Where the river brings life, it can also bring death


June 18, 2011

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    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Far West Nepal's Mohana River. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

Krishna Bahadur Giri is standing thigh-deep in the swollen Mohana River, studying the best place to cross. The road we were going to use is washed out; Plan B is to turn our Jeep into an amphibious vehicle.

Krishna, our driver, is a can-do fellow. He’s been hauling fallen trees off the road and shoving aside oxcarts each time our way is blocked. But this river has him scratching his head. We watch his deliberations, not wanting to encourage any cowboy bravado but trusting he’ll find a way. Finally he jumps back in the Jeep and guns it. The Jeep lurches forward. We float a moment, then plunge even deeper down a short, unseen drop-off in the river bed. My heart skips a beat.

At last the wheels catch, the engine strains, and we claw our way to the opposite shore. We are here to visit communities where life — and the risk of death — are bound up with the river.

This is “disaster risk reduction,” or DRR, up close in Kailali District, Far West Nepal. Our guide is Shreelal Pokharel, Mercy Corps’ DRR Officer in this area.

“With climate change, we’re getting more droughts and fires during the dry season, and more floods and landslides during the monsoon season,” Shreelal explains. Each event puts people, livestock, crops and property in jeopardy.

With support from European funders ECHO, Mercy Corps is helping communities draw up their own plans to reduce the risks and mitigate the losses. We show them a wide variety of tools and techniques, then they put into practice the ones that best meet their needs.

With Mercy Corps’ training and support, Shreelal tells us, the communities of Kailali are installing gauges and taking daily measurements of water levels. They’re developing early warning systems, setting up hand-cranked sirens, establishing safe points on high ground. They’re building boats, training their own search and rescue teams, learning first aid. They’re constructing embankments and bamboo jetties that help contain the force of the river and lessen erosion during monsoon season.

“This grass is called moorje,” says Shreelal, pointing to the sharp spears. “The people are starting their own nurseries to grow it, then they plant it on top of the embankment. It stabilizes the soil — and it’s also used to make rope.”

Villagers in this area are even putting on street dramas to teach their neighbors what they’ve learned about saving life and property. For all these projects, Mercy Corps provides training, support and construction materials, while local people supply volunteer labor (this is not a cash-for-work project).

In each village, we help communities study the lay of the land and decide what’s needed: here a culvert to drain water, there an elevated roadway or water point so people don’t lose access to safe drinking water during a flood. “We often will go with one village’s DPC [disaster preparedness committee] to visit another village and see what measures they are taking,” says Shreelal. In this way, people learn from one another and spread the best ideas.

Shreelal points to the bamboo spur that juts into the Mohana. “Without that bamboo,” he says, “the last flood would have reached all the way up to these houses.” Standing on the embankment, it’s clear what that would have meant — the residents would have lost their crops, their homes and perhaps their lives.

Mercy Corps is bringing DRR to Kailali’s schools, too. Stay tuned for a post on the community service-minded students we met.