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Flooded Realities: Living in the Gandaki River’s Floodplains

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The floodplains of Nepal are filled with water – the river curves around the flatlands like a snake probing its environment, and the air is moist, and filled with humidity, weighing heavily on the nature underneath. Just a month before our visit in Chitwan, the area was completely under water, due to a deluge flood triggered by the worst rains Nepal experienced in fifteen years. We speak to communities affected by the floods, and reflect on the impacts of future floods, which will likely become more severe due to climate change.


The floodplains of Nepal are distinct from the rest of the journey. To begin with, the region is flat, losing the mountains that define most of Nepal. Vegetation is plentiful, with verdant green rice paddies and swaying trees as far as the eye can see. Elephants stroll down streets and birds sing to greet passersby.



Here life is also slowed down by the baking heat; the air is thick, filled with humidity, and weighs heavily. In a sense, only the river maintains an unwavering pace. It is wide, forceful, and brown from the sediments it carries. It curves around the flatlands of the floodplains like a snake probing its environment.

As with other locales in Nepal, communities here are shaped by the presence of the river, both physically and culturally.

Villages are built close to the banks which provide fish, fresh water, and transportation, access. In recent years, the river has also helped to birth a thriving tourism industry as people flock here to see rhinos, crocodiles and tigers that thrive in this lush environment.


Culturally, towns such as Sauraha are adorned with paintings, sculptures and figurines of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god known for controlling the furious floods of the river Ganga. As the story goes, when Bhagiratha ordered Ganga to descend on to the Earth from the heavens, Ganga raged and threatened to destroy the Earth but was stopped by Lord Shiva, who managed to hold her so tightly in his matted locks that she became helpless. When Lord Shiva gradually released her, she released seven streams to meet the needs of the populations. Today, Lord Shiva still stands guard in many doorways, a visible reminder of the weight of water on the lives living on these river banks.

Just a month before our visit, Chitwan was completely under water, due to a deluge flood triggered by the worst rains Nepal experienced in fifteen years. More than 40 cm of rain fell in just twenty four hours – the equivalent rainfall that the Mustang region in the higher Himalayas receives in an entire year.

The floods, which also severely impacted India and Bangladesh, affected nearly two million people in Nepal, displacing close to 500,000 and killing 143. In Chitwan the river swelled over its banks and inundated the flat lands with so much force that it carried resident rhinos hundreds of kilometres downstream to India.


A quick glance of Sauraha does not yield many remaining visible impacts of the floods. But there is a sort of unsettlement, an uneasiness that one can feel. Like a force lurking behind the peace and quiet, waiting to be unleashed.  

We stop by one of the hotels, and ask for a room for the night. It’s a medium sized hotel, certainly larger than anything else we’ve seen in the rest of rural Nepal, but fairly modest. Arjun, the owner, greets us with a warm smile - he speaks impeccable English, and has a calm, friendly attitude. As we pass though the entrance we are greeted with by Lord Shiva’s statue, standing guard.


Once we are settled in our rooms, we go sit at the hotel’s terrace. The place is almost entirely empty, which is surprising given the tourism industry in the area. Arjun comes by our table, and we engage in a conversation. He starts talking to us about the devastation of the flood last month. He tells us of torrential rains that poured down the sky for continuous hours until flood waters came up chest-high and took away everything. Arjun had to tie down vehicles to keep them from floating away, and all of the town’s residents were locked in their homes, without electricity, food or water for over 24 hours. And even if the situation improved in the days and weeks that followed, tourists have stayed away from the area since. Like most other hotel owners in the area, Arjun’s hotel was not insured; flooding events are too common, he says, so insurance companies will not cover the hotels here.

But the flooding event this time was different: in its magnitude, its unexpectedness, and its impacts.

Arjun thinks it’s partly because the area has developed too quickly, trees have been deforested and aren’t able to regulate the flow of water like they used to. He also says it does not rain like it used to. The rains are hard to predict now he says, and seem to extend for longer periods of time after the end of the monsoon season.


The next day, conversations with locals and a walk into the Chitwan jungle confirm the lingering impacts of the flooding. Streets normally crowded with tourists were mostly empty. Dense jungle understory had been washed away and replaced with layers of debris: reeds, uprooted trees, plastic bags, flip flops, water bottles, scooter helmets, a door. Houses were destroyed or displaced. Endangered species and other animals in the park had been swept or scared away by flooding, and not returned to their normal habitats or numbers.


The magnitude of loss that Arjun experienced was magnified still more for those with less resources and coping capacity than he. Though the rising flood waters were the same across the region, they impacted victims in many different ways. Social and economic capital provided a buffer for some: concrete walls instead of thatch, homes on hillsides instead of low lying areas, families and networks to turn to when in need. Others were not so lucky. During our last day in the floodplains, we travelled with the Himalayan Community Development Forum (HICODEF) to a rural area along the banks of the river where entire houses had been swept away by the floods and people were left living in tents along the river.

There we met Keshari, a farmer, a woman, a widower, and a proud mother of four children. Though she has lived on the banks of the river for her entire life, the August 2017 floods were the worst that she has ever experienced.

She says that in a few short hours she lost nearly everything she owned. Her house crumbled before her eyes and all her possessions, including her goats and chickens, disappeared with the fast-moving waters. Her rice and maize crops, which were nearly ready for harvest, were swept away too. For ten days, Keshari and her daughters lived without food, clothes and other essential items. Now, with the support of NGOs like HICODEF, she is slowly starting to rebuild a semblance of her house, and her life. Yet, with a lump in her throat, she tells us that she has no illusion – floods like this one will happen again and again in the future. And she has no other option but to rebuild her home, and continue raising her children here, on the banks of the river, for that is the only land she owns and the only option she has.


Her experience and her quiet strength spoke more than the flashy news headlines had. The media reported the August floods in terms of numbers – numbers of lives lost and numbers of people displaced, hectares of crops affected, millions of dollars in economic losses.

But how does one begin to capture and address the emotional, physiological, and human impacts of extreme events such as this one? And how much will climate change add to this oppressing burden, first for the poor and then for those whose buffer no longer protects them?

Attribution science is complex, and scientists are not yet able to pinpoint the extent to which climate change might have influenced this extreme flood event. Other factors, such as rapid urbanization, deforestation and land use were certainly exacerbating factors. Yet an inability to accurately capture the degree to which climate change contributes to a particular flood does not take away from the certainty that as global temperature rise the world is to expect more extreme rainfall and storm events, which could lead to flooding. Although precipitation projections are difficult to make due to limitations with current models, scientists suggest the Himalayan region could see an increase in extreme rainfall events. Combined with glacial melting in the first part of this century, which could add water in the river systems, these changes could contribute to increased flood risks in the future. 

Who will bear the cost? Who is responsible for the weight that this water carries?


Thanks for reading

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This story was a collaborative work from the H2O team, including Sushma Bhatta, Alice Chautard, Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone, Ross Harrison and Nicholas O’Brien.

A special thanks to the teams at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute and at ICIMOD for their crucial guidance and wisdom, in particular to Dr. Tom Thornton (now Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast), Dr. Anjal Prakash (now Associate Professor and Associate Dean at TERI-School of Advanced Studies, India) and Dr. Pranita Bhushan Udas. Special additional thanks to Keshari Mahato and HICODEF. Thanks also to BubbleBee Industries and DPA sounds for sponsoring audio equipment. To Narayan Bhandari Srijan for the subtitle translation.

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