In March 2020, I travelled to the Karnali district in Western Nepal, with a colleague from the University of Edinburgh and partners from Practical Action. Maggie and I have both visited the area several times for our research, which focuses on understanding what governs river mobility and flood hazards in the Indo-Gangetic Plains. The aim of this trip was to meet local communities living on the floodplain of the Karnali River and gain insight into life on the banks of these young, dynamic, Himalayan Rivers.
We could not have imagined such a warm welcome, 30 to 50 women, men, and children, from each village greeted us, eagerly filling up the community flood shelters (which often function as a multipurpose meeting spaces). After a brief introduction of ourselves and the work that we do, we explained that we are fascinated by the dynamic nature of these Himalayan Rivers and would like to learn about what life is like living alongside the Karnali River.
A community flood shelter along the bank of the Karnali River. Flood Shelters are often used as multipurpose spaces; they provide shelter during the monsoon and act as spaces to hold community meetings and events.
We learnt that the Karnali River is essential to village life. However, for some, it holds a deeper value. One older woman told us that “seeing the river makes [her] feel happy and connected”, to which many agreed. However, a younger member of the village quickly interjected to highlight that “the river is also dangerous and needs to be respected”. This resonated with the group and directed the conversation to the issues surrounding village life on a very active floodplain.
In all communities we visited, two major flood events were brought up repeatedly; the floods of 1984 and 2014. In both the Dakshinapur and Bangau communities, the issue of land loss and village displacement caused by bank erosion and/or river switching, is a major concern for the locals. We were asked questions such as “where will the river move next?” and “will the river take more land from our village?” In Bangau, an elderly man used our satellite imagery map of Karnali to show us where the river used to flow; it was located much further to the east than today. The community here are worried that the river will eventually take all their land, leaving them with nothing.
This trip opened our eyes to some of the pressing issues that face communities living alongside the Karnali River. The conversations we had inspired us to think about how we can rephrase our current scientific questions and pose new ones that could help make our research more relevant to the lives of the communities who live with high risk flood hazards. It became clear to us that if we want our research to have impact, it is essential that we engage with local communities to better understand the rapidly changing environments that they live in.
Building Partnerships and the importance of Public Engagement
This short project was in partnership with Practical Action Nepal, an NGO who specialise in building community resilience to natural disasters such as flooding. Alongside the community engagement we also had the opportunity to share our research on river mobility with Practical Action and discuss what the implications may be for their Flood Early Warning Systems in the region. These conversations also inspired new applied research topics which have been funded and are currently being investigated by researchers at the University of Edinburgh.
Community and stakeholder feedback
During the community visits the villages were provided with a platform to voice any concerns and ask questions about their river. Most questions were oriented around the common theme of channel movement and switching as these processes have a direct impact on village life. Many also enjoyed the chance to teach us about the Karnali River and their past experiences of flooding. However, some residents were slightly disheartened that although we have a good idea of when a switching event is likely to occur, knowing where it will happen is still an unknown.
These community interactions highlighted where the gaps in applied research currently are. After our community visits our discussions with Practical Action focused on the village concerns around channel switching and movement. As such our future research in partnership with Practical Action will undoubtedly focus on these unknowns to hopefully help improve flood forecasting and Flood Early Warning Systems in the region.
“It became clear to us that if we want our research to have impact, it is essential that we engage with local communities to better understand the rapidly changing environments that they live in” Laura Quick
Laura Quick is a NERC E3DTP PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Laura uses a combination of ancient geological data and observations from the present-day Himalayan River systems to better understand how extreme events can impact flooding in the Indo-Gangetic Plains.