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Landslides, Terror, and Resilience in the Himalayas

Published onOct 26, 2023
Landslides, Terror, and Resilience in the Himalayas

Landslides and mudslides, hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves are occurring more frequently across the globe, with greater ferocity, and doing more damage to human lives and livelihoods. Scientific research has firmly established that the increased frequency of such extreme weather events is a consequence of anthropogenic climate change, and the pace feels relentless.1 Even in the first few months of 2023 alone, record-breaking storms triggering devastating landslides and mudslides occurred in the western United States, India, Brazil, China, South Korea, Peru, New Zealand, southeast Africa, and Italy, to name just a few. Their impact on humans ranged from fatalities and injuries to property and infrastructure damage, homelessness, and long-term displacement. These disasters also have profound emotional and psychological consequences on human lives.2 The visual spectacle of extreme-weather anomalies, and the staggering physical destruction they cause, masks an undercurrent of terror, uncertainty, and anxiety experienced by people who live under such unrelenting threat—trauma which can mark them for life.

As dangerous as all extreme weather events are, each has unique characteristics, posing different risks and providing different horizons for warning and reaction. Hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, and tornadoes foreshadow their occurrences ahead of time, allowing at least the possibility of preparation, evacuation, or sheltering in place, but earthquakes, landslides, and mudslides occur seemingly without warning, taking lives and homes indiscriminately in minutes—an unpredictable and thus ever-present terror.

Landslides occur on slopes, both gentle and steep, after heavy rainfall has saturated the soil over the course of days and weeks. Aided by gravity, soil slides down the slope with a force that can pull down buildings, mature trees, and vegetation in seconds or minutes, killing and maiming everything along its path until it comes to rest upon flatter plains at the bottom of the hills. This downhill accumulation of earth can cause a second level of devastation, burying homes, fields, and roadways. Clearing and removing these pileups is costly and time-consuming, blighting the surrounding area for years to come.

Advances in meteorological research, aided by technologies, policies, and protocols, have led to the creation of alert and warning systems that have saved lives and protected property; of course, these have been particularly effective in mitigating damage caused by the kinds of extreme events that foreshadow their arrival. On one hand, coastal countries and regions such as Japan, Bangladesh, and the U.S. state of Florida have become more effective in establishing systems for warning and evacuation before the arrival of cyclones, hurricanes, and extreme storms, thereby saving countless lives. On the other hand, earthquakes and landslides are more unpredictable, and less thoroughly understood, so it is more difficult to develop systems and technologies to reliably detect their occurrence in time to implement protective measures. Even wealthy countries such as Japan, which is plagued by earthquakes, have struggled to predict them. So, it’s not surprising that scientific and technological advances, accompanied by appropriate protocols, are not in place to help save lives in vulnerable regions which are historically under-resourced.

This is the case in the earthquake-prone Himalayan region, where I was raised, where my ancestors lived, and where many of my loved ones still reside. In this region, whose name means abode of the snow in Sanskrit, the vicissitudes of Mother Nature can be both glorious and terrifying. Because of patterns of building and development, as well as escalating climate chaos, the impacts of cyclones, landslides, and floods are more acute than ever. And when these disasters coincide with the region’s most prominent cyclical weather pattern—the monsoon—the effects are amplified multifold. The scale of solutions needed to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events in the Himalayas is daunting, and would require considerable resources, political priority, and scientific and technological expertise—all of which are sadly lacking in the region.

Water is life but water also destroys; it is a blessing and a curse. This duality is especially dramatic in the Himalayas with the regular occurrence of the monsoon, a global seasonal phenomenon that brings life-giving waters to this region of billions. The extreme climate events that destroy lives and property are closely tied to the nearly ceaseless precipitation carried by the South Asian Monsoon, which makes the Himalayan foothills the world’s wettest region.

The South Asian Monsoon is the result of complex geophysical processes. Differential air pressure builds up over the Asian landmass during the hot summer prior to the monsoon, which typically falls between June and September. Powered by global wind belts, rain clouds travel across the Indian Ocean, picking up speed and moisture over the Bay of Bengal, where they are pulled north by the low-pressure zone of the hot, dry landmass of the Asian continent. As the heavy rain clouds reach the towering heights of the Himalayas, they are unable to ascend, literally stopped by the mountains, and unleash enormous quantities of rain along the eastern and northeastern belt of India, drenching Nepal and Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The fury of the monsoon is a sight to behold. The town of Cherrapunji in northeast India records more than 12,000 millimeters (472 inches) of rainfall between April and September, among the most in the world. This incredible summer rainfall occurs on heavily populated hill slopes or foothills. “Hills” is a relative term; in this mountainous part of the world, the elevation on populated Himalayan foothills ranges from 300 to 2800 meters (approximately 1000 to 9000 feet), on slopes often angled between 20 to 40 degrees. In the United States or Western Europe, many of these “hills” would be considered too steep for habitation.

