Nepalis living in the shadow of melting glaciers
DEVI Maya Tamangni watches the river range just a few metres below her one-room house in a barren highlandvalley of Nepal.
The 42-year-old mother scrapes a living from it by sifting sand to sell to construction companies. “We have no time to think about a flood,” she says.
“I pay the government 250 rupees (2.5 dollars) every month as rent for this land. I live here because I have no where else to go.” But her village of Larcha is among those threatened by melting glaciers as average temperatures rise.
There are hundreds like her in the upper Bhotekoshi basin of Sindhupalchowk district, 100 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu, including children who study in school buildings next to the river.
A flash flood in 1996 killed 54 people in the village, wiped out 22 houses and caused massive damage in the area.
Deadly floods are not uncommon in Sindhupalchowk, which shares its border with China.
The Arniko highway passes through the district, the only highway connecting Nepal and China. Scientists say the people in the region are under severe threat, as global warming is causing the glaciers to melt fast, increasing the threat of their lakes bursting their banks.
In the nearby trading town of Bahrabise, residents attribute natural calamity like floods to the anger of the gods.
The basin experienced three glacial lake out bursts in the last century.
The first occurred in 1935, when the Tara Co Lake burst its natural dam. Although there were no human casualties, the flood killed livestock and damaged farmland, leaving behind a trail of debris that made cultivation impossible in some parts of the valley.
The Zhangzangbo lake breached its banks in 1964 and in 1981.
“It was close to midnight and I noticed the water had risen as faras the bridge,” says Dhanbahadur Shrestha, 69, who was making preparations for his daughter’s wedding the last time.
“My friends and I had only stepped off the bridge, and it got swept away,” he explains, speaking over the sound of the roaring Sunkoshi river.
“We couldn’t believe we were alive! The flood swept away five people, 41 houses, water mills, and two major bridges, including the Friendship Bridge that connects Nepal and China.
Hundreds were injured and several houses damaged.
The flood also damaged the Sunkoshi hydroelectric station, 150 kilometres downstream.
We climbed to the highest point of the station and stayed there all night, waiting for the water to recede,” says Ramlal Parajuli.
“We couldn’t figure out where the water had come from, but there was so much of it every where.
The flood brought down boulders measuring up to 4 metres india meter, which remain parked at several places along the rivers.” “The difference between the impact of a glacial lake outburst and a cloud burst is that the first brings down with it heavy debris, like trees, boulders, while sweeping away everything on its path,” says Pradeep Mool, a scientist working with International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.