Update on the aftermath of the Gorkha Earthquake of 25th April in Nepal

May 7, 2015

It is now clear that the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake on the 25th April has moved from search & rescue through to body recovery and care for survivors. In additional there is considerable attention being paid by international agencies on how best to help Nepal without swamping it’s already battered infrastructure and systems. News is gradually emerging of the impact of the quake on rural communities. One that has been hit extremely hard is the small town of Langtang. The earthquake triggered a rock and ice avalanche that swept onto the town, destroying it. It looks like a major bomb has exploded – nothing is left standing and the area has been covered by avalanche debris. The death toll there is thought to be over 200 and may include foreign trekkers as this area of Nepal is very popular with tourists at this time of year.

The earthquake appears to have triggered a belt of landslides across northern central Nepal mostly to the east of the epicentre of the major earthquake. The hydropower project (Upper Tama Koshi HEP at Lamabagar) that was due to fund my visit to the area – I was due to fly out this Saturday – has been damaged and over 200 Chinese construction workers have been stranded there. The only access road from the south has been blocked by a number of landslides. We have had an initial look at Landsat 8 imagery acquired on the 30th April 2015; the scenes available are difficult to analyse because of the level of cloud and snow cover. We are endeavouring to examine these in more detail to be able to identify where the landslides have occurred and what there effects are on the river flows and local communities.

For those interested in reading in more detail about the landslide impacts of this earthquake go to: http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/.

For other satellite imagery of the Langtang situation see: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=85812&src=nha

On a broader scale we are in discussion with The World Bank, with whom we are already engaged to undertake work on Disaster Risk Management in the hydropower sector across the South Asia region, about how best to help Nepal and its damaged hydropower facilities. Even before the quake, there was about 16.5 hrs per day of load-shedding in Kathmandu due to insufficient domestic energy supplies. The earthquake has now made this worse not just in the city but across the central part of Nepal. For a graphic set of images that illustrate the effects on power see: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=85816&src=nha

Many hydropower facilities have experienced damage. There is now a major effort to inspect all such facilities in order to effect urgent repairs. What also concerns us is whether there has been any impact on the glacial lakes upstream of many hydropower facilities that might be further affected once the monsoon strikes in a few weeks’ time. Historically, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) tend to occur during the monsoon. Although earthquakes, even large ones, tend not to trigger GLOFs, according to the research we have undertaken, this quake may have loosened mountain flanks that can then be triggered by monsoon rains to form landslides that collapse into glacial lakes to trigger a GLOF.

ICIMOD in Kathmandu have repeatedly claimed since 2001 that there are many (~40) “potentially dangerous” glacial lakes in Nepal; however, our own independent research over the last 20 years refutes this. Their assessment is flawed as they have never defined the criteria by which such lakes have been selected and the actual number of objectively-defined hazardous glacial lakes is far fewer. Nonetheless, it is necessary to review the situation after the latest earthquake. This has also highlighted the fact that Nepal has no national policy for managing glacial hazards even though this is something that I have been highlighting over the last two decades. Fortunately, we are now in discussions with The World Bank to see how we might assist the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology in building its own capacity to assess and monitor glacial lakes as part of a broader institutional capacity building in Disaster Risk Management.

The situation in Nepal is going to take a long time to clarify and ameliorate. RIL is well placed to assist and we will be proactive in finding ways to contribute to this beautiful but dreadfully poor country.

Some of the damage in Kathmandu Valley caused by the devastating earthquake which rocked Nepal. Photo: UNDP Nepal/Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi.