Timely Reporting Matters: Surfacing Impacts of Data Journalism in the Himalayas

,

Earth Journalism Network, Kathmandu, Nepal

In the last week of June, monsoon clouds were gathering from east to west, weathermen were busy tracking them and people were desperately waiting for the rain to come and lower the summer temperatures in Nepal. Photographer Nabin Baral and I were busy preparing a multimedia series about hazards and people’s struggle in the Koshi river— one of the largest rivers of Nepal that flows from the Mount Everest region down to northern Bihar in India and reaches the Bay of Bengal as one of the major tributaries of the Ganga River. We published a series that highlighted hazards in high mountains, haphazard development activities, impacts of prolonged drought, upcoming monsoon and people’s struggle to cope with the changing weather patterns (The Koshi River: a journey down the lifeline of Nepal).

The story – enabled by a grant from the Skoll Global Threats Fund, administered by the Internews Earth Journalism Network – was among the first in-depth multimedia reportage of a river basin in Nepal. It drew a lot of attention in the local media as well as a wide range of stakeholders from policymakers to researchers. Nepal’s most popular online news portal (www.onlinekhabar.com) picked up the series and published it, as did many others in the country. 

Soon after the series was published, there was a massive flood in the Bhotekoshi River — a river that originates in Tibet and flows down to Nepal as one of the major tributaries of Koshi.

On July 6th, the flood led to the collapse of a highway that links Nepal to Tibet, dozens of houses were destroyed and a bridge linking Nepal and China was partially damaged. In our story we had pointed out the possibilities of such floods, increasing threats due to extreme weather events induced by climate change and defunct early warning system installed in the river to alert people. According to the officials at the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the problems were fixed very quickly this time, and our series helped them to keep their attention on the flood. A technical team was dispatched immediately after the first deluge and fixed the early warning system installed in Bahrabise – a city at the Nepal-Tibet border. “I was following your story, as you pointed out, the early warning system wasn’t functioning during that time due to some technical problem. I went the other day after the flood and installed new sensors there. It’s working now and we are regularly sending warnings,” Binod Parajuli, hydrologist at Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, told me.

An effective early warning system can drastically reduce human casualties, but there are very few installed in Nepal, which the officials say is because of insufficient financial and human resources. “We have been volunteering 24 hours during the monsoon to provide as much information as possible, and as of now we have early warning systems installed in 20 rivers but Nepal has more than 6,000 rivers and rivulets,” added Parajuli. The man who works in the flood forecasting division said, “We have to make best use of whatever we have, so in such cases news reports from journalists will be helpful to divert our limited resources to the right place at the right time.”

Landslides are frequent in Nepal, where 85% of the country is mountains and hills. On average about 12,000 small to large scale landslides hit Nepal every year, killing more than 300 people. In 2014 a landslide had swept away an entire village killing 156 people. “Often stories are reported by the mainstream media only after the disasters, but I think media has a role to bring issues beforehand so that timely decisions could be made by the policymakers,” said Nepal’s former environment minister Ganesh Shah, while applauding the Koshi series. He shared every story in the series through his Facebook page.

For days after the Bhotekoshi flood, its major cause was in question. Experts debated if a lake at the snout of a glacier burst its banks, or if there had been a landslide that had blocked the river but had now collapsed due to the weight of the water behind it. A newspaper report pointed out that China had denied information to Nepal about the situation in Tibet. “Very limited information is shared between two countries so it’s hard to really reach into conclusion on what has happened upstream,” said Narendra Khanal, Professor of Geography at Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan University. Our series had also emphasized the need for better cooperation between governments to ease the lives of the people living in the river basin. According to another newspaper report, experts later confirmed that the flood was due to the water pushing aside a landslide that had blocked the river between Khasa and Nyalum in Tibet. 

Residents and researchers are not the only people who suffer due to lack of data sharing. Journalists suffer, too. Our Koshi basin series provided a lot of data that helped other reporters to understand issues in detail. Abdullah Miya, senior reporter at Kantipur daily – Nepal’s largest selling vernacular newspaper – sought my help as he struggled to report on the flood. He cited our series and wanted to get more information. I gave him the contacts of experts I had spoken to, explained the nature of the river in the Tibet stretch, and forwarded a recent scientific paper on Glacial Lakes Outburst Flood in Tibet. “It was extremely helpful as it is very tough to get information on Tibet side and reporting this kind of news involves trans-boundary information,” Miya said later.

In India, too, data-based media reports focused on water issues in the Himalaya have had beneficial effects, though it is impossible to draw a direct causal link. Two reports supported through this series appeared in one of India’s largest newspapers, The Hindu Is the mighty Ganga drying up? and Ticking time bombs in Uttarakhand. After they appeared, the Union Ministry of Water Resources filed an affidavit to the Indian Supreme Court, opposing the building of any more dams in Uttarakhand. This was the first time any central ministry in India had officially taken such a step.