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Preparing for the Next Flood on the India-Nepal Border

What I remember most about the area on the border between India and Nepal was the heat – perhaps not surprising in the middle of summer, right before the onset of the monsoon rains bring a bit of relief from the sizzle of summer in South Asia.  But it was more than just the kind of humidity that makes your clothes stick and your sunscreen slick.  It was the heat that radiated off the rocks we walked along, these rocks that in just a few more weeks, would be covered by water, coming so fast and so high that you wouldn’t be able to see the rocks at all.

We were walking over a river bed, in essence – with a thinner river of water to the left, and a tall barrier wall on the right.  The local staff explained that for now, it was the quickest way to approach the community that we were working with – this tiny spot along the border, where one village in Nepal is surrounded on three sides by water, and one side by India.  In the dry season, most people wade through part of the river or take a small boat, and then walk over those rocks to get to the wall, where they can then flag down a passing motorbike or bus to get to the nearest village.  I doubt they’re as fortunate as I was to have good shoes, as there’s a current to the river and those rocks are hot.

Exploring a new model of cross-border programming

I was one of the first visitors from LWR to this new project area, over three years ago.  We were exploring a new concept of cross-border programming, to try and reduce the vulnerability of these villages along the river to recurring flooding.  The more we studied the pace and path of the floods during the monsoon season, the more convinced we became that existing notification plans and structures between the national governments of Nepal and India were not as effective as they could be, and in fact, oftentimes lagged behind the rushing waters of the floods.  While we continued to engage with the government and support their efforts at early warning systems, rainwater monitoring and flood gauges, we also began working with local partners in both Nepal and India to bring together communities across the border, to establish their own systems of notification and communication.

Testing of the flooding Early Warning System.

In a flood, every minute counts.  Reducing the notification delay from 48 to 24 hours means families have more time to relocate livestock, pack vital items from their homes, and ensure that everyone evacuates with enough time to reach higher ground.  We were able to achieve this 50 percent reduction over the course of our project, and combined it with trainings on search and rescue, first aid and preparedness.  Communities established phone trees upstream and downstream, many of whom were meeting their neighboring villages for the first time.

Collaborating across the border

Working across the border was a novel concept as well.  One of the border guards from Nepal commented to me during my visit that prior to our project, he had never met his Indian counterparts, and only observed their movements from his duty station.  As a former student in conflict resolution, I was fascinated to hear his stories of this positive, yet unintentional side effect to our work. Not only were communities collaborating together across the border, but now so were those charged with defending their country’s national interest.  They helped facilitate cross-border meetings and movement of villagers and local staff to ensure clear communication and facilitation of flood drills.

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LWR’s first year of programming proved our concept that cross-border flood prevention could work, but it was still at a rather small scale.  It also only addressed one piece of the puzzle for these communities.  We helped them prepare for the floods, but we hadn’t yet addressed what they do afterwards, and how we could ensure they would be stronger the next time around.  In the ensuing year we sought to better tackle those additional pieces, looking at household savings for emergencies, adaptations necessary to sustain livelihoods and insurance programs to prepare for the worst.  We partnered with Yale University to try and assess a “score” at the community level to help benchmark whether they were gaining ground or not with each successive monsoon period.  We have some early indicators of success, but there is still much work to be done before we can be truly confident these communities have adapted to the risks they are exposed to due to floods.

The next step

Just recently, through the support of the Global Resilience Partnership and the Z Zurich Foundation, we’ve received new funding to expand our work as one of 12 winners of the Water Window  Challenge.  In this next phase of programming, we will reach more than 70,000 people in 178 villages in India and Nepal.  While continuing to build on the successes to date, we’ve expanded the scope of the project to include more dialogue and regional sharing about our transboundary approach, involving the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center to look at how we integrate what works best in our programs into national plans and regional forums.  Our hope is that other communities, local and national governments can learn from our model and customize it for their needs, to expand the reach and improve the lives and future of many living on the edge of riverbeds, susceptible to floods.

LWR partner staff checks meter gauge to determine flood water level at Saptari district, Nepal