[Note: On March 25, 2012 I was one of several journalists from local and international media on a two-day trip to Sindhupalchok district. In the trip, sponsored by Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, we met flood victims of Sunkoshi and Bhotekoshi Rivers, visited schools and communities that were precariously close to the river. In the light of today's devastating landslide on Sunkoshi River, I have published the report I wrote after the trip but was never published for some reason. Thanks go to Kosmos Biswokarma, now editor-in-chief of Republica daily, for inviting me for the field visit].
Tucked away at the edge of the Bhairabkunda, a tributary of the Bhote Koshi river, Larcha bazaar feels like a waste land. Recalling the Kathmandu denizens, who sport masks on their faces to protect themselves from the ever increasing pollution, the residents of this sleepy settlement too cover their faces with masks. They say that the dust particles coming from a construction of a hydro-electric plant has forced them to do so.
Indeed, as you raise your head and train your eyes farther, you can see something going on in steep hills across the river. According to the locals, a 4-megawatt power plant is under construction. They complaint that despite their objections, the company has turned a deaf ear. A site manager emerges from a run-down office. After much prodding, he passes the buck to his office in Kathmandu, which is 40 kilometers south and indifferent to local concerns.
On July 22, 1996, heavy monsoon rain had forced a massive landslide to crash into its fast-flowing waters, washing away an entire village and killing 54 people in one of the worst natural disasters in Nepal. A new settlement has risen in its place but the locals have been unable to lay the memories of the devastating flood to rest.
Sitting at a roadside eatery on the banks of a section of the Bhote Koshi near the Tibetan border, Padam Bahadur Shrestha relives the mayhem unleashed by the mighty river 16 years ago. “It was middle of the night and the rain was so heavy that we felt like someone was pouring water from a vessel. Then, there was a sudden explosion, like an earthquake,” Shrestha, 39, says, “When we woke the next morning, we found our relatives dead.”
The merciless torrent laid waste to scores of homes and wrecked lives, but it also served as ominous warning that extreme weather poses a serious threat to landlocked Nepal’s trade links with the outside world.
Chema Sherpa, who waits for a trickling of the customers in her tiny restaurant, says her husband’s elder brother’s family of four was swept by the flood.
The 1996 flood damaged a large section of the Araniko Highway — which remains the only road from Kathmandu into China — severely inhibiting trade and demonstrating the fragility of Nepal’s infrastructure.
Scientists say the effects of climate change could be devastating, as the Himalayas provide food and energy for 1.3 billion people living in downstream river basins.
Pradeep Mool, a glaciologist with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), warned that the risks from such disasters are greater than ever.
“We have several trans-boundary rivers that originate in the Himalayan region of Tibet. Most of their sources can be traced to glaciers that are retreating very fast and also creating glacial lakes,” he said.
“Especially in the eastern Himalayas, all the glacial lakes are retreating and the glacial mass is vanishing,” Mool said.
In recent decades, the days of intensive rain have increased, villagers have experienced irregular rainfall patterns and the frequency of short cloudbursts has increased, said Mool.
Since the 1996 disaster, thousands more people have settled along the Araniko Highway, meaning the next big flood could be orders of magnitude more deadly.
The road, built by China in the 1960s, has become a refuge for the rural poor who have opened shops hawking cheap Chinese goods in the hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. Near the Tatopani border, rows of trolleys are parked, waiting for their turns to ferry the Chinese goods from the border town of Khasa.
The border is a hive of activities, Indian holyday-makers taking a glimpse of Tibet from little afar and Nepali shoppers clutching their woolen blankets, despite the upcoming summer.
Barhabise, a major trading hub along the road, sits precariously close to the Bhote Koshi river.
The 1996 flood was the most deadly but by no means the only natural disaster blamed on climate change near the Chinese border. Locals say they live in the constant fear of a repeat of a 1981 glacial lake outburst which killed five people, destroying 41 homes and two highway bridges.
According to ICIMOD, trade between China and Nepal was obstructed for several days and damage to a hydropower station cut the electricity supply for more than a month.
A flood of similar scale would destroy several hydropower plants built since and many of the dozens of tourist resorts that have sprouted along the Bhote Koshi in recent years, Mool said. About 6,000 people who live along the 100-kilometre (62-mile) stretch of the river would be directly affected, an ICIMOD study estimates.
While India remains the main source of Nepalese imports, China has emerged as a major player in recent decades, with trade between the two countries totaling 46 billion rupees ($567 million) last year.
Barhabise trader Dhan Bahadur Shrestha, 71, remembers all-too-clearly the pungent clay smell as the muddy Bhote Koshi flooded in 1981, and he lives in fear that another disaster could happen in his lifetime.
“There was panic everywhere. My daughter was getting married the next day so a friend and I embarked on a trek to tell the groom’s family about the postponement,” he said, “After our return, there was a huge landslide on the trail. We narrowly escaped being killed. We are afraid that this could happen again.
“People have moved further up from the river but the dangers are still there. I feel lucky to have survived,” Shrestha said.