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

This thesis employs a political ecological approach to examine the discursive, material, and ontological production of floods as disasters along Nepal’s lower Karnali River and the politics that surround various attempts to mitigate them. Specifically, I examine the uneven ways in which residents of Rajapur Island participate in, benefit from, and are excluded from three development interventions that have been initiated by organizations with the purported goals of structurally controlling the Karnali River and supporting communities in coping with climateinduced disasters though networks of human infrastructure. These include: 1) the Rajapur Irrigation Project, a large-scale infrastructure project that has attempted to 'modernize' a traditional farmer-managed irrigation system to ‘exclude floods,’ 2) the government-funded Karnali River Training Project, a recent endeavor of the Nepal government to embank 43 kilometers of Rajapur’s vulnerable riverbanks, and 3) a community-based early warning system that relays live river-level data downstream to over 52,000 Nepalis and 400,000 Indians. Informed by five months of qualitative fieldwork, I argue throughout these articles that floods have not always been the disasters that they are today in Rajapur, but became so as policy, law, and infrastructure amplified the destructive effects of inundation, restructured local ways of living with the river, and unevenly distributed risk onto certain bodies. In excavating the social and political roots of disaster, my objective is neither to deny the biophysical reality of inundation nor to discount the devastating effects of floods. Rather, I argue that reducing the complexity of disaster and severing floods from their entangled causality does not serve the interests of impacted peoples. Instead, it acts to further mask and exacerbate underlying patterns of vulnerability. Ultimately, this thesis reveals specific ways in which interventions to ‘fix’ disaster can further marginalize the very communities they claim to serve through the assumptions they make about causality, vulnerability, and people’s capacities to secure themselves. I conclude that it is only when a crisis is understood first through the politics of its production and the reasons behind people’s uneven vulnerability are explicitly confronted that attempts to untangle and dismantle disaster can also work to achieve greater social justice.
Author: Gladfelter, Sierra
Language: English
Pubished By:
Pubished date: 2017

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