Communities in Nepal Expand to Risk Areas, Despite Hazards

Nepal is in the top 10 percent of countries in the world in terms of the frequency and severity of disasters. A recently published study in the journal Land has found that more than a quarter of the new houses in Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal, are being built in highly dangerous areas susceptible to multiple natural hazards, including glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and avalanches.

Location map of the study area (Source: Land).

The study lists a number of challenges for this rapidly-growing city, located in a region with a number of geological hazards. Most of the newly settled areas are located in agricultural areas. These are attractive to prospective residents, because they are flat and have owners who permit construction. However, these locations place new houses at great risk. The researchers indicate that this growth will continue until at least 2035.

Time-series Landsat images helped the researchers to explore the changes in land use and urbanization of the Pokhara from 1988 to 2016. The images were verified using extensive field visits to ensure accuracy. They served as a basis for projections into 2025 and 2035.

GLOFs are a major threat in Nepal, where 15 percent of the country is covered by the Himalayan mountains. This holds true for the Kaski District, where Pokhara is located. With rapid melting due to rising temperatures, glacier lakes are forming and increasing the level of risk seen in the surrounding areas.

The Annapurna and Machapuchare mountains in Pokhara, Nepal (Source: Marina & Enrique/Flickr).

Two of the most prominent issues in dealing with hazards such as this in Pokhara are uncertainty and perception. According to a report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), “The probability of a lake outburst cannot be predicted with any reasonable level of certainty.” In addition, the views of the people at greatest risk are often more strongly influenced by, often inaccurate, media accounts than by scientific assessments.

Tony Oliver-Smith, a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Florida, told GlacierHub about his work in hazard perception and resettling. “Some people may be generally aware of the risks, but the need for housing is so great that it may override such concerns,” he said. This kind of drive is typical for areas like this one that are undergoing rapid urbanization, often in unplanned environments. “Many people prefer to take their chances with hazards rather than government schemes to relocate them in more secure zones,” continued Oliver-Smith.

The city of Pokhara, Nepal (Source: Matt Zimmerman/Flickr).

Further, cities like Pokhara often lack relevant legislation and regulatory capacity, appropriate agencies, and personnel both in qualifications and number, to enforce land use restrictions regarding housing location and safety, according to Oliver-Smith. A practical application of the study’s findings, he said, would be to develop appropriate legislation and funding to improve land use regulatory capacity, increase awareness of risk in vulnerable and exposed communities, and develop appropriate legislation and capacities in resettlement practice.

Natural hazards are on the rise globally, and with more people moving to more susceptible areas, the losses in human life and property are likely to increase. “As you put more and more people in harm’s way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event,” Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Live Science. To make matters more difficult, the study emphasizes that “developing countries with low-income and lower-middle economies experience greater loss and damage due to hazards.”

The researchers hope that their results “will assist future researchers and planners in developing sustainable expansion policies that may ensure disaster-resilient sustainable urban development of the study area.”

The study ultimately illuminates the common risk of hazards that people all over the world face. Luxury apartments being built along coastlines in flood-prone cities threatened by sea level rise continue to be built, similar to the continued urbanization in Pokhara. It’s a common situation, and finding solutions requires place-based, locally-specific information and research.