Two years ago, while arriving to check out a mountain trout fishing center he owned near the Tibetan border, Gyanendra Kachhapati noticed the Melamchi River flooding, despite clear skies.
He quickly sent his son home by motorbike to warn his wife and others living downriver. They survived the rapidly developing deluge – but Kachhapati was not so lucky.
“I came home to rescue mom under the guidance of my father because our house was on the bank of the Melamchi River,” his 29-year-old son Upendra Kachhapati recalled.
But as father and son talked by mobile phone, Gyanendra “got carried away talking”, said his son – one of five people killed near the riverside center that day.
In total, the flood, triggered by the collapse of a glacial lake near the Tibetan border, killed 24 people and damaged an estimated $905 million in infrastructure, including 570 homes, according to the National Management Authority and Disaster Risk Reduction Program of Nepal.
As climate change warms the planet, making rainfall more extreme and accelerating the melting of glaciers, Himalayan nations such as Nepal face increasing risks of flooding, often caused by glacial lake outbursts.
Greater volumes of glacial meltwater are gradually accumulating in mountain lakes, putting increasing pressure on the earth and rock that hold them in place. These can collapse suddenly, causing massive flooding downstream.
While some monitoring equipment and early warning systems are in place to alert communities downstream, a lack of cross-border information sharing between Himalayan nations – among them China, India and Nepal – is hampering efforts. protection, analysts warn.
“Many dangerous glacial lakes are found in Tibet. If they erupt, it will directly affect Nepal and the damage will be much greater than the Melamchi disaster,” warned Narendra Khanal, former head of geography at Tribhuvan University of Nepal.
Northern Nepal borders China for nearly 1,400 km (860 miles) and the country’s major rivers – the Koshi, Gandaki and Karnali – flow from Tibet.
Maps published by the International Intergovernmental Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) show 3,624 glacial lakes along the three river basins in 2020, including 2,070 in Nepal, 1 509 in China and 45 in India.
Of these, 47 are considered particularly at risk of breaking up, including 25 in Tibet, the agencies said.
But little real-time information is shared across international borders on the state of lakes, even as they grow, because formal mechanisms for data sharing are still not in place, analysts said.
This raises fears in downstream communities, which are growing on their own, that deadly floods could arrive without warning.
“We are not serious about the glacial lake explosion disaster,” said Deepak KC, a UNDP climate change resilience expert in Kathmandu.
The 2016 collapse of a one-hectare glacial lake in Tibet caused $200 million in damage along Nepal’s Bhote Koshi river system, he said, taking away 125 homes and a hydroelectric plant, but without causing any deaths.
But “other lakes are 200 times larger than this one and could explode at any moment. What will our situation be when this happens? He asked.
Call to share data
As the danger of Himalayan glacial lakes increases, researchers and officials have sought to more formally share lake data and early warnings between Nepal, China and India, they said.
Kamal Ram Joshi, director general of Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, said his agency had requested real-time data on the status of glacial lakes on the shared river systems of China and India, but had so far not had a positive response.
“We are in a difficult position with the lack of data on glacial lakes,” he said, noting that the agency did not seek historical data, only real-time readings.
“We are still probing China and India to provide real-time data in different forums, such as the World Meteorological Forum,” he said.
Rishi Ram Sharma, former director of the hydrology and meteorology department until 2019, said the agency made demands of China as early as his tenure.
One challenge appears to be the political sensitivity of Tibet’s data, researchers said.
China has provided aid, alerting the head of Nepal’s Dolakha district by email in June 2021 to a blockage of China’s Tamakoshi River due to large-scale landslides, said Ranjan Kumar Dahal, associate professor of geography. at Tribhuvan University.
This warning, conveyed to downstream communities, saved lives, he said.
Khanal, from Tribhuvan University, said Nepal should do more to try to ensure a steady flow of such needed information.
“Chinese scientists told us that the Nepalese government should take initiatives. I think the Nepalese government is also not serious about it,” he said.
Money can be part of the problem, with provider countries sometimes demanding payment for data, Khanal said.
Residents along cross-border rivers say better data sharing can’t come too soon.
Nima Gyalzen Sherpa, chairperson of Helambu Rural Municipality, who has called on the Nepalese government to push for more international information sharing, said warnings that come even half an hour before a flood could significantly reduce losses.
“We could inform the inhabitants of the Melamchi shore. At least human life would be safe,” he said.
Upendra Kachhapati, the son of the man killed at the fishing center during the Melamchi flood, said that for now residents remain in the dark.
“What time a flood comes from the Himalayan region, we cannot predict,” he said. What’s happening in the high Himalayas? We need information.
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