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6 Jan 2023 | Nepal

Crafting a disaster risk communication mechanism for Langtang

Amina Maharjan & Binaya Pasakhala

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Langtang Village as seen in November 2012
Langtang Village as seen in November 2012. The village was home to a community of tourist lodges and tea houses, part of the teahouse trekking route. (Photo: Dorothea Stumm/ICIMOD)
Langtang Village after an earthquake
What remained of Langtang Village after an earthquake-triggered avalanche in April 2015. The photo was taken in November 2015. (Photo: Dorothea Stumm/ICIMOD)

 

In April 2019, we met with Suppa Tamang, then chairperson of ward-4 of Gosaikunda Rural Municipality, in Kathmandu. Looking at the distant mountains and cloudy weather, he looked worried and mumbled, ‘It’ll snow again in Langtang in Baisakh [mid-April to mid-May] this year. We’ve recently sowed potatoes, and snowfall will ruin our harvest. It will also trigger avalanches.’ His despair gave us a sense of how closely the lives and livelihoods of Langtangpas are interwoven with snow, water, disaster, and climate change. It also put into perspective the challenge that lay ahead of us.

We explained to him that we were planning an exploratory visit to Langtang Valley to understand how communities are dependent on glaciers and snow. He was pleased to hear that we wanted to learn about the implications of climate change in the valley. We sought his support to conduct interviews and group discussions with locals. He agreed enthusiastically.

From that day, our three-member team of researchers from ICIMOD (including Arabinda Mishra) began a new journey to uncover and understand interlinkages between mountain livelihoods and the cryosphere. We have been in and out of the Langtang Valley constantly, talking to the community and collecting data on different social indexes in the context of the changing climate and increased disaster incidence.

The changes in glacier and snow system, particularly changing snowfall patterns and increase in incidences of avalanches, have heightened the locals’ social and physical vulnerability. Worryingly, we found that they lack a risk mitigation strategy. Building on these findings, our interventions on risk mitigation in Langtang organically evolved through continuous engagement with local and district-level stakeholders.

 

Building trust and initiating our action research

The Langtang Valley is the closest tourist destination from Kathmandu for trekking. Visitors to the area can enjoy the spectacular view of snow- and glacier-covered mountains, which is why domestic and foreign visitors throng the valley every year. Tourism has become a major source of livelihood for the local communities, who mostly speak Tibetan and have close cultural connections with Tibet.

But the valley has always been prone to disaster events, none greater than the April 2015 earthquake, which triggered snow and ice avalanches that killed over 300 people, including porters and tourists. Incidences of avalanches have been occurring more frequently at various sites, often close to settlements and trails in ward-4 of the rural municipality. Since 2019, rockfalls and landslides have also become a major disaster risk in the area.

Locals in the valley have witnessed an increase in disaster events following the 2015 earthquake, which is likely due to elevated shaking of snow-accumulated areas and high slopes in the area; however, Langtangpas are reluctant to report incidences of disasters to governmental bodies or external agencies, particularly the media. They fear that reporting any incidences in the area can brew up bad publicity, which would reduce incoming tourist activity and jeopardise their tourism-based livelihoods.

For instance, in May 2019, just a month after we had met Suppa Tamang, we were in the valley to explore the contributions of snow and glaciers to local lives and livelihoods. During our interactions with local communities, we learned that there was an avalanche near the village just two days before we reached the village. Our local partner did not share this information with us. On visiting the avalanche site, we observed that there was no system in place to warn visitors or any initiative taken to create a safe path over the avalanche debris.

An avalanche site in Langtang
An avalanche site in Langtang, with a settlement in the background (2019). The 2015 earthquake in Nepal triggered snow and ice avalanches that killed over 300 people in the Langtang Valley. (Photo: Binaya Pasakhala/ICIMOD)

 

Building trust with the local community is often an uphill task. Langtangpas are stoic and fiercely protective about their ways of life.  As we gradually built rapport, the first task at hand was to clear misconceptions. We explained that not communicating about hazardous incidents may lead to a devastating disaster, which would place both locals and visitors at risk and defame the area among tourists and businesses. Over time, we found that they were keenly aware of changes to their environment and eager to work as a community to adapt to these changes. We presented different ways of communicating disaster risks to local communities, representatives of the Langtang aama samuha (women’s group) and buffer zone management committee, and local leaders.

During our district-level consultations, first responders from the Nepal Police and Nepali Army – personnel who are generally from outside the region and understandably not intimately aware of the area’s topography and hazard sites – expressed the need for a hazard risk map.

We shared our preliminary findings on changes in snowfall pattern and increase in avalanches with cryosphere and geospatial experts as well as representatives of government and nongovernment agencies in Kathmandu. After months of deliberations, we designed a community-led disaster risk management action research in consultation with stakeholders at federal, district, and local levels, with the aim of developing effective risk communication.

 

A participatory and consultative approach leading to solutions

Relaying timely information about a disaster incident to concerned agencies allows for prompt and effective rescue operations. Sharing information about disaster sites and strategically placing warning signs along trekking trails can help locals and tourists, particularly solo backpackers, avoid stopovers at risks sites.

