Before the flood strikes
Enabling the low lands of Nepal to prepare for, respond to, and build resilience against floods
Archana Gurung, Practical Action Nepal, with support from Madhab Uprety, Bikram Rana, Krity Shrestha, and Roshan Sedhai

Nepal is a topographically diverse country, ranging from the Himalayan region in the north, the middle hills, and the Terai in the south. Terai, the lowland plains, cover 17 percent of Nepal's total land, and is bread basket of the country. Due to its fertile land, Terai dwellers' livelihoods predominantly depend on agriculture. Terai is home to half of Nepal's population including the indigenous Tharu community. 


The Tharu people are known for their unique culture and rich heritage. However, up until less than a decade ago, many people belonging to this ethnic community were leading life as bonded labourers.


The Kamaiya culture in Nepal meant that landless people from this group were owned by the landowners who gave them very little to sustain their livelihoods in exchange for labour—debts to the landowners could engulf generations in a vicious cycle of slavery.


The Kamaiya system originated to meet extra family needs which would not be covered by the yields from existing land. People used to work for one or more years as Kamaiya to make incomes particularly at times when households had extra expenditure.


This later turned into a culture of domination and exploitation—eventually taking the form of slavery.  Some of the Dalits, the so called untouchables in the Hindu cast system, shared similar fates as Haliya (bonded labourers). 

 

In the year 2000 the Government of Nepal abolished the Kamaiya system by nullifying past debts and rehabilitating this ethnic community. Meanwhile Tharu girls and women continued being slaves until government abolished the Kamalari system in 2013. Only seven years ago, bonded labour was still a living tradition in Terai. 


After the abolishment of Kamaiya system, many formerly bonded labourers resettled in land allotted them, often in flood plains and next to the river banks. 



A myriad of rivers and rivulets criss-crossing Terai make it nurturing and bountiful. The Terai is often described as Nepal’s breadbasket and is an area with vibrant and artistic culture. But for many, predominantly Tharu communities who settled next to these river banks, life is not all that easy.


Each year during the monsoon season, in lack of effective preparedness, people face extreme loss and damage—and in many cases struggle to recover. Rivers swell, inundate homes and crop fields, in many cases settlements are washed away, and sometimes even lives are lost.


Many agrarian communities like the Tharus, Dalits, and landless squatters reside across the river belts. People who are at the very bottom of the socioeconomic strata are often exposed to the highest risks and have the lowest capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from shocks.  

 

Practical Action and the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance’s work focuses on making communities prepared and enhancing their resilience. We want to make resilience a way of life for communities—helping people improve their lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing so that even if a hazard strikes, people are able to withstand and recover swiftly rather than being pushed further into poverty and vulnerability. 

The 2020 monsoon is exacerbating vulnerabilities as Nepal's flood prone communities face monsoon related hazards like floods and landslides along with the risk of Coronavirus infection. The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown is proving challenging for many communities as people have lost their incomes. The need for building resilience is more relevant than ever.


The Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) reports at the end of August of 1,547 households affected by flooding, heavy rainfall, and landslides leading to 254 deaths, 76 missing people, and leaving 234 injured since the monsoon started on 12 June. Another recent report – Avoiding a perfect storm: COVID-19 and floods in Nepal has surveyed members of Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMCs) in 46 flood prone communities across 5 districts in Nepal. The report has shed light on how COVID-19 will continue to exacerbate the situation for many vulnerable communities in Nepal. 


Proven solutions and functioning systems do exist, and with an integrated approach to preparedness and resilience building, people's capacity to withstand multi-hazard risks can improve. We have for a long time focused on supporting community led disaster risk management and building the capacity of both individuals and grass roots organisations such as the Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMC). This enables a disaster risk reduction and management cycle that is efficient, proactive, bottom-up and based on actual community needs. 


But the pandemic makes it extremely difficult for communities to prepare for and cope with disaster risks. During the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown, many communities were unable to conduct their flood simulation or mock drill exercises. Similarly, many Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMC) were unable to gather resources for their disaster management fund as almost all households had impact of lockdown on their livelihoods. 


The coronavirus crisis must be a major turning point for nations like Nepal, which is one of the most vulnerable countries to disasters. It's high time that we rethink on integrated disaster preparedness and risk informed development approaches. That risks, including biological ones like this pandemic, are identified and that disaster risk reduction and management is mainstreamed into development planning processes.

Devastating floods in 2014 and 2017

In 2017 many districts in Terai were devastated by floods of a level that Nepal had barely experienced before. The Kailali and Bardiya districts are home to several big rivers, including the mighty Karnali and Babai. As a result of the 2017 flooding, people were forced to flee to higher grounds when houses were inundated and crops washed away. Life came to a standstill as flooding caused severe loss and damages to communities. Many families lost their food crops, income sources and livelihood options— pushing many further into poverty and vulnerability.


