How to Tackle an Act of God?
Astory of misery unfolds in Nepal every year during the rainy season. Generally, these misfortunes do not affect the lives of the people of Kathmandu. The devastating natural fury that hit Okhaldhunga in the east on 6 July was ignored, as the capital was engrossed by the unfolding political drama between the Prime Minister and the Opposition.
Incessant monsoon rains on the 19, 20 and 21 July, however, hit much closer to home. They wreaked havoc over hills and Tarai of Central Nepal and claimed above 2000 lives (as of 26 July). Significantly, the extended cloudburst was centered in the very area where the nation´s primary infrastructure is located — the Kulekhani reservoir and dam, and the main road arteries leading up to Kathmandu.
Though the whole region eastern Nepal was affected, the monsoon system appeared to be particularly active over the headwaters region of Rapti, Kulekhani and Malekhu rivers -west of Kathmandu. So intense was the downpour that between the mornings of 19 and 21 July about 40 million cubic meter of water was replenished in the Kulekhani reservoir, Filling its 73 million cubic meters of live storage. For the first time in several years water spilled over from Indra Sarovar, the reservoir.
The floods that were unleashed smashed piers, scoured abutments and washed-off decks of more than eight bridges along the two highways to the capital. Large sect-ions of the highways subsided, and it will probably take at least a year for normalcy to return.
Heavy rains and flood also severed a 100 m section of the penstock pipe leading from the Kulekhani reservoir. This meant that both the 60 megawatt Kulekhani I power plant and the 32 MW Kulekhani II were dead. The shutdown of the two plants was a grievous blow to the national grid, as it took away 92 MW from a system whose operating output used to be about 200 MW.
Cloud bursts and extended monsoonal showers have been occurring in the past. What is different now is that there are more and more large infrastructural projects being built in the mountains. However, the understanding of the temporal and spatial variations of the natural processes within the monsoon regime is still at a rudimentary stage. At the simplest level, there is no proper gauging network, which has allowed such hydrological extremes to go un-monitored, robbing scientists of vital clues that could have filled gaps in existing knowledge and ther ability to foracast.
There have been similar
episodes with cloudbursts in the Kathmandu vicinity in the recent past. In 1984, a similar but more concentrated storm had washed away the Malekhu bridge in the Prithvi Highway. This same bridge is once again gone. A post monsoon storm in 1981 brought down entire sides of Lele hills south of Kathmandu and created havoc all the way down the Bagmati river.
This July´s phenomenon, however, appears to have been more intense. The two days of downpour brought 632 mm of rains over the Kulekhani valley, which is half of its average annual rainfall of about 1200 mm. While details will be known as more information start to filter in, this intensity of downpour is probably not the worst that can occur in the Himalaya. In 1965, the upper Teesta valley in Darjeeling recorded 3000 mm of rain in 72 hours (Himal Jan/Feb 1993).
The event highlights the extent of uncertainty and the critical situation that a heavy rainfall occurring within very few hours can create. The only way to deal with these calamities is to try and understand them in the long run, with scientific approach and investments in data collection, research and management.
Can anything then be done to save roads, bridges, hydropower stations, irrigation systems against such fury of nature in the mountains? At the very least, the efficacy of the current methods of planning, engineering, and operating major infrastructure projects should be studied. We must also assess the level of risk we should be ready take, and the country´s capacity to absorb the risks of a large scale. The larger the project, the larger the risk, it seems, when an act of god decides to hit.
– Ajay Dixit.
Water Resource Engineer
Tibet, the Air Cooler
Give Tibet some credit. It is responsible for the climate which make life as we know it possible on planet Earth. This is as reported in a cover feature of the 3 July issue of the New Scientist, "Did Tibet cool the world?´".
"If the proposed hypothesis is true," writes journalist David Paterson in his article, "we may have the Tibetan plateau to thank for the Gobi and the Sahara, for the evolution of the grasses that were domisticated into wheat 9000 years ago, and for the ice ages that accompanied the evolution of mankind."
For 250 million years, the planet was warm and wet. Then it began to cool about 40 million years ago and the cooling accelerated 15 million years ago. The theory is that the uplift of the Tibetan plateau might have acted ffs the switch to the global thermostat which began the cooling.
