Landslide Risks and Transformative Adaptation Agenda

The agency of the state with its power of authority, including that to regulate the market, must better coordinate external support and enhance community efforts, and improve the scale and integrity of adaptive efforts as the climate change crisis rages

I visited Belkotgadhi Village, Ward No. 3 of Nepal’s Nuwakot District in April, 2022. The onset of the monsoon would still be a month away. During my visit, I met Muna (name changed) and her two children – 10 year old daughter and 5 year old son. Muna lives in a two-room house built at the edge of a hill. Her rudimentary brick house with cement mortar was washed away in the last monsoon. What remains of her home still faces landslide risk. The neighborhood has ten homes in similar condition.

Muna with her children before the home

The stories of villagers pleading with the ward officials and approaching the municipality for help are plenty. But their requests rarely get a response. Local elected leaders, who have the constitutional responsibility rarely acknowledge risks. Muna was despondent. She said “I have very little hope from the elected officials of whichever party”.

The above is the typical reality of thousands of families living in the hills of Nepal. In the coming monsoon season, the houses of Muna and her neighbors could be washed away and they could become homeless. The official efforts at risk reduction seem to hibernate until monsoon rains begin when death and damages begin. Then, the state institutions wake up to undertake patchy relief and count the dead.

The monsoon brings havoc, not only in Nepal but also across the mountain regions of South Asian countries. The Seasonal Climate Outlook for South Asia (SASCOF) predicted that the 2022 Southwest Monsoon (June–September) is likely to experience normal to above normal rainfall across most of South Asia. Rainfall along Himalayan foothills is likely to be above normal[1]. The seasonal weather forecasts do not reach Muna, yet she knows what landslide risk means for her house during the monsoon.

Nepal’s typical mid hill landscape

She told me hesitantly, “For the last three monsoons, I have been taking refuge in the nearby school with my two children. I plan to do the same this monsoon (July-September)”. Other families also similarly hope to seek shelter in the school. If their houses succumb to landslide the families will be displaced, a story not unique to the few families of Belkotgadhi, but that of the majority living in the hills of Nepal and across other South Asian countries. Climate disaster induced migration has become common but underreported, poorly documented, or remains an unaddressed plight.

As climate change makes pre-monsoon, monsoon and post-monsoon rains more erratic, losses and damages are likely to increase. In October of 2021, for example, extreme unseasonal rainfall after the monsoon was officially declared over, killed 176 people in Nepal and about 100 people in India (Uttarakhand and Kerala with hilly landscapes). The unseasonal rainfall led to serious impacts on houses, agriculture, and infrastructure[2]. The social costs and imperatives of reconstruction have been forgotten after the rains ceased with the next monsoon bringing new dynamics.

Weak Governance
The damaged houses and lives of people like Muna remain in the shadow of the country’s priorities. The condition of victims of many previous landslides is a testimony of collective amnesia. The state institutions do not recognize the complexity of the challenge. When questions about the effective mechanism of landslide risk reduction are raised in the public discourse, the authorities shoot back with more questions. “How can a poor country like Nepal manage rehabilitation and reconstruction of thousands who reside in zones of high landslide risk?”  How and where will the government manage less risky land? How does the state ensure successful rehabilitation in the prevailing socio-economic dynamics of deprivation fueled by social and economic marginalization?”

Villagers gathering with landslide scarred hill in the background

Relief and compensation are palliative responses. Clearly, the agencies of the state with power, responsibility, and authority do not hold the bull by the horns, though the onus for answering the questions and offering solutions lies with those at the helm. Unfortunately, lack of accountability and nebulous and bureaucratic approaches recreate vulnerabilities that push more families into this vicious circle. Thousands of Munas across the country become statistics living with their pain. Though disasters are outcomes of institutional failure, the language of ‘natural disaster’ continues to dominate the policy discourse.  Deaths and damages are attributed to nature and providence.

Many factors; geological, hydro-meteorological, earthquakes, socio-economic and political factors lead to landslides in Nepal.  Anthropogenic actions defined by the political economy of development exacerbate natural fragility. In Nepal, haphazard construction of non-engineered roads that have become synonymous with development loosens the terrain’s weak geology. These roads are synonymous with “Dozer Roads”.

Drivers of heavy machines excavate such a road without following basic norms of engineering including social and environmental safeguards or heeding the dynamics of local hydrology. This practice in cahoots with local leaders and contractors is stubbornly deep-rooted. In the last several years the practices of building dozer roads have alarmingly increased landslide risks in the hills. Muna said, “Landslides started when the road was aligned on the upper part of the hill. Earlier when the dozers did not come to excavate roads, the monsoon rains were not as destructive as today”.

An excavator at work

Indeed, roads are needed. But their planning and execution need to recognize important questions. How to build a road to improve access to houses on a hilltop without compromising the stability of the landscape along the road? Why does the Nepali state not commit to preventing the pursuit of non-engineered roads? What less risky commuting alternatives exist in the hills? What political and social hurdles hamper relocating disaster-affected families, providing them basic services and livelihood? These questions are left unanswered.

Rains and Landslides
Water is the major trigger of landslides. Low intensity and long-duration rainfalls saturate slopes creating conditions conducive for landslides[3]. An analysis of a 55-year record of landslides and rainfall events in the Himalaya suggests that many landslides occurred under the influence of rainfall durations of 5 hours to 90 days. Undisputedly, rainfall is one of the primary triggers of shallow, rapid-moving landslides, as well as rapid ones (e.g., soil slips, debris flows, rock falls, minor rock slides) that lead to fatalities[4]. As mentioned above, multiple factors exacerbate landslides. Both climate change altered rain-scape and land-surface dynamics work as triggers.

(from left) Nepal’s landscape from Tarai to beyond Himal. Adapted from Tony Hagen; Extreme rainfall in hills can lead to landslide. Basic Water Science, (2003) 

How has climate change altered landslide dynamics? It is tempting to suggest that climate change has led to erratic rainfall and increases in landslide risks. The reality is far from this simple postulation[5]. The current evolving attribution science can say with only some confidence that climate change is the cause of the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events[6]. Yet scientific projection of future climate conditions is an issue of concern as the number of people exposed to landslide risk is expected to substantially increase[7].

An extreme rainfall means that water will not trickle down the slopes but flow with vengeance. It will compound a cascade of impacts affecting people, the environment, and infrastructure. In a cascading disaster, a primary trigger leads to a chain of consequences creating secondary and tertiary impacts. These impacts interact with extant vulnerabilities linked to governance, social and political processes and create new sources of vulnerabilities. The governance arrangement unfortunately neither heeds to the onset of a cascade nor its consequences.

Back to Plight of Munas
In the emerging world, traditional risk assessment approaches do not work as the past is an unreliable guide for assessing future cascading risks caused by climate and environmental changes. While historical data is useful, an event could unfold in a completely unanticipated scale and direction. It is important, therefore to focus on systemic risks arising out of interconnections and dependencies among various components. Improved understanding of connectivity and dependencies add insights into the cascades and help identify possible solutions representing a shift in approach from individual hazard-led linear focus. As the globe warms and risks increase such a response would be termed transformative adaptation.

What does the narrative of “transformative adaptation” mean for millions of Munas at the frontline of climate risk? The answer is broadly sought in the discussions on adaptation funds in global climate change negotiations to help developing countries support their Munas. While funds are prerequisites, Munas end up as statistics and their vulnerabilities are rarely captured. Addressing the challenges faced by Munas and groups like hers should be at the centre when responses aimed at minimizing vulnerability are planned and implemented[8]. Traditional analyses generally filter out such voices diluting the final message (or content). This inherent character of development, broadly and in South Asia has circumnavigated the pains of real people on the ground. Climate change has further entrenched the status quo.

The first step towards transformation should begin by changing the narrative of risk reduction and putting the welfare of thousands of Munas at the center stage. The solutions must converge towards alleviating the threat people face. The agency of the state with its power of authority, including that to regulate the market, must better coordinate external support and enhance community efforts, and improve the scale and integrity of adaptive efforts as the climate change crisis rages.

How did the agenda of transformative adaptation progress? We will know the answer only a few years from today. In the meantime, millions of Munas and their family will continue to face suffering. The narrative of building resilience seems a long distance away and divorced from their existential reality.

Biography:   Sanchita Neupane received her Bachelor in Civil Engineering from the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University (2009-2013), Nepal, and a Masters in Risk and Environmental Hazards from Durham University, (2015-2016) as a Chevening Scholar, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), UK. She works on pro-poor disaster resilient housing, flood resilience, community-based disaster risk reduction, early warning systems, and climate change. She contributes to the disaster risk reduction landscape in Nepal through academia, research and implementation. 

Notes

[1]                      South Asian Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF), May 2022, https://mol.tropmet.res.in/sascof-april-2020/

[2]        http://isetnepal.org.np/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Bhandari-and-Dixit-2022-Missed-Opportunities-in-Utilization-of-Weather-Forecasts-Nepal-ED.pdf

[3]              Dahal R. K. (2012). Rainfall-induced landslides in Nepal. International Journal of Erosion Control Engineering5(1), 1-8.

[4]                      Clarke, B.J., Otto, F.E.L. and Jones, R.G. (2021) Inventories of extreme weather events and impacts: Implications for loss and damage from and adaptation to climate extremesClimate Risk Management, 32. 100285.

[5]                      Petley, D. (2012). Global patterns of loss of life from landslides. Geology40(10), 927-930.  Also see Petley, D: (2011). Landslide losses in Nepal https://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2011/06/28/landslide-losses-in-nepal/

[6]              Clarke, B.J., Otto, F.E.L. and Jones, R.G. (2021) Inventories of extreme weather events and impacts: Implications for loss and damage from and adaptation to climate extremesClimate Risk Management, 32. 100285. Also see Gariano, S. L., & Guzzetti, F. (2016). Landslides in a changing climate. Earth-Science Reviews162, 227-252.

[7]                      As a result, the total number of people exposed to landslide risk is clearly expected to increase, in response to the available climate projections

[8]              Programme (WASP)https://www.unep.org/adaptation-gap-report-2021

27th June 2022