Why are landslides so deadly in Nepal?

Basanta Raj Adhikari, a geologist at the Institute of Engineering at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, pulled out data from his yet-to-be-published research during an interview on Skype in late August. 

“Between 1972 and 2016, a total of 5,190 people lost their lives in 3,419 landslide events on record,” he said.

While Adhikari was explaining past tragedies, headlines in Kathmandu were dominated by the search operation to retrieve the bodies of 39 people killed by a landslide in Lidi village near the Koshi river in the district of Sindhupalchowk bordering Tibet. Only a few kilometres away, in 2014, 156 people were killed after a massive landslide swept away another village, Ramche, and blocked the Koshi.

“Between 1950 and 2009, the frequency of fatal landslides was highest in China, followed by Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Japan, Pakistan and Nepal. These seven countries accounted for 87% of the 17,830 landslide-related fatalities reported during that time period in Asia,” according to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published in 2011.

Relative to its population, Nepal has the world's highest rate of fatalities caused by landslides.

Counting the bodies

Since 2017 (after the time period studied in Adhikari’s research paper), an additional 490 people have been killed by landslides, according to recent government data. This year alone, 243 have died and 51 are missing. This is the second highest number of confirmed casualties on record in the past 10 years, and nearly three times higher than 2019.

So why have authorities failed to respond to one of the country’s major disasters?

Adhikari was quick to answer, citing a “lack of prioritisation and willingness to see the depth of this problem”.

A report by Nepal's Department of Water Induced Disaster Management – the authority that used be responsible for dealing with landslides until it was scrapped in July – supports this claim.

“Although huge amounts of funds have been invested every year in disaster management, landslides are not treated as one of the important parameters during the planning and designing stage. Even if treated, it is done without detailed study and investigation, which further enhances the problem," The report reads.

Landslides are not a new phenomenon in a country where more than 80% of land is on a slope – and many occur naturally. But experts say that increasing human activities, such as road building, have been making the situation worse.

“In tectonically active mountains such as the Himalayas, natural landslides play a fundamental role in the evolution of the landscape. But there is a clear anthropogenic influence in the occurrence of landslides in Nepal,” wrote David Petley, a professor at the University of Sheffield in the UK who is a global expert on landslides, including in Nepal and also runs a landslide blog.

Shaken by earth movers, mired in controversy

Nepal has built thousands of kilometres of roads in the past three decades. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the country embarked on an aggressive rural road-building policy that has led to haphazard construction. According to the Department of Local Infrastructure Development and Agricultural Roads, there are over 6,600 rural roads with a combined length of almost 60,000 kilometres. Most of these roads were built by local leaders, and were not designed by engineers. They are also poorly maintained.

Global companies that make earth movers, excavators and heavy equipment have rushed to the country. In 2017 Nepal imported 12,712 excavators, bulldozers and cranes, a 30% increase compared with 2016. In 2017, MAW Earthmovers in Nepal sold the most JCB equipment in South Asia and the second-highest amount globally, according to a JCB India statement.

Anil Pokhrel heads the recently established National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Authority (NDRRMA) under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Over the past few months, he has been flying around the country with top politicians handing out relief packages to landslide victims.

“Everywhere we visited, the local leaders said that haphazard road construction has put the communities under threat but said they had warned people not to cut the slopes so brutally,” he said.

Then who is responsible?

“Central government is not effective in monitoring and guidance, whereas local governments lack capacity to handle it properly. And then there is pressure from the communities themselves to construct roads. So, it’s a mix of everything,” Pokhrel said.

But Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed expert and the author of a book Ponds and Landslides, said, “Most of the local leaders have investments in this heavy equipment so they are keen to make money by providing contracts to these earth movers.” Upadhya added, “It’s not local individuals who put pressure to build roads. It’s mostly a nexus between local leaders and contractors.”

And roads built without oversight by engineers are more prone to landslides.

“An average villager on the hillside dreams of having a house near the road and starting up a business. So people crowd near these haphazardly built roads without proper assessment of the risk. This has also increased loss of lives in recent years,” said Pokhrel. A recent study by Adhikari and his team showed that more landslides happen along roads. “We found rainfall-triggered landslides are more than twice as likely to occur within 100m of a road than landslides generated by earthquakes,” the report said.

Ignorance is not strength

Geologists say that many villages in the hills of Nepal are located on old landslide sites, but people tend to forget quickly. At first, people start to grow crops on landslide debris and then they construct houses. After a few years or decades this becomes a new settlement. New vegetation covering geologic scars helps people to forget what lies beneath.

“Everything looks OK from the outside, but the unstable slopes are buying time. Unless we monitor them closely, we won’t know,” said Adhikari.

A study from 2001 recounts one such tragic landslide in western Nepal’s Myagdi district. The report reads, “In 1998 a huge landslide in Myagdi Khola… killed 109 people and the river was temporarily blocked. But, 62 years before that incident, the same landslide had buried the Darbang Bazaar and killed nearly 500 people.”

