The arrival of the rainy season troubles their sleep, say the inhabitants of Bhorle, a small village on the Koshi Basin at Dolakha.
The river that flows along the length of the village threatens it with massive floods, the water level rising to the level of the patios of the nearby houses. And to add to their fear, the hill that overlooks the river terrifies the villagers with landslides.
“We’re threatened by both sides. If natural disasters strike simultaneously from both sides, we’ll have nowhere to go to save our lives,” says Abir Lama, a local and the treasurer of the Bhorle Community Disaster Risk Management Committee. In addition, the road construction in the hills on either side of the village poses great threats of being washed away.
“The villages get limited budget for the construction of roads, which is why they conduct no feasibility study before using heavy machinery like excavators to dig through high slopes. This results in making the slopes susceptible to landslides,” says Dinesh Nepali, geologist at Department of Mines and Geology.
In this photo taken on August 10, 2010, travelers and porters go to district headquarter of Rasuwa past the landslide carrying necessary goods.
The geographical topography in the hilly areas of Nepal itself is prone to landslides, according to Nepali. The un-engineered roads only add to the risks, he says.
Lama, on his part, says that Bhorle is in a helpless state anyway. “The government doesn’t allocate enough funds for constructing a secure dam for the village. And it won’t be wise to interrupt the road construction process, or we’ll be threatened by all the villages of the hill,” says distraught Lama.
Naresh Man Shakya, geotechnical engineer at the Department of Roads, says that it is very important to protect the bare slopes to avoid the caving in of the roads. “The ignorance in mitigation measures in road construction will invite higher risks that will demand bigger budget than for its construction,” he says.
Shakya worked for four years to stabilize the landslide of Krishna Bhir on the Prithvi Highway through bioengineering and civil engineering mechanisms. Krishna Bhir has been the biggest-scale landslide mitigation project, he claims.
Besides, the project was completed with Rs 38 million which was entirely funded by Nepal Government, at a minimal fraction of the costs proposed by foreign aid agencies.
The bioengineering mechanisms include planting special vegetation –grass, shrubs and trees – and placing Rofa boards, a German technology, that can be fitted directly onto a root-resistant base which can be covered by a layer of living vegetation.
The civil engineering mechanisms include construction of safe passages, building check dams, and constructing retaining walls and proper drainage.
According to Shakya, all the road construction under the Department of Roads incorporates bioengineering as an essential component. However, he adds that bioengineering alone cannot minimize the risks of landslides.
His team studied the entire length of Prithvi Highway and stabilized even all the slopes that had the slightest triggers of possible landslides. Yet the area is still not landslide-free, he says. He points out two major reasons behind this.
The first is the geographical condition of the hilly areas of the country in general; and secondly, the lack of awareness among the local people.
The government’s efforts in creating awareness about landslides are missing in all these cases. The absence of data regarding the total number of landslides occurring in a year throughout the country also signifies the need of proper monitoring.
“Those people who run businesses on the highways live in very risky conditions. They are more preoccupied with sustaining their livelihood than worry about natural calamities,’ says Nepali.
Shakya, on the other hand, emphasizes that there will be no meaning in using bioengineering mechanisms in road corridors if people are to excavate the hills and establish settlements on the bases of unsafe slopes.
While working on the Prithvi Highway, Shakya and his team worked with locals and had convinced them to settle on flat lands. He further adds that such settlements originate mostly from people from low income sources.
“The government can make efforts to support marginalized groups through bank loans on rural development. In that way, the people with fewer resources can afford to set up their business and refrain from settling on landslide-prone areas,’ he says.
Awareness campaigns are also necessary to avoid natural disasters like the Seti flashfloods, according to Dr Rijan Bhakta Kayastha, Associate Professor of Glaciology at Kathmandu University.
“The locals had seen low levels of water and grey water in the river prior to the floods, which were the symptoms of the upcoming flood. They could’ve been responsive if there were such campaigns at the local level,” says he.
He adds that catastrophes such as the Annapurna landslides are hard to predict and the mitigation measures are also limited. In such case, awareness campaigns and early warning training can be handy to avoid severe tragedies.
The stabilization of landslide-prone slopes on major highways has been a big relief to travelers who otherwise, were used to painful journeys in the rainy season.
Krishna Bhir alone had 18 landslides from July 1999 to August 2000. But living in geographically slippery regions, more mishaps are likely to occur with zero awareness campaigns by the government or non-government agencies.