The process of geological uplift, of course, is well-known. The Indian plate (in geological time) slammed into the Asian plate, buckling underneath and raising the vast plateau of Tibet, making it "one of the world´s most prominent topograhical features." But how does the raising of the Tibetan landmass lead to cooling? What follows is a paraphrasing of Paterson´s report.
Tibet´s plateau, which lies between the Himalaya to the south and the Kunlun to the north, covers 2.2 million sq km, or 0.4 percent of the Earth´s sufracc, with an average height of about 5 km above sea level. It is "like a large boulder thrust into the atmosphere, so large that it profoundly disturbs the atmospheric circulation patterns in the whole of the northern hemisphere."
The next step is to understand how Tibet´s rise could have brought about a reduction of the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere.
The Tibetan Thermostat hypothesis was put forward by Maureen Raymo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Raymo. a geochemist, suggests that the raising of the Tibetan plateau from the seafloor altered climatic conditions and reduced the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so that the Earth radiated more energy than before, setting off global cooling. (The gas traps heat radiated form the Earth´s surface, so as the level of carbon dioxide dropped the Earth radiated more of the energy absorbed from the Sun and began to cool.)
Raymo suggests that the uplift of the plateau created the patterns of air circulation that bring water-laden air off the Indian Ocean in summer and deliver monsoon rains to the Subcontinent, including the Himalayan ramparts. Dissolved in the torrential rain was carbon dioxide, forming weak carbonic acid.
"The higher the uplift, the greater is the volume of water-laden air drawn off the ocean by the stack of rising warm air, and the greater the rainfall. And the greater the rainfall, the more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. A combinaton of chemical weathering by the acid rain and fast physical eros¬ion of the plateau´s rock delivers carbon dioxide, in the form of bicarbonate ions, to the oceans."
In essense. Raymo sees the plateau as a giant carbondioxide extractor, pumping the gas out of the atmosphere through rainfall and then dumping -he by-product in the oceans.
There is one flaw in Raymo´s theory: it does not explain why there is any carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere — her extractor pump would have emptied the atmosphere of the gas in less than 100,000 years.
Here is one subject for Himalayan geochemists to start study on — before Tibet suffocates the earth.
When in Calcutta, Eat Momos
We like momos. And we also like this description of momos: "meat-filled samosa look alikes that go with florid, pungent sauce". Diti Sen, writing in a recent weekender Statesman, lets us in on the secret: Calcutta is where you go to eat the steamy little rascals.
For the best atmospherics, Sen directs us to Uday Mukhia´s eaterie, the Tibetan Delight, in a narrow, ill-lit alley at the comer of Chowringhee Road and Suburban Hospital Road. There you shovel in momos "in a smallish room with rough and ready tables and stools, wildly swinging bulbs nestling in straw hats suspended over them." Mukhia´s mother-in-law is said to have introduced momos to south Calcutta.
May she receive a Bharat Ratna.
Next door to Mukhia´s is Hamro Momo, with its "distinctly shabby portals" and, as the name implies, catering to all the Nepali babus stranded in Calcutta due to monsoon flooding. Down the road from Hamro Momo is the upscale Momo Plaza, which sports a Belgian chandelier and a woodep fan. The establishment was opened by the sophisticated S.N. Sen, who hired a Tibetan couple to churn out the cuisine. Sen says he tried out kothay but apparantly Calcuttans do not like kothay.
Then there is Kunga Restaurant, ("owned by the Dalai Lama") in Tiretti Bazar. We are told that the restaurant is mostly empty, which allows the waiter to snooze peacefully in a corner. Now we could have told His Holiness that this is the way of all public enterprises, and the exile government in Dharamsala, if it truly owns
Kunga, should think of privatisation. Who knows, the World Bank might come in handy some day. Back to Calcuttan momos, Sen ends with. "In momos, we just might have the alternative to the dreary dosa. It is cheap and filling and as yet, mercifully, still handled only by Tibetans and Chinese…"
Porters die on Larkya La
In the first week of April, four porters who were with an Australian trekking group died up on Larkya La.