In the 2017 flood, it was assumed that those settlements closest to the Karnali and Babai Rivers would be worst affected. However, during a visit to areas where effective early warning systems were in place, residents shared that the disastrous floods did not cause damage to an extent that they could not easily recover from.


Community members told us how, thanks to the effective early warning systems developed by Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) in collaboration with Practical Action, they were able to save lives, livestock, food items, and other valuables before the flood hit their villages. Despite significant damage to crops and homes, being able to save lives and valuables including stored food grains was a great relief and enabled swifter recovery.

The flood hit Madhuban Village, Bardiya District, where Mamata Tharu lives, at 2 a.m. As water started entering the village, residents took shelter at a neighbouring village. By morning, the water level had subsided allowing them to make an estimate of their losses. The flood, which saw a surge in the water level up to 10 feet in depth, partially damaged Mamata's house but she was able to save the lives of everyone in her family.  


Madhuban residents had received flood warnings several hours before the water actually entered the village. Mamata Tharu, who did not have her own mobile phone, had received her early warning information from fellow villagers who in turn had received flood alerts from the DHM through mass SMS services. Thanks to this early warning, the entire village was able to safely evacuate and no lives were lost. 


Following the alert, we immediately sent the kids to relatives in another village and then managed to transfer our clothes and grains to a safe location.

- Mamata Tharu

Few villages suffer flooding as much as the vulnerably positioned Patharbhauji in Bardiya District. In 2014, when the village saw its biggest flood in recent times, the deluge swept away hundreds of animals including oxen, buffaloes, pigs, goats, and sheep, with a devastating effect on the community members' livelihoods.


Suman Chaudhary, 38, from the village lost his home, along with most of his livestock and grains to the 2014 flood. The 2017 flood was no less devastating. Almost four days of continuous rainfall wreaked havoc across the nation and took the lives of at least 150 people. 


Patharbhauji suffered similar devastation as in 2014. Suman's home was swept away, again. This time though, Suman was able to save much of his farm produce and livestock thanks to the community-based early warning system and a newly built community-owned animal shed. As less was lost and his livelihood protected he was able to rebuild his life faster.

During the 2017 floods, around 30 households evacuated their livestock to the community shed which has been built on land that sits about 15 feet above the ground level. The shed is a real community affair. It is built on land donated by Dhani Ram Tharu, a local community member, while other villagers contributed with labour to build the raised shed.

Preparing for the worst through the community flood drill

At the advent of the monsoon, rain makes its way to the rivers and dry rivulets of Terai. This means it’s time for communities in Bardiya and Kailali to test their early warning systems and make sure they’re prepared for possible floods to come.


At 8:00 a.m. on 5 June, the drill kicks off with a mock message indicating rising river levels at Chisapani Gauge Station which sits upstream the Karnali River.


As the message is received Bangaun Village, which is adjacent to the Karnali River, gears up for the exercise. In no time, the early warning task force members and volunteers are mobilised, while the search and rescue and first aid task forces prepare for a potential emergency.


Only 15 minutes later another mock SMS indicating that the river has crossed warning levels, is received from Chisapani Gauge station. 


The early warning task force blows a warning siren for one minute, pauses for one, before continuing for one more. Volunteers with yellow handheld flags go door-to-door to make sure everyone in the community has received the alert, and is ready to evacuate if needed. These specific audio and visual alerts signal that there is risk for flooding, and that residents should be prepared to evacuate if the final warning is given. 


Soon thereafter, a third mock message arrives in people's mobile phones. This time the siren is blown continuously for two minutes. The early warning task force volunteers carrying red flags command people to evacuate to a safe place using designated safe routes. Search and rescue task force volunteers assist the most vulnerable including people with disabilities, pregnant women, new mothers, children, and the elderly. Meanwhile members of the CDMC communicate flood updates to other flood prone communities nearby through phone calls and text messages.

Assisted by volunteers and search and rescue task force members, people arrive safely to the evacuation shelter along with valuable belongings and livestock. However, the drill does not end here. 


Dozens of people appear to be stuck in the swelling Karnali River and need to be rescued. Trained volunteers rush to the scene with life jackets, ropes, and tubes. Here begins a long and arduous rescue mission. Ropes are fixed to safely guide the stranded out of the river while a few good swimmers stand by the riverbank. One by one, people are brought back to safety and the panicked cries turn into cheers. 


