Sheltered by the world’s highest mountains, Kagbeni in Mustang district faces significant climatic challenges
Villagers in Kagbeni in Nepal's Mustang district are still battling with the aftermath of heavy rains, a flash flood and landslides that wreaked havoc in the Himalayan region on Aug. 13. (Photo supplied)
It was close to seven in the evening on Sunday, Aug. 13. The weather was cloudy and it was still drizzling in Kagbeni. A heavy spell of rain had lashed the picturesque high mountain village in the trans-Himalayan Mustang district of Nepal the previous night.
Students from the local Kag Chode Monastic School (KCMS) located on the banks of the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Jhong rivers were finishing their meals when they began to hear "unusual" sounds — a faint rumble along with the whoosh of rushing water of the Kag River that flows close to its premises.
“It was already dark and drizzling outside. After finishing dinner, the students were told to vacate the dining room to nearby safer locations as soon as possible,” recalled Karchung Tashi Lama, a 25-year-old student at the school.
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There were warnings via phone calls from upstream communities. Heavy rains had caused water levels to rise in the rivers, Lama said.
The monsoon spell hit the country in the initial days of the second week of August. The high-altitude villages including Kagbeni were getting moderate to heavy rains since the afternoon of Aug. 12.
On Aug. 13, the constant heavy rains upstream triggered a flash flood and landslides that led to huge volumes of mud and sand flowing into the Kag causing it to burst its banks between 7:30-8 p.m.
"Ground structures of the monastery including the students sleeping quarters and playground were destroyed"
Kagbeni, a famous religious and tourist destination for both Buddhists and Hindus, located more than 2,800 meters above sea level, bore the brunt of it all.
According to the preliminary assessment carried out by the Mustang district administration, a total of 29 houses were completely destroyed and 13 were partially damaged. A concrete bridge joining the Himalayas to the China border, along with three wooden bridges and one suspension bridge was washed away.
The flash flood also washed away several government offices including that of the police, besides temples and a pilgrimage house. It damaged the nearly 600-year-old Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery where nearly 130 Buddhist monks and students including Lama lived.
The ground structures of the monastery including the students sleeping quarters and playground were destroyed. Many classrooms are filled up with debris, according to Lama.
“The timely warnings helped us to save our lives but the infrastructural damage is huge,” said Prem Dhungana, principal of the Jana Shanti Secondary School which has 190 students.
Dhungana said there would have been a huge loss of lives had the disaster occurred at night.
The rainfall monitoring stations in Jomsom and Chhoser, situated in higher altitudes than Kagbeni, measured 25.4 mm and 20.1 mm of rainfall respectively in the 24-hour interval on Aug. 13.
This is huge considering the monthly rainfall average in Mustang district for the whole of August is 43.9 mm.
The mountain villages have no scientific warning systems to alert them to an impending disaster. It was the concerned relatives of the Kagbeni residents living in upstream villages like Jhang, Jharkot, Thingkar, and Muktinath who acted as one.
“Every time we receive a phone call from our relatives living upstream, we go out to check the water level in the Kag River,” said Laxmi Gurung, 48, owner of Yac Donalds, a trekkers’ lodge in Kagbeni.
"Everyone thought it is dangerous to stay in the village and decided to move to higher locations"
On that fateful Sunday too, the residents were on watch, checking the river level every couple of hours.
“It’s normal during the monsoon for the water level of rivers and streams to rise. So at first we didn’t worry much but kept monitoring,” she said.
Around 7.15 p.m., they got a call saying the water flow had been blocked due to a landslide and it was spilling over.
“It was then that everyone thought it is dangerous to stay in the village and decided to move to higher locations,” Gurung said.
Everyone from the 100 households of Kagbeni trekked for 15-20 minutes to reach the nearest safer locations. “More than half of them took shelter inside a mountain cave,” she added.
Nestled in the heart of the world’s highest mountains, Mustang district bordering China was once known as a "rain shadow area" for receiving very little rain. The surrounding cliffs rising up to 24,000 feet (7,315 meters) blocked much of the rain-bearing clouds.
The upper Mustang region was restricted to foreign tourists until 1991 when the Nepal government decided to open all of the country for tourism.
Villagers in Mustang say they have been experiencing an increase in the frequency and intensity of rainfall in recent decades. The nearby villages, namely Lete, Jhong, Tirigaun and Jomsom, too have experienced extreme rainfall causing loss of life and property.
The five-year data for 2018-2022 from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology [DHM] confirms both average annual rainfall and average monsoon rainfall have increased significantly in Mustang.
“This is resulting in extreme rainfall conditions,” said Sudarshan Humagain, a meteorologist with the DHM.
"Mud houses are being easily washed away in heavy rains causing both human and livelihood losses"
Gurung said the melting of glaciers accompanied by summer rains has led to a rise in water levels of rivers.
“It did not cause disastrous situations in the past. But in recent years, rainfall events have become more intense, unpredictable and frequently cause flash floods and landslides,” she added.
The majority of houses here are built using locally available materials like mud, stones and wood and lasted for years as there was very little precipitation. “They keep us warm in winter and cool in summer. In the absence of heavy rains, these houses lasted for years,” Gurung said.
Nowadays, these same mud houses are being easily washed away in heavy rains causing both human and livelihood losses, especially during the occurrence of concentrated heavy spells for less than an hour.
Likewise, continuous rains stretching 24 hours or more have been observed in recent years, which was not common in Mustang earlier, she said.
The summers too are getting warmer and the cold days are shifting as there is very less snow recorded in winter months.
“The winter last year was dry and warm as there was no snowfall in December-January. Instead, we experienced cold in the summer months of March-April,” Gurung said.
The variations in rainfall and snow patterns have adversely impacted the livelihoods of the mountain communities who are dependent on agriculture and tourism for a living.
Various scientific studies of the Himalayas have concluded that the occurrence of droughts or erratic monsoons and shifting winters is the result of a warming atmosphere.
According to watershed expert, Madhukar Upadhyay, “localized, intense rains in the high altitude are the reason behind the devastating flooding event in Kagbeni, Mustang.”
"We now know that it is going to get more intense and damaging in the coming years"
The destruction became acute because of the ecological fragility coupled with excessive and unscientific infrastructural development in the region such as roads, he added.
“Not only in Mustang but what is being witnessed in many mountainous districts is partly the result of development work that fails to consider the fragility of the region while building houses, roads, or encroachments on the rivers,” Upadhyay said.
Intense weather events are unfolding across the Himalayan region.
Last month, devastating floods and landslides severely battered the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in northern India.
“We should start learning from the unfolding disaster events. We now know that it is going to get more intense and damaging in the coming years and Nepal could be the next Uttarakhand,” Upadhyay said.
He suggested rethinking development in the light of climate change “should be a priority” now across the Himalayan stretches.
Villagers in Kagbeni are still battling with the aftermath of the flash flood that wreaked havoc in the area five days ago. The removal of debris consisting of overwhelming amounts of sand, stones, slush, and other concrete building remains, that have filled the houses, offices, schools and monasteries is going to take days.
“We are living in the darkest of days. Schools are closed and uncertainties loom large as the locals of Kagbeni continue their struggle,” said Lama.
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