Larkya La is a pass of above 17,000 ft, at the headwaters of the Buri Gandaki, which forms one of the highlights of the newly opened "Around Manaslu" trek. Unlike the Thorong La pass of the Annapurna region further to the west, Larkya is not well-travelled and can be more treacherous.
On the days previous to the mishap, the Australian group had apparently spent a night at Samagaon (at about 11,000 ft) and hurried on to the foot of the pass, at 14,000 ft. It would have been advisable for them to have spent an interim night at Samdo, which is at about 13,000 ft, as this would have allowed for rest and acclimatisation.
The trekkers did not want to rest at Samdo because they thought the weather would deteriorate, making it impossible to cross. But by skipping Samdo, the group was more predisposed to altitude sickness because of the potentially dangerous gain in ´sleeping altitude* and the extra exertion involved, particularly for the porters with heavy loads.
As the group approached the pass, at least one of the Western members had altitude problems and blizzard conditions were setting in. Attempts were made to keep the porters together and to move ahead to clear the path, but in the end four porters lost their lives, [although only two were reported to the authorities.]
Every season, porters from the lower hill areas like Trisuli and Tanahu die in the high lekhs because of a
combination of exposure, altitude sickness, and exhaustion. Many low hill villagers with little or no experience of high mountain travel moonlight as porters when the fields have been planted and there is free time in the farm. They rarely know what they are up against, particularly when the weather takes a turn for the worse. The safety of their porters is primarily the responsibility of the trekking agency, and some are better than others. The Western trekkers can also help keep portering safe by asking some pointed questions before selecting an agency. One of the most important is, does the agency provides porters with proper gear for crossing high passes? This can help prevent hypothermia.
The government can brief the police checkposts along the potentially dangerous trails (such as in Namru in Gorkha District for the Manaslu trek) to keep a check on how porters are equipped. So far, these checkposts only have the duty to check trekking permits, and it would be appropriate to give the policemen this new task. More awareness of the altitude sickness among the trekking staff would also help.
– Dr. Buddha Basnet
Himalaya Rescue Association
ICIMOD Gets New Head
Is ICIMOD about to wake up from its years of sleep? The international center that was supposed to break ground in Himalayan research and development, is almost ten, and a grand beginning comes with the selection last month of the new Director. He is Robert Rhoades, an anthropologist who comes to the job with a research back¬ground, while Tacke arrived from an administrator´s desk in the Asian Development Bank.
Rhoades has done research in the International Potato Center in Peru, and has knowledge of the Andes as well as the forest communities of South East Asia. He is presently-Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of GeoTgia in Athens, Georgia in the US.
The benefit of doubt goes to Rhoades, but he will not be joining till March 1994. Tacke, meanwhile, has been extended till then.
Dalai Lama´s Brother in Beijing
Adelegation from the Dharamsala exile government consisting of Gyalo Thondup, senior member of the Kashag (the exile government´s Cabinet) who is the Dalai Lama´s elder brother, and Sonam Topgyal, Secretary to the Kashag, flew to Beijing on 12 July. One Indian news agency quoted Professor Samdhong Rimpoche, Chairman of the Tibetan Assembly of Deputies, as saying that the delegation represented the Dalai Lama. This would make it the first official initiative between Beijing and Dharamsala for over ten years.
The delegation carried a note from the Dalai Lama to the Beijing Government, apparently denying that he was "putting hurdles" in the way of a meaningful dialogue. Meanwhile according to news reports, spokesmen for Beijing are said to have denied that the visit even took place. Gyalo Thondup, a controversial figure among Tibetan exiles, has several times visited Beijing in his private capacity. He has long been advocating talks with Beijing, believing total independence to be an unrealistic goal. Such statements have made him the butt of criticism from pro-independence hardliners including his two other brothers, Thubten Jigme Norbu and Tenzin Choegyal. Last year, Norbu resigned from his position as the Dalai Lama´s emissary to Tokyo, in protest against Thondup´s initiatives.
Sources in the exile government claimed that the delegation was part of a "longstanding" dialogue betw-
een Dharamsala and Beijing, which goes back to the 1970s, and that the visit did not imply the acceptance of any precondi-tions. The latter is in reference to Beijing´s obsession that Dharamsala give up demanding
independence so that "constructive discussions can take place.
