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11 Aug 2021 | Cryosphere

What can the past teach us about the future?

Ankita Shah & Samjhana Karki

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Interacting with 84-year-old Lopsang Lopchen (seated, with blue cap) and his family in Langtang. (Photo: Alina Englisch/ICMS)

Experiences from documenting disaster preparedness of mountain communities in Langtang, Nepal

 

Lopsang Lopchen
Interacting with 84-year-old Lopsang Lopchen (seated, with blue cap) and his family in Langtang. (Photo: Alina Englisch/ICMS)

 

As the 12 of us, students in crisis management studies at the Institute of Crisis Management Studies (ICMS), embarked on what would be our first field expedition to interact with communities in Langtang Valley, we were all quietly anxious: How would our academic knowledge stand up in the real world?

Located around 51 kilometres north of Kathmandu Valley, Langtang is home to the Langtang National Park and renowned for its great natural beauty, biodiversity, and mountain communities. But the valley is also known for frequent natural disasters, the most recent one being the earthquake-triggered avalanche in 2015 that caused significant devastation. Six years on, people are now starting to resettle in the areas that were not affected by the disaster.

Our task was to collect data through surveys and interactions with community members for a joint study conducted by TUICMS and ICIMOD to capture the vulnerability of communities to different natural hazards, particularly those related to the cryosphere. The collected data will be published as a part of a larger research project on the vulnerability of mountain communities to natural hazards in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region.

 

A perilous journey

Getting to Langtang itself is an adventure as one must negotiate through dozens of landslides along the route. In fact, on the second day of the hike from Lama Hotel to Langtang which took us about 7-8 hours, we passed through a 200-metre-long landslide. We moved quickly through such areas to avoid the dangers of rock fall from above, while also being conscious of the steep gorge that ends at the Langtang River below. A tiny misstep could have had catastrophic results. The 15 minutes it took to cross the stretch felt like an eternity, but the mesmerizing views surrounding us – the clear Langtang River and the beautiful red, pink, and white rhododendron – made up for the tedious and perilous trek. We learnt from our guide that the trail to Langtang often gets blocked during the rainy season and must be repaired every year.

Entering the valley and seeing the aftermath of the 2015 avalanche was sobering. It took us back to the day we woke up to the news of the earthquake-triggered avalanche in April 2015. Seeing the ruins and hearing the locals’ experiences firsthand was heart wrenching and gave a new depth of meaning to our work. It motivated all of us to become more committed to our goal of reducing vulnerability to natural hazards in Langtang.

Langtang covered in snow
Langtang covered in snow in April 2021 (Photo: Alina Englisch/ICMS)

 

Braving the changing climate

After the 2015 avalanche, most of us in the team were very eager to visit Langtang and learn more, so the opportunity to conduct research there, interact closely with the local people, and hear their stories and experiences of the changing climate was enriching for us not only as future crisis managers but also as individuals. We would not have had such an opportunity if we were visiting as tourists.

We learnt from the local people how climate change has been impacting mountain communities, such as those in Langtang, for many years. In recent times, they have started to experience new changes such as unseasonal snowfall, more rain, changing weather patterns, and frequent disasters, all of which have had a drastic impact on their lifestyle and livelihoods.

The older members of the community are witness to these waves of change. Eighty-four-year-old Lopsang Lopchen recounts, “When I was much younger than now, snow would cover half of our houses and we could not come out of our houses for days. Now, it does not snow like that anymore and even when it does, it melts in a day”.

Erratic rainfall affects agriculture and annual harvest. Lopchen shares, “We plant karu (naked barley, used to make tsampa) and wait for rainfall, but it doesn’t rain on time, and when it does rain, it rains heavily, sweeping away all the seeds we have planted. We must dry the karu after harvest in the sun, but instead of sunshine it starts raining, which damages our harvest.”

 

Learning from the past

As the Langtang community rebuilds gradually, physical reminders of the 2015 disaster are slowly disappearing, but the deep psychological scars remain. Most of our respondents were not interested to talk about the event itself, while others burst into tears. These are people who have lost homes and loved ones. We were moved to tears listening to their accounts of the event.

We learnt that although people are moving on, the road to recovery from the trauma they experienced is a long one. However, they display an air of resoluteness and they shared that their bonds within the community have helped them in their return.

As Langtang residents returned to the valley after the incident and started rebuilding, abundant donations for relief and reconstruction poured in. We ourselves felt a tinge of sadness to see that all new houses are built using concrete but perhaps that is understandable in a context where so many local people believe that old, traditional houses are weak and could not protect them from avalanches.

Spending almost 12 days with the people of Langtang and learning from the local people about their perception of disaster was a meaningful journey for each of us in individual ways. Our collective main takeaway was the importance of critically analysing and understanding the reality on the ground from different viewpoints before devising policies and plans for effective disaster preparedness and response measures that are relevant and practical.

Although the local authorities are informed of frequent disasters in the area, there is a gap in how they can use the information to prepare effectively for these events. Major investment is needed to improve communication and coordination mechanisms between the different parties involved for planning and raising awareness on disaster preparedness. We hope our findings will help the local authorities and communities create effective policies and plans to reduce disaster risks and build resilient communities.

consultation workshop
After a consultation workshop with district and local-level officials in Dhunche. (Photo: Rishav Upreti/ICMS)

 

Ankita Shah graduated from the Institute of Crisis Management Studies and is currently working as a DRR professional on a project with the Chepang community in Rakhsirang Municipality of Sindhupalchowk District. Her project works on addressing landslide risk and livelihoods using nature-based solutions. She is also working as management information system (MIS) expert for the NWASH system, Ministry of Water Supply, Government of Nepal.  
Samjhana Karki is currently pursuing her graduate degree in Crisis Management at the Institute of Crisis Management Studies. She is a Project Support Associate at Enterprise for Management, Economic Reform, and Gender Equality (EMERGE Pvt. Ltd.). She is interested in development, economics, gender, and disaster policy research.

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