A tale of two floods: Nepalese villagers move from fear to resilience

  • By Chet Tamang, Emilie Rex
  • 29/12/2017

Community members rebuild a bamboo-reinforced wall in Nepal. Credit: Mercy Corps/Emilie Rex

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There were no alarms, no warnings, just the roar of debris-filled currents cutting new paths through fallow fields, then hand-sown crops on a crash course toward Tilki. Community members close to the water watched it swell where Banara and Machheli rivers met just upstream.

Reports of rising water spread quickly enough for Laxmi Chaudhary to collect some clothes and dry food and pull her two sons up to the lofted sleeping area inside her house. From there, they watched the murky waters rise, pouring in through the open entry way and destroying everything left below.

As the water surged a meter above the ground, she turned to see her four-year-old son, Bharat, falling from the ledge and his auntie, Sita, leaping after him.

“Splash sound travelled to my ears. When I turned back, I saw Bharat half drowned in the rising floodwaters and Sita trying to drag him from there,” recalled Laxmi. “I was so hopeless and terrified at this - ugly feelings of losing him choked my throat.”

Bharat’s name could easily have been added to the long list of those taken by the flood that September 19, 2008. With livestock, seeds, and homes destroyed, 49 of 52 households were forced to evacuate from Tilki.

Laxmi, her husband Mangal, and at least 17 other families sought shelter in the forest nearby. Through wild elephant attacks and constant hunger, they pleaded for government support, but survived for five months on only the rare but generous offerings of nearby communities, many of which were also recovering from the floods. With their calls for assistance unheeded, they returned to Tilki to salvage what remained and rebuild the rest.

Almost a decade later, it is challenging to imagine this harrowing scene repeating itself. Laxmi and Mangal rest in the shade of Tilki’s hulking, concrete safe house, the community’s refuge in the event of a flood. It is early September and summer still has a tight grip on the Terai Plains of Nepal’s Far West Region. In the intervening years since 2008, Tilki’s remarkable recovery and resilience in the face of subsequent flooding have peaked the interest of communities throughout the district, earning it a measure of local fame.

This notoriety extends to Laxmi, a member of the search and rescue task force, and Mangal, a teacher who serves as the secretary of the community disaster management committee, Tilki’s river gauge reader and coordinator of the early warning system. The couple has been deeply engaged since Mercy Corps and its local partners began implementing the Managing Risk Through Economic Development (M-RED) program.

Communities throughout the Terai have long participated in disaster risk reduction efforts, but M-RED is different. Lean and adaptable, this Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies-funded program began by asking a new set of questions: What resources and abilities will communities need to learn, cope, adapt and transform in the face of recurrent flooding? How might new livelihood opportunities allow community members to engage more fully with disaster risk programming? How can international development organizations support local partners in building the market for risk-reducing products and services designed to outlive the program?

Beginning in 2013 the program proposed something novel to vulnerable communities in two districts in the Terai: work together to plant sugarcane in the fallow fields next to the river and build simple, but sturdy, bamboo infrastructure to reinforce the banks. The risks will not be as high or the labor as challenging if you work collectively. New partnerships with local market actors and the government will support a stronger market for the sugarcane you grow, and new activities like cooperatives will help you save the income you earn.

In August 2017, a sizable flood tested the hard work and resilience of this community with very different results. Mangal went to the river that morning to check the gauge and immediately activated Tilki’s early warning system, sending a series of alerts throughout and beyond its 65 households to numerous communities up and downstream. Laxmi, trained in search and rescue, mobilized her neighbors and prepared the life-saving task force for action.

Walking a narrow path along the river, the extent of Tilki’s preparedness measures is plain. Slumped, matted grasses line the banks, still holding the shape of monsoon waters that flowed over the bamboo reinforcements toward the community. The pattern is clear though: water stops short, and while the wall below is damaged, it holds the bank. The vegetation on either side of the path does its part as well, and the sugarcane that has become central to Tilki’s livelihoods peeks out just above the tall grasses, undisturbed.

“Last August’s floods were likely of the same intensity as of 2008, but our untiring efforts over the last four years have shown results—we feel safe,” Mangal said proudly. “We’ve reclaimed our land, and we coexist with the river.”

Back in the shade of the safe house, Laxmi looks out over the rice paddy. Her son is old enough now to tell the story of when he almost drowned. These memories frame both the urgency and opportunities M-RED represents for the community: the capacity, knowledge and skills to live and thrive in their communities, now and beyond the program. Bharat is living, breathing proof of a community’s resilience.

Chet Tamang is program director for Managing Risk through Economic Development (M-RED) at Mercy Corps, Emilie Rex is an independent resilience communications strategist and consultant.

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