Continually engaging local government and different district-level stakeholders, we explored ways of communicating local disaster risks. After multiple rounds of discussions with stakeholders at different levels, we planned four activities for communicating disaster risks in ward-4: (1) create an integrated hazard map for the trekking route; (2) form a ward-level local disaster management committee; (3) place hazard risk signposts along the trekking route; and (4) develop a mobile-based risk communication app.

Rockfalls are frequently
Rockfalls are frequently reported at this landslide site in Rimche on the Syafru Besi–Kyanzing trekking route. (Photo: Binaya Pasakhala/ICIMOD)
install disaster risk warning signs
In November 2022, we engaged the local community to install disaster risk warning signs along the Syafru Besi–Kyanzing trekking route. (Photo: Binaya Pasakhala/ICIMOD)

 

We began hazard risk mapping in 2021 by developing a participatory hazard map – engaging local women and men from different settlements of the ward over three days. Using local knowledge and past experiences, community members mapped agricultural and pasture lands, religious sites, trails, and physical infrastructures on OpenStreetMap, which is a fairly accurate free-access mapping tool that can be used without an internet connection – essential for working in remote areas such as the Langtang Valley. They also pinned hazardous sites and provided information on the seasonality and frequency of occurrence and extent of loss and damage due to those hazards.

Meanwhile, a team from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate together with some ICIMOD colleagues also developed an avalanche hazard risk map of the valley based on remotely sensed geospatial data of the area. We overlayed this map with our participatory hazard map to produce an integrated hazard risk map. We shared and validated this integrated map with local communities, representatives of grassroots organisations, local government bodies, Nepal Police, Nepal Armed Police Force, Nepali Army, and other stakeholders at the district level.

Participatory hazard risk mapping
Participatory hazard risk mapping incorporates local knowledge in disaster management in April 2021 at Langtang. (Photo: Binaya Pasakhala/ICIMOD)

 

For systematic disaster response and communication with concerned agencies at the district level, we helped form a local disaster management committee comprising 11 members who represented the local government, local Nepal Police unit, grassroots organisations, and local political leaders. The committee is focused on ensuring systematic disaster response and communication with concerned agencies. We worked with the committee to install 17 warning signposts for avalanche and rockfall risk areas (based on hazard risk mapping) along the Syafru Besi–Kyanzing trekking route.

While we were installing a signpost at Mundu in November 2022, a 34-year-old Austrian solo backpacker approached us and thanked us: ‘Austria has similar signposts along trekking routes. These warning signs are useful because they tell me when I should avoid resting or spending time in hazardous areas.’ However, some locals remain unconvinced. They are concerned that the signposts might scare away tourists from visiting their villages. The disaster management committee will continue to consult with locals and attempt to build ownership of such disaster risk communication approaches.

Aria Technologies, a Nepal-based technology firm, closely collaborated with ICIMOD and the Gosaikunda municipal office to develop a risk communication mobile app. The app enables users to share real-time information, i.e. coordinates and photos, about a hazard incident to other app users along the trekking trail. The app also signals users when they are within a few hundred metres from any area demarcated as a risk zone.

 

From science to action

With growing incidences of disasters due to cryosphere changes, high mountain communities living in the HKH are left even more vulnerable. For effective disaster risk management, it is essential to communicate risks in a credible and relevant manner for a wide range of stakeholders. We have worked with the Langtang communities to develop products such as our integrated hazard map for trekking and our mobile-based risk communication app (which is in the beta testing phase). We have also made interventions such as the formation of the ward-level local disaster management committee and installing hazard risk signposts along the trekking route.

We need to continue working with the local government and other stakeholders to monitor the effectiveness of these interventions, take in community feedback, and make the necessary changes accordingly. Local communities still prioritise their tourism-based livelihoods over comprehensively addressing disaster risks, and we need to raise public awareness about disaster risk and risk communication.

Encouragingly, during a stakeholder workshop in Syafru, Rasuwa District, in November 2022, Kaisang Nurpu Tamang (chairperson of Gosaikunda Rural Municipality) spoke of his commitment to scaling out lessons in disaster risk communication from the valley to other areas of the rural municipality. At the event, we shared the tools and app we had developed to communicate disaster risks in the Langtang region. As we stood on the stage along with Her Excellency Torun Dramdal, Norwegian Ambassador to Nepal, with district- and local-level stakeholders in front of us, we were engulfed by self-reflections on our meaningful work with the community, and the long way to go still for Langtangpas as they adapt to climate change impacts and manage disaster risks. Saving lives during disaster events can be as simple as sharing timely information with the communities that need it the most, but our work on forging clear disaster risk communication mechanisms and principles has been a product of an arduous three-year journey.

Developing an understanding about the local socioeconomic context and building mutual trust among stakeholders through their early and active engagement are key for building local governments’ ownership and producing and communicating relevant information. Governmental and nongovernmental institutions, including ICIMOD, need to continually support local institutions and communities to strengthen their capacity for disaster preparedness.

 

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