki barrages and their sluice gates are controlled by India.

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In the Nepali media, too, there is the exaggerated paranoia about embankments across the border. This week, too, we saw headlines that the floods in Morang and Saptari are because the Indians did not open the barrage gates.  Actually the floods there had nothing to do with the Kosi barage.

In fact, most flood damage in the Nepal Tarai and India this year were not caused by Nepal’s four main Himalayan rivers, but by flash floods on streams that flow down from Chure. The irony of it all is that the Chure was mined for gravel and sand to feed India’s infrastructure boom, and that act has made floods more destructive in India itelf.

To be sure, the Kosi Barrage is a ticking time bomb, not so much for Nepal, but for Bihar. The barrage and the dykes downstream were a political and engineering folly because they allowed the Kosi’s sediment to raise the river’s bed so it is now flowing several metres above the surrounding terrain. A more serious breach in the levees, as happened in 2008, or a future flash flood could make the Kosi bypass the barrage altogether with destruction of biblical proportions.

Floods and landslides will get worse in Nepal in the coming decades. Preventing them requires and understanding nature’s ways, and letting rivers be free again.

Kunda Dixit


Direct grants gone

Sunday, August 13th, 2017
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Narayan Kaji Shrestha in www.setopati.com, 10 August

When I became foreign affairs minister in 2011, people from my village in Gorkha district sought my help in getting a grant from the Indian Embassy to build a school.

Narayan Kaji Shrestha

Narayan Kaji Shrestha

I disappointed them by not just declining but questioning the rationale of the Embassy’s Small Development Project (SDP) under which millions of rupees are spent in Nepali villages. This is not part of India’s budgetary support to Nepal, and our government has no role or say in implementation of the SDP.

Many Nepali leaders and MPs visit the India Embassy requesting SDP grants for their constituencies. The Embassy gives grants to those who are loyal to India, or to villages where it has some interests.

In 2003, Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa appeased India by allowing its embassy in Kathmandu to invest directly in small development projects in Nepali villages. No successive government tried or was able to reverse that policy.

As foreign affairs minister, I tried to block renewal of the SDP but not only was the deal renewed, its amount was increased to Rs50 million from Rs30 million.

The SDP is not good for Nepal’s sovereignty because India can use the program to increase its influence at the grassroots through direct investments and also because people become more loyal to the Indian Embassy than to their own government.

Better late than never, the government has now decided to not renew the SDP, citing the lack of clarity over the development model in a federal Nepal. As a developing country Nepal certainly needs foreign grants, but we have to be able to dictate its terms.

Based on a conversation


Deadly deluge  

Saturday, August 12th, 2017
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In Saptari, around 1,000 houses have been inundated with water. Photo: RSS

Severe monsoon flooding and landslides killed nearly two dozen people in eastern Nepal on Saturday.

Authorities say the death toll could go up as more people are missing in floods in the eastern Tarai.

Many plains districts in the region have been inundated with water, hindering rescue and relief work.

The department of hydrology and meteorology (DHM) has forecast more downpour s in eastern Nepal over the next 24 hours, and advised people to stay away from swollen rivers. The water level in the Saptakosi River has exceeded the danger mark.

There is flooding in Biratnagar sub metropolitan city, and the local airport has been closed. Authorities say there will be no flights to and from Biratnagar for at least two days.

The DHM has also forecast heavy rains in western Nepal, where floods have already swept away three concrete bridges. Rains have damaged part of the Tulsipur-Ghorahi road, leaving people in Ghorahi, Dang district headquarters, stranded.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has instructed administrators in flood-hit districts to expedite rescue and relief efforts. He has also urged people to help each other in this time of crisis.


Concrete aid

Saturday, August 12th, 2017
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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: New York physician Christopher Barley at the inauguration of a new hospital in Sindhuli that bears his name. The facility has been converted from a former housing complex for Japanese engineers working on the BP Highway. All photos: Sean Shoemaker

Sean Shoemaker in Sindhuli 

Two years after rallying to provide medical care to those wounded in the 2015 earthquakes, a New York doctor and an American medical charity have established a permanent presence in Nepal, inaugurating the Christopher Barley Hospital in Sindhuli this week.

