Preparing for disaster in Nepal
Nepal is one of the world’s most prone to floods, landslides, earthquakes, and fires. The EU works with partners on the ground to ensure better preparedness and response to disasters in the country.
Nima Shamu Sherpa lives on a steep hill slope near Nepal’s border with China. In July 2021, she was asleep when the hill started collapsing after a night of unusually heavy rainfall. A massive, dislodged boulder crashed into the corner of her house but miraculously missed the bedroom.
“We are lucky to be alive,” she says. “A few meters to the right, and we would have died.”
The area, located in Nepal’s volatile Sindhupalchowk district, has now been designated as high-risk by the Nepalese government, and the families living on the slopes are slated to be resettled to a safer location.
The EU’s partner, People in Need, helps the government identify safe areas for voluntary resettlement and advocates on behalf of families living in areas prone to landslides.
It’s been 7 years since a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and leaving towns and cities in ruins, destroying more than 600,000 houses.
In the valley below Nima Sherpa’s house, the signs of the disaster are still visible: the road leading to the Chinese border post is lined with collapsed homes and twisted, rusting car wrecks.
“There has been a marked increase in landslides after the 2015 earthquake,” said Piush Kayastha, who oversees EU humanitarian programmes in Nepal. “The hills have been severely weakened by the quake and is now more likely to come apart after heavy rains.”
But the increased numbers of annual landslides are not just a legacy of the earthquake, Kayastha said.
Deforestation, poor road construction and population growth are also to blame. In addition, climate change has led to melting glaciers and increasingly extreme rainfall, increasing the risk of landslides.
In response, People in Need works with local authorities and engineers involved in road construction and infrastructure projects to increase their understanding of landslide hazards.
Responding to floods
Heavy rains not only trigger landslides but also lead to frequent flooding in Nepal.
Pushpa Devi lost all her food stocks and parts of her mud house when the banks of the Karnali river burst following last year’s massive rains.
The downpour brought floods and landslides across the country, which killed over 100 people, and washed away paddy crops, sweeping away bridges, roads and thousands of homes.
“The water came rushing in early in the morning,” Pushpa, 35, recalls. “We had just harvested our rice and my first instinct was to grab the sacks that I keep under the house, but it was too late, and we had to run.”
The grains were already floating around in a torrent of debris, garbage, and poisonous snakes. Pushpa grabbed her daughter and ran with the rest of the frightened villagers to a nearby school building. They could only return to their wrecked houses two weeks later.
“Everything was destroyed and covered in thick mud,” Pushpa says. “The crops that hadn’t already been washed away were rotting.”
Pushpa and her fellow villagers belong to the Dalit, a group at the bottom of the ancient caste hierarchy linked to the Hindu faith. Ancient biases against lower-caste groups make it harder for the Dalit to access education and jobs, and when disaster strikes, the effects on society’s poorest are often catastrophic.
They are also forced to settle in areas more prone to disasters. Immediately after the floods, EU and its partners, the Nepal Red Cross Society and the Danish Red Cross, provided Pushpa and the other villagers with cash grants for food, clothes and other essentials.
Pushpa’s experience is all too common; more than 80% of Nepal’s population is at risk of natural hazards.
Another common hazard is the recurrent wildfires, caused by the seasonal fires lit to manage farmland and pastures, or household fires usually caused by faulty electric wiring or exploding propane gas cylinders.
Rapid urbanisation and growth have made cities extremely prone to fire. In 2021, the forest fires grew particularly extreme, as many spread and burned uncontrolled through large areas.
In response, the EU and its partner, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have provided local fire brigades with advanced training on firefighting, rescue, and handling hazardous materials.
The EU and its partners are also helping to build flood-resistant infrastructure, set up early warning systems, and training villagers to put out fires that typically start in kitchens.
Overall, the EU has provided Nepal with €34 million for disaster preparedness over the past decade.
“Preventing disasters has been our core priority in Nepal,” Piush Kayastha says. “And we are committed to continue making the country safer for its citizens.”
Story by Peter Biro, Regional Information Officer for Asia and the Pacific, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.