Training Rivers, Training People: Interrogating the Making of Disasters and the Politics of Response in Nepal’s Lower Karnali River Basin

Friday, October 13, 2017

The island of Rajapur is a place literally made by floods, created as the Karnali River drops sediment from the Himalayan foothills just a few kilometers north of the Nepal-India border. As the river loses momentum, it splits to form a large inland delta riddled with wandering channels and sandbars. Changeable landscapes like this are naturally prone to flooding, but the floods here are not just natural disasters: they have become increasingly more devastating as government policies and development patterns have pushed indigenous communities from their land into more vulnerable areas.

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Disaster Studies in a Place Made by Flooding

The Karnali River continues to sculpt the island of Rajapur from the sediment it carries out of the Himalayan foothills.

When I first started working in Rajapur I was most interested in how interventions were designed to protect communities. However, after of hundreds of conversations with local residents, I realized that in order to understand how disasters may be prevented here, it is crucial to first understand how people’s relationships with floods have changed over time.

For example, the indigenous Sonaha and Tharu people used to practice semi-nomadic lifestyles that moved with the river. This allowed them to benefit from the positive aspects of flooding—such as fertile soil and rich fisheries—with limited risk. Yet today, nearly 70,000 of these people are forced to squat on the island’s most precarious riverbanks. This is the result of nearly 100 years of government policies that promoted the privatization of property and supported the settling of high caste Nepalis– who confiscated land, forced local people into debt and bondage, and pushed them onto Rajapur’s flood-prone margins.

Here people’s limited coping strategies were further diminished in the early 2000s, when the government designated Rajapur’s forests a buffer zone of Bardiya National Park. New restrictions on communal land criminalized cutting trees and gathering driftwood, until the cost of wood increased so much that the poorest people could no longer afford to rebuild their homes after floods.

So it is not that floods are new to Rajapur, but rather that the island’s indigenous communities now find themselves at the center of a collision of natural, social, political and economic processes that put them at greater risk.

Men and women whose ancestors settled the Karnali River’s floodplains continue to fish its currents even though other aspects of their relationship with the river have changed.

The Limits of Intervention

It is not surprising that in Rajapur large interventions designed to reduce flood risk seem not only justified, but necessary. Yet tragically, I found that the communities most impacted by displacement and dispossession are often again displaced or unserved by these flood-protection projects. This is because so-called ‘solutions’ do not confront why so many people can no longer cope with flooding, but focus instead on non-political methods like building infrastructure or organizing community-based early warning systems. Yet, by ignoring the social and political roots of disaster, these interventions end up failing the island’s most vulnerable people.

The Government of Nepal, for example, has attempted to protect Rajapur by building 40-kilometers of embankments along the island’s most flood-prone edges. However, these structures mostly protect those residents with land and political leverage, while entire communities of indigenous people are being physically displaced or abandoned in ‘sacrifice zones’ between embankments and the river. Those who protest are often silenced by more privileged villagers who fear they will remain at risk if embankments are not constructed.

Structural interventions to contain and deflect floods like the embankments here arguably do more to intensify disasters and exacerbate certain peoples’ vulnerabilities than alleviate them.

Even participatory interventions that attempt to serve all community members often do not reach the most vulnerable. For example, Practical Action has been working to create links between flood-prone communities in the Karnali Basin so that local people can disseminate their own early warnings. While this system provides several-hour lead times to more than 52,000 Nepalis, these warnings primarily serve the residents better positioned to respond. Landless families squatting on riverbanks cannot always hear sirens sounded in village centers or easily access life vests and shelters.

It seems that the same social and political processes that made natural floods into disasters in Rajapur now also shape who is able to find security with an early warning or gain protection from an embankment.

Villagers enrolled in Practical Action’s community-based early warning system practice evacuations in preparation for monsoon. Unfortunately, not all residents in Rajapur are able to benefit equally from this system.

In the end, my research in Rajapur has shown that complex social and natural factors influencing local vulnerabilities must be considered in management. Floods are not inherently disasters, but become so in a particular time and place, for certain individuals. Therefore, any intervention to ‘fix’ flood risk must consider the multiple ways in which differently-positioned people relate to rivers and each other. While the force of nature will always play a critical role in turning floods into disasters, real solutions to people’s suffering must look closer at how we as human beings help to create disasters in the first place.

Only by first stepping back to study the uneven social, political, and economic landscapes into which hazards slam can we even begin to understand how best to relieve them.

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