Four-hours along the B P Highway from Kathmandu, the Aatmiya Community Hospital has 20 beds and will serve up to 100,000 people in the village of Khalte in this underserved district of the Inner Tarai in east-Central Nepal.

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“We will be able to provide everything short of major trauma or open heart surgery,” said Christopher Barley at the opening. He was joined by Michael Daube, founder of the US-based non-profit CITTA  which is dedicated to providing healthcare and educational opportunities to excluded communities in under-privileged and remote regions of India and Nepal.

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Both men rushed to Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake and were involved in search and rescue for a few weeks but realised there was a much more urgent need for long-term health care in districts not affected by the earthquake. The two selected a former housing complex in Khalte used by Japanese engineers while building the highway from Dhulikhel to Bardibas.

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“The location was chosen on purpose, we wanted to have access to roads and to take medical care to a community that wasn’t being served,” explained Barley, adding that they were convinced they made the right choice after 300 people attended a free health camp one week prior to the hospital’s opening. Many had serious health issues that needed surgery and treatment.

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“It was an indication that this kind of facility is needed here,” said Daube of CITTA. “Our aim is to maintain the treatment of the poor. We aren’t just extending healthcare, we are also providing it for a rural community that is deprived of it.”

Although Daube and Barley have teamed up together before, this project in particular is significant to both of them. Barley has a respected internal medicine practice in New York City, and has been involved with Daube in raising funds to extend much-needed medical care and education to Humla and Sindhuli in Nepal and Rajasthan and Odisha in India under the slogan: ‘Making a difference against indifference.”

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CITTA’s earlier project to build and run a modern hospital in Simkot of the remote Humla district in northwestern Nepal had to be abandoned after a local partner turned out to be untrustworthy.

“This is the first time we have had a project that’s so easily accessible, “said Daube. “It can be a safety net for all the villages in Sindhuli.”

 


Near a deal with KC  

Friday, August 11th, 2017
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On the 19th day of Govinda KC’s 11th hunger strike, the crusading physician’s interlocutors and government representatives have finally forged a deal.

After a series of intense negotiations overnight, the two sides have agreed to three points:

a) the Kedar Bhakta Mathema commission will be mentioned in the preamble of the National Medical Education Bill

b) those hospitals that have received Letter of Intent (LoI) will be allowed to run medical colleges, but only if they meet all the criteria to be set by the new Act,

c) Hospitals will be allowed to apply for medical colleges only after operating for three years.

The two sides, facilitated by NC leader and former Health Minister Gagan Thapa and Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha, had inched closer to this three-point deal late Thursday night.

In a meeting with both sides at Baluwatar on Friday morning, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba gave his nod to the points.  However, everyone is waiting for the final word rom KC who is at Teaching Hospital in a feeble state.

KC’s negotiators are learnt to have assured PM Deuba that he would agree to the compromise points. The bill that was passed by the Women, Children, Elderly Citizen and Social Welfare Committee of Parliament on
Friday will now be revised.

Earlier, the bill had been drafted in a way that, if passed, would have allowed at least five new medical colleges inside Kathmandu Valley alone. The bill stated that ‘those medical colleges that have already received LoI will be allowed if they meet criteria’.

As per the agreement, this clause will remain more or less same. But it will be rephrased to state that only those colleges that have received LoI and meet all the criteria set by the new Act will be allowed.

Government representatives and KC’s interlocutors say this ‘rewording’ makes a huge difference, and captures the spirit of KC’s campaign for reforms in medical education.

UML MPs, too, are unlikely to oppose this agreement because Manmohan Memorial Hospital, where their MPs have invested, will most probably be allowed to run a new medical college. This hospital has already received a
LoI, and can meet criteria like 300-bed and operating for three years. However, other hospitals that have received LoI will not be allowed to run medical colleges.

The question is whether KC will agree and whether his negotiators can convince him. What KC really wants is a 10-year moratorium on new medical colleges no matter if they have received LoI or if they have met all the criteria. But even KC’s own representatives say this may not be possible.

Om Astha Rai

Read also:

Sinking fast

 


 

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