China-watchers believe that the delegation might have been accepted by Beijing in response to the hardening Western stance on Tibet, which includes for the first time the imposition of conditions to China´s most¬favoured-nation status by the United States. These experts also believe that the real focus of the delegation was to try and influence Deng Xiao Peng. After the death of the ailing supremo, China will be plunged into political turmoil and all prospect of Tibet parleys will recede into the heavenly realms, until China sorts outs its own problems.
There is a faction among "Free Tibet" advisors, however, who believe that such turmoil within China would actually be good, since anarchy offers Tibet its best chance of freedom. While hard-headed Tibet watchers scoff at the possibility of either prospect being realised in the near future, Dharamsala is apparently following a middle path by keeping all its options open. Hence, Gyalo Thondup´s sojourn to Beijing.
The world´s dirtiest mountains are not Nepal´s himals, in case you thought so after reading endless wirecopy out of Kathmandu. The Alps have the dubious distinction, particularly due to the filthy surroundings of Alpine refuges, which are huts used by climbers and hikers to bed down for the night. The pile of excreta and trash that are to be found next to these refuges do vie with legitimate mountains for height.
A recent conference on "Alpine Refuges in the Year Two Thousand", held recently in Trieste (Italy), provided occasion for handwringing. Said one participant, "The refuges today dot the valleys and passes, and even some peaks in the Alps risk losing their original appearance forever."
Participants from the Alpine Clubs of Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany and Slovenia said they were committed to prevent "alpine tourism from becoming the tourism of waste". They signed a document proposing a new basis for running the refuges, promoting alternative energy sources, less use of tins and packets, and carry-out policies for trash. On the whole, the refuges are to be more "spartan".
There were 16 thousand trekkers in the Khumbu in 1992. And 40 million tourists visited the European Alps. Understanding scale helps in developing strategy.
Tourism? Let Them See Rice
This picture of rice terraces docs not come from the outskirts of Kathmandu Valley. It is from Banaue, a region upcountry from the Filipino capital of Manila.
Banaue has been milking tourist for decades by showing them rice growing on ledges and calling them the "eighth wonder of the world". Tourists will look at everything, of course, as long they are told it is a must-see. Filipino tour operators know that the trick is to package the product properly.
And the way to package rice terraces is to sell their emerald green, the age-old, handed-down-through-history maintenance techniques, and so on. It helps to have an airconditionned revolving restaurant at a lookout point, of course.
In Nepal, at a time when tourists are beginning to bypass Kathmandu Valley shrines because of all the dust and dirt, travel agencies are beginning to feel the need for more "destinations". They have missed the terraces completely. It is a niche market, and Banaue has proventhat it is works.
Not only in Nepal, tourism officials and operators all across the Eastern Himalaya, including those in Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal, should join to develop "Paddy Packages". The added attraction is that these packages would sell in the lean period.
If properly marketed, the numerous amphitheatres of paddy terraces on the road from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel, or the wide, green valley below Sankhu, will soon be considered tourist heaven. Outside of Kathmandu valley, there are valleys that could even be promoted for "Paddy Treks".
Take, for example, the valley of Bardibas Phant, above the roadhead of Damauli in Tanahun district. The wide terrace contours come closer together towards the head of the valley. Parbate bastis lead to the Newar cluster of Syamgha. Crops change from rice to wheat and kodo, and the hamlets become Gurung, but it is trraces all the way. And from the ridgetop, you see the wide expanse of lamjung.
Touristically, Banaue´s one-shot wonder is left far behind.
But one can leam from Banaue nevertheless. Tourism operators and environmentalists are voicing concern over the vanishing charms of Banaue. Urbanisation, migration and a shift away from paddy agriculture have left the landscape blighted. The mountainsides of terraces are no longer well-kept, and shimmering GI- sheet roofing reflect back the sun at the various viewing spots.
Taking that as a cue, one might surmise that paddy tourism is all set to die in Kathmandu Valley before it has even begun. Brick and concrete matchboxes that are sprouting in all corners, not only covering previous agricultural land but killing tourism potential.
The spectacular valley below Sankhu is at its prettiest at this time, with its newly transplanted rice. But already, at the head of the valley where the road comes up from Gokama, a new brick and concrete "shutter" blocks the view.