Every year, similar drills are conducted in communities across the Kailali and Bardiya Districts to help prepare for flood events thus contribute to resilient communities. The drills are organised by the local CDMCs, grass root organisations established to manage and reduce the disaster risk in their community. Hundreds of villages with tens of thousands of inhabitants living in and around the river basins and catchment areas are part of the CDMC network.

How a traditional culture has adopted scientific forecasts

Like many farmers in Rajapur District, Motiram Tharu used to rely on a sixth sense or consult village elders recognised as Guruwa, a kind of shaman, to determine appropriate days to plant paddy and harvest crops. Rajapur, a sprawling Tharu settlement situated on a vast delta created by the Karnali River is a land where religion is part of everyday life.


Traditional beliefs that only supernatural force can forecast natural phenomena like rains or droughts are not uncommon. 


Even after a weather board was installed to provide farmers with real-time weather forecasts, Motiram and fellow villagers continued relying on their old ways and sought forecast advice from the village elders.


But when Motiram and the others found out that many of these elders were themselves relying on weather boards for the information they were passing out trust in the board increased. Today the weather board is an important source of information for the villagers, especially during the farming season. 

There are now hundreds of weather boards across the Kailali and Bardiya Districts intended to help farmers make critical decisions during farming and harvest seasons. Each board is updated daily by local user committees. 


The weather board has become a lifeline for farmers. Accurate forecast has made it far easier to carry out farming activities.

- Karuna Chaudhary, 28, Chairperson of Chakkhapur CDMC in Rajapur.

The rivers flowing from the high Himalayas can take destructive shape when the yearly rains set in. The danger is not just posed by big rivers like the Karnali and Babai. Khahare Khola, a common Nepali term for small streams that remain dry for most of the year, can bring unexpected flash floods that overflow and inundate settlements during monsoon.


The weather forecast boards have proven helpful in alerting local people about possible flash floods so they can properly prepare. Residents of flood-prone villages are further alerted about flood risks through phone calls and text messages by the regional station of the Meteorological Forecasting Division (MFD). These messages are widely circulated by members of the CDMCs in their respective communities.

The value of a safe space for evacuation

Unlike other schools, the Rukmani Lower Secondary School building in Saatbigha Village, situated in Kailali District was designed to be used both as school and as an emergency shelter. The rooms have been constructed to accommodate more people than a regular classroom. The school has 116 students, mostly children of former bonded labourers, four teachers and one support staff. 


Besides providing spacious classrooms for over a hundred students, the school building offers emergency shelter to 39 local households, a total of 253 people. It’s a common practice to use community infrastructure like school buildings as emergency shelters, especially in rural areas. These are usually better built, hence are safer, than people’s own homes.

The multi-purpose school building has been a blessing in more than just one way. Not only has it provided shelter during floods but more families in the village are now sending their children to school to study because now the infrastructures have improved. The classrooms are more spacious and well ventilated due to which hot summer days are easier on the children.

- Durga Dungara, a CDMC member, and mother of two children.


Elsewhere in Baide, a sparsely populated village in Kailali, annual floods used to bring chaos. Every year people had to flee the village and take shelter in the homes of relatives or even strangers, leaving behind livestock in their sheds. Now, thanks to the community shelter, Baide’s residents are no longer forced to leave the village during the monsoon.  


In 2017, over 200 people took refuge to the safe shelter during the floods. Many used the ground floor to shelter their cattle, while villagers took shelter at the first floor. 

Narendra Regmi, resident of Baide.


There are dozens of such community owned buildings across Kailali and Bardiya which provide emergency shelter at times of floods. For the rest of the year, many of these buildings are used as warehouses, meeting halls, or even primary schools. Local communities have seen that casualties and the loss of property from floods can be drastically minimised with strategic investments in such multi-purpose safe shelters.

Community centred flood resilience
In order to address and minimise risks from both natural hazards and COVID-19, local solutions are required.

The creation of risk-informed and resilient communities calls for context specific, localised disaster risk reduction and management approaches. Local governments and communities themselves are instrumental parts of localised preparedness, risk communication, and resilience building. Practical Action and the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance work to empower communities in decision making processes and executing preparedness and resilience solutions that really work for them. We have here shared a number of stories of people living alongside rivers who, as a result of community resilience building are better prepared for, and able to respond to, floods. Their increased knowledge, skills, and improved resources contribute to resilience. As stories of loss and damages take over media during the annual monsoon, it is also important to recall the stories of lives saved and disasters averted as these show an alternative, more resilient way forward. 


You can find out more about Practical Action, and the rest of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance’s work in Nepal and elsewhere, and access a wide range of knowledge to help build community flood resilience on the Flood Resilience Portal. 

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