Working to Avoid a Disaster

A project along the China-Nepal border aims to reduce the risk of disaster and to become an example of cross-border cooperation

In the early hours of 2 August 2014, nearly two kilometres of soil, mud and rock, which had become loosened by the yearly monsoon rains, detached from a hillside in the district of Sindhupalchowk north of Kathmandu and slid downwards towards the village of Jure. The debris wiped out large sections of the village, and then continued until it reached the Sunkoshi River below, where it blocked the water and created a dam. In the hours that followed, the dammed water formed into a lake that, should it burst, would unleash torrents of water on hundreds of villages, reaching as far south as India. Besides creating the dam, the landslide killed 156 people, and displaced more than 430. It submerged a hydropower plant that supplied electricity to Kathmandu and other places, and it destroyed sections of the highway linking Nepal and China, which cost the country nearly USD 400,000 in trade revenue each day it remained closed. After 45 days, the Nepal Army helped the country avert even more disaster by digging a canal and releasing some of the dam’s water.

These disasters highlight the urgent need for regional cooperation around the management of the sub-continent’s water resources and hazardous risks.

Disasters along this section of the Koshi River basin are not new. On 11 July 1981, an ice avalanche hit Cirenma Tso, a glacial lake in the mountains of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, just north of the Nepal border. The avalanche caused the lake’s water to surge and breach the glacier’s lip. The water travelled down the mountains and across the border into Nepal, sweeping up houses, people, and bridges as it moved. Ultimately, more than 200 people died, and economic losses climbed as high as USD 300 million. The bridge connecting China and Nepal was gone, and as much as 27 kilometres of highway were destroyed. For months, any overland travel or trade between the two countries was effectively impossible. In the past 50 years, at least five other similar disasters have affected the Koshi River basin region.

These disasters highlight the urgent need for regional cooperation around the management of the sub-continent’s water resources and hazardous risks. They demonstrated not only the dangerous fragility of the physical link between China and Nepal, but also the transboundary nature of the basin’s water systems and natural disasters. Cooperation and proper supervision of water systems in China could mean improved lives and livelihoods downstream in Nepal and India. Research findings have shown that the glaciers in the region are retreating and glacial lakes are increasing. As a result, the risk of hazardous landslides and glacial lake flood outbursts has also increased. Local and national governments of both Nepal and China looked for ways to improve water and risk management in recent years.

In response to these developments, ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme, in partnership with the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, started the Water Management and Hazard Risk Reduction Project in 2013. The project, which will continue through 2016, has the goal of reducing the risk of more disasters along the vital Nepal-China trade corridor, among other places. The team set out to map the landscape, precipitation, geology, and economy around Zhangmu, the Chinese border town that sits nestled in a lush green hill above the river gorge that divides the two countries, in the hopes of creating a disaster mitigation plan.

After a year of research and mapping, the team identified 18 potentially-dangerous glacial lakes in the mountains of the Tibet Autonomous Region, including Cirenma Tso, which had reformed. The hills around Zhangmu, too, had sections that were at risk of landslides. The team presented their findings at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, and drew up a proposal with specific action points for cross-border cooperation, some of which included creating an interactive water resources and hazards information platform for government ministries, establishing a landslide catchment demonstration site along the area’s trans-border highway, and initiating community-based flood warning systems in the area.

The resulting action plan fed into larger ongoing efforts of the Chinese government to reduce the risk of landslides in the area. In May 2014, China decided to invest USD 483 million into the implementation of risk reduction initiatives around Zhangmu. Encouraged by the response, the team has now has shifted its effort downstream to the Nepal side of the border, where it is hoping to initiate an early flood warning system that can work across countries. The project stands as an example of constructive regional collaboration that can not only help lessen the area’s potential for future disasters, but also serve as a model for other similar projects across the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

Partner: Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment (IMHE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)
Project title: Water Management and Hazard Risk Reduction Related Policy and Institutional Analysis in China for Koshi Basin Management
Years active: March 2013 – December 2016
 
Photo credit: Udayan Mishra