MAGARTOL, Nepal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It is nearly time for the monsoon, but there has not been even a drop of rain yet in this village on the fringes of Chitwan National Park, a deep worry for local farmers.
Retired forest guard Potahariyu Chaudhary, 65, looks at his dry maize fields and says he doubts the monsoon will ever be normal again. “The climate is getting strange in this country. Either it is too dry or disastrous,” he said.
Chaudhary, like his neighbours, has endured plenty of droughts and severe floods over the last few decades in this flattest, most flood-prone district of Nepal. The worst flooding, in 1993, wiped out his crops and house, killed his livestock and nearly swept away his traumatized wife and children.
“Our eyes are constantly on the rivers and we all take turns every day to check the level of Narayani River,” said Chaudhary’s 29-year old son, Ranjan, who remembers being carried on his father’s shoulder to safety through a previous flood.
In neighboring Harnari village, the last big flood displaced 300 households for months. “It’s almost 10 years since the last big flood and we are all worried we might have another disaster,” 55-year old Kumar Chettri said.
“That is where all the floods will attack from,” he said, pointing towards the north of the village, an area planned government-provided embankments and dikes have yet to reach.
COMMUNITIES AND WILDLIFE AT RISK
The vulnerability of these villages also means grave danger for nearby Chitwan National Park, a key tourist attraction in Nepal and one of the last refuges for the endangered Bengal tiger and home to some of the largest populations of Asiatic one-horned rhinoceros.
Experts worry the wildlife reserve is, like its neighbours, at risk from extreme climate events and a loss of tourism if the country fails to build more climate-resilient infrastructure.
The area surrounding the park, known as buffer zones, covers 750 square kilometers (290 square miles) and is home to over 300,000 villagers. One of the country’s largest rivers, the Narayani, flows placidly towards the north of the region, where it is joined by two other rivers, the East Rapti and the Reu to the west.
Managing the rivers, and potential flooding, is a top government priority. With support from the Asian Development Bank and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Nepal’s government has built over 20 kilometres (13 miles) of dikes and embankments along the three rivers – but this is not yet enough to protect homes, farms, roads and wildlife, experts say.
“These assets will be very vulnerable in the future and we need to assess on how to make our infrastructure resilient to extreme climate situations,” said Narendra Shakya, a specialist on water-induced disasters from the Mainstreaming Climate Risk Management in Development project administered by the Asian Development Bank.
Nepal is one of nine countries taking part in that $1 billion international pilot programme, which helps least-developed countries integrate climate resilience into core development planning.
The effort builds on priorities set in Nepal’s own National Adaptation Programme of Action on climate change, and has $76 million in financing from the Climate Investment Funds, channeled through the Asian Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank.
Since 2012, a team of national and international specialists have been helping conduct vulnerability assessments and prepare threat profiles and adaptation plans in eight districts across Nepal’s key ecological zones, from the southern plains to the hills and Himalayan mountain areas.
The project aim “is to help provide new engineering and innovative design standards to ensure existing and future infrastructure constructions are more climate-resilient and mainstreamed into development planning,” said Govinda Prasad Kharel, a senior engineer with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, and national project manager of the risk mainstreaming project.
Experts say the disastrous 1993 flood in Chitwan is a vivid example of why climate-resilient infrastructure is so crucial. That flood, which killed 24 people and nearly 6,000 livestock, occurred after floodwaters breached a dike in the Rapti River.
The flood inundated nearly 2,300 hectares (5,680 acres) of land and affected more than 5,200 people, according the government Department of Water-Induced Disaster Prevention.
Nepal’s roads, embankments, irrigation canals and bridges have been built for the most part to withstand the worst flood disaster in the country’s history, with the aim of protecting infrastructure from future floods.
But as climate change brings new record disasters around the globe, that may no longer be sufficient. “Now Nepal should concentrate on building infrastructure based on the new formula of climate resilient structures,” said climate modeler Binod Shakya, a national consultant for the climate risk mainstreaming project.
Experts say Nepal is likely to face bigger and more frequent floods over the next decades, which could see infrastructure destroyed if the country doesn't begin to adopt more climate-resilient designs.
“Every time there is a flood disaster, the government usually increases the height of the embankment by just one metre, based on the highest level of flood recorded. (But) imagine the magnitude of the disaster if the flood this time increases by another 2 metres,” said Balaram Luitel, climate change program coordinator at Chitwan District Development Committee.
Luitel explained that the area’s current 22-kilometre (14-mile) embankment, stretching from the Lothar area to Bachauli, is 19 feet (5.8 metres) high and was designed to hold back the highest recorded flood, that in 1993.
“What we need now is proper information and knowledge on how we can be better resilient or we could risk it all,” said Luitel. He said the Nepal has been serious about retrofitting to reduce earthquake risks, but still has much to do to prepare for climate change-related extreme events.
THE ROAD PROBLEM
One of the hardest bits of infrastructure to make climate resilient in Nepal is the country’s highways and rural roads. With its challenging hilly terrain, prone to erosion, Nepal sees regular road failures, and poor quality construction is often blamed.
But it is the pressure of heavily-laden trucks and other heavy vehicles on the roads, combined with monsoon rains, that do much of the damage, according to officials from Central Region Road Directorate, Chitwan.
“The highways are usually weakened by heavy-duty vehicles, shortening the life of the roads by a large scale, and that makes them more vulnerable to natural disasters,” said Hari Kumar Pokharel, a senior engineer and the division chief.
In 2007, a policy was created to restrict the weight of vehicles on Nepal’s roads, but it has not been enforced, he said.
“Everything starts at the policy level and if we want to mainstream climate issues into our development framework, then we need to integrate all key sectors and involve all key players,” said Madhav Karki, an infrastructure development officer in Chitwan.
His Department of Local Infrastructure and Agriculture Roads (DOLIDAR) office is involved in maintaining agricultural roads, small bridges, dykes, embankments and other local infrastructure.
Chitwan alone has around 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) of agricultural roads across the district, according to DOLIDAR, but most of the roads are poor quality and many become impassible during the monsoon, when farmers most need to carry their crops to market.
“There is desperate need to upgrade these roads as constant repairs and maintenance are a huge economic loss to the country,” Karki said.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
To try to incorporate better climate resilience in planning, Nepal through the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR) is for the first time bringing together departments and agencies to coordinate what once might have been unrelated infrastructure projects.
These include the departments of water resources, water-induced disasters, roads, local infrastructure, irrigation, urban development and hydrology/meteorology.
“The PPCR has been able to bring all our departments together and now we have core teams in each agency through which we can actively share and enhance knowledge on climate resilient issues,” said Akhanda Sharma, a senior divisional engineering with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment and national manager of Mainstreaming Climate Risk Management in Development project.
Shakya, the disaster specialist with project, said he believes an ongoing assessment by a team of top experts will give a clear picture of Nepal’s most vulnerable infrastructure, which could help the country prepare an effective adaptation plan to deal with the risks.
“We are looking forward to better information to reduce risks, especially at the community level where we remain most vulnerable,” said Mana Raj Osti, an engineer who works on irrigation and embankments in Chitwan.
To see an associated slideshow on disaster risk reduction in Nepal, click here.
Naresh Newar is a Kathmandu-based writer with an interest in climate change issues. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.