“If we had had institutional memory we could have saved those lives. We just wait for another disaster to happen,” said Adhikari.

Trees don’t reduce risk

Some experts say that Nepal has a misguided approach to landslides, due to the widespread belief that tree planting helps minimise risks.

“When I first challenged authorities at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, they asked me whether I was an anti-forest campaigner. But I would like to reiterate that forests do not help reduce landslides,” said Madhukar Upadhya.

Nepal nationalised its private forests in 1957, resulting in massive deforestation as people rushed to cut trees. At the same time, there was forest encroachment and tree cutting in the lowlands due to state-backed migration from the hills to the densely forested plains bordering India. In response the government introduced new plantation programmes in the 1970s and 80s. Thousands of hectares of community forests emerged.

Experts say while these plantations were not a bad idea it was wrong to understand forest management as a panacea for landslides.

“Heavy monsoon downpour causes mass failure of inherently unstable slopes on a large scale and at depths far below the root zone of trees [normally three metres]. Forest cover, while desirable for many good reasons, plays little or no role in stopping such mass wasting,” added Upadhyay. “While we covered land with greenery, we forgot about soil management, which has resulted in more destructive landslides.”

One of the landslides that occurred this year is a typical example. In Durlung village in western Nepal’s Parbat district, densely forested land collapsed and washed out four houses on the flat land more than a kilometre downhill, killing nine people.

“Nobody would imagine by just looking that such a forested land could collapse. We should remove this deeply rooted belief and put other appropriate measures to control landslides,” said Pokhrel, who visited the area after the event.

Early warning system not rocket science

Setting up early warning systems is one such measure. But while early warning systems for floods have worked well in the past few years, there have been negligible efforts to set up such systems for landslides. In 2018, Adhikari and his team piloted a successful early warning system in Sundrawati, a village in the eastern district of Dolakha. “The pilot system saved 495 people from 117 households in August 2018,” he said.

Landslide early warning systems (LEWS) are more complex than flood systems because robust monitoring of land displacement is required. “But after a short training course, locals can handle this by themselves,” said Adhikari.

A LEWS consists of a microcontroller, extensometer, solar panel, siren and soil moisture sensor. If the system detects deformation or soil moisture changes that exceed a certain threshold, it will alert an assigned person from the community and government security personnel. “This is not rocket science. It can be done if we reduce a minister or high-profile visitor’s chopper costs that happen after each of these landslides,” Adhikari added.

But in many places where landslides have occurred authorities did not take warning signs seriously. Google Maps images of before and after the 2014 landslide in Sindhupalchowk show that several scars emerged on the slope before the huge slope failure that blocked the Koshi river for 12 hours, but no one noticed.

“A landslide-prone area provides several signs before failing.  We need to monitor this closely and act accordingly,” said Adhikari.

Landslide in Nepal
Image courtesy of United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, "Loss and Damage from a Catastrophic Landslide in Nepal"

Science not a priority

More than 90% of landslides in Nepal occur during the monsoon between June and September. Even within those four months, landslides peak during July and August, according to some research. So any changes in monsoon rainfall patterns directly affect disasters.

Landslide risks are only expected to grow. Several studies suggest that monsoon rainfall has intensified in the past few decades due to climate change.

“As the majority of landslides are triggered by rainfall, any changes in this pattern would have a direct impact. More studies are needed and science should play a strong role in policy ­– which is not happening in Nepal,” said Adhikari.

For this to happen some experts argue there needs to be a department dedicated to landslides – but responsibility for this has been muddied over the years by bureaucratic restructuring.

Landslides now fall under the remit of the new disaster management authority. But many are sceptical the NDRRMA will be able to deliver an effective response.

“I don’t see any dedicated organisation for landslides as the national disaster authority is responsible for everything from forest fires to earthquakes,” said Ahikari.

Disaster management overcentralised

Critics say that the major hurdle in managing disasters is that the home ministry dominates the rescue and relief approach. They say authorities have ignored calls from civil society, experts and NGOs to split the responsibility for rescue and relief from risk preparedness and mitigation.

“Unless we detach them no miracle is going to happen with a newly established agency,” said Amod Mani Dixit, adviser to NGO the National Society for Earthquake Society.

The NDRRMA’s Pokhrel said that the new set-up is not meant to undermine other agencies but play a “powerful coordinating” role between all agencies. “Landslide research will be at the core of our work in future. However, the most important thing is to build the capacity of communities who are the first responders,” he said.

Pokhrel, who was appointed seven months ago, said there is a silver lining in the new set-up.

“My experience over the past few months tells me that due to the authority’s presence there has been a very high attention on landslides. Two meetings were held with the prime minister alone,” he said. “We will be installing at least a few landslide monitoring stations shortly, there will be an insurance system for all losses and a dedicated wing to research landslides.”

Editor’s note: The data used in the article does not include the number of dead and missing from a landslide in Sindhupalchowk district on 13th September. 11 people have been killed and 20 are missing.

Banner image: Landslide in the district of Sindhupalchowk, Nepal / Credit: Richard Friedericks

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