The Himalayan range spans almost 3000 kilometers (1800 miles), bookended by Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west and Nepal, India, and Myanmar to the east, sandwiched between China and India along its northern and southern borders, respectively. The Himalayas are the youngest of the world’s major mountain systems; they were formed by the collision of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates some 50 million years ago. These plates are still pushing against one another, slowly increasing the height of some of the world’s tallest peaks—Mount Everest gains about a third of an inch in elevation each year. Consequently, the region is home to fragile landscapes that are subject to earthquakes and geological movements. It might be ideal if nothing were built on these changeable slopes, but many people call the Himalayan foothills home, and the region has been inhabited by human communities for untold thousands of years.

The Himalayas are a fold mountain system; their geological development has created manifold valleys, hills, and plains that span hundreds of miles, where people have learned to settled down. The history of human settlements in the Himalayas underscores the resiliency of diverse groups of people from time immemorial, trying to make a living at high elevations and amidst a harsh climate: the Tibetan civilization, built on the world’s highest plateau, dates back up to 12,600 years.3 Since agriculture and livestock farming have long been the preeminent source of livelihoods, climate and weather have always played a formative role in how people manage to survive and thrive in these harsh landscapes. The monsoon, in particular, has shaped the agriculture patterns, modes of living, and architecture of settlements in the region for millennia. This is evidenced by regional religions and myths—the Hindu god Indra, deity of thunder, rain and storms, is deeply connected with the monsoon, depicted in his life-giving benevolence and divine fury of the rains. Human-induced global warming, however, has increased the intensity and amped up the unpredictability of the monsoon; Indra and his analogues in other regional faiths and folklores appear to be unhappy. While the region has always been subject to mercurial and dramatic weather patterns, the disruptions we are beholding today are unprecedented, with flooding linked to melting glaciers threatening to displace millions and touching off a global climate refugee crisis.4

The Himalayas are a region of superlatives: Earth’s highest mountains, deepest gorges, most precipitation, and among the planet’s richest stores of biodiversity, including human cultures and ethnicities. The region is home to billions of people, and it encompasses some of the most populous countries in the world, including India, China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. The Himalayan Mountain region has given rise to some of the world’s largest river systems—the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Hwang Ho, and Yangtze—and is therefore often referred to as the water tower of the world, holding a significant percentage of the Earth’s invaluable fresh water. It encompasses ancient settlements, including some of the oldest terraced agriculture fields known to archaeologists, painstakingly engineered out of the steep landscape to create arable land; some of the oldest continuous civilizations, dating back some 4,000 years; and the largest modern democracy, in India. It’s home to the some of the biggest mammals—the Bengal tiger and one-horned rhinoceros, the rarest of river dolphins—and some of the smallest amphibians and bird species. It is a botanical paradise and home to astounding varieties of trees and rare orchids not seen anywhere else in the world. The extreme terrain has enabled the isolation and flourishing of unique ethnic groups with their own languages, cuisine, cultures, and spiritual practices, and has given rise to two of the world’s largest religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Religious lore and myths about the rain and the land abound. The multitude of gods and creeds passed down through generations provide guidance and succor for the faithful in dealing with uncertainty and death—a normal outcome when faced with the wrath of the monsoon. If you’re born in this part of the world, indigenous knowledge is peppered with fatalism. How else are you supposed to cope, live, and thrive?

I grew up within 400 miles of Cherrapunji, so this is my childhood story of living in homes built with love, but clinging precariously to the steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills, subject to the onslaught of monsoon rains each year. It is a story of living with low-grade terror and eternal uncertainty that never leaves you, that returns every time there is a heavy downpour, even when you now live in another country that is flat and dry.

I recall being nine years old, the summer days overcast with dark clouds, and, once the evening meal was over, almost every night we would hear the thundering sound of the monsoon rain on the corrugated metal roof of our ancestral home. The cacophony of rainfall was background music that couldn’t be turned off. I would sense the unease in my mother’s voice as she corralled the youngsters of our blended family to settle in for the night, ushering everyone to their beds. Sometimes the lights would stay on, and sometimes power would go out.

“Make sure to sleep light and place the umbrellas near the door.” As the oldest sibling, I would scurry to do my mother’s bidding—never quite sure why she would repeat that every rainy night. But I knew she was nervous, and it spilled over, so I absorbed some of that anxiety.

In the morning, gentle hymns from the radios would resonate across the rooms. More often than not, the morning after a heavy downpour would be interrupted by neighbors coming by to tell my mother that there had been landslides nearby, that homes with families inside had been swept down the hills, that people had died. I would hear them whispering in the kitchen, the angst in their voices evident through the wooden walls of our bedrooms, where I helped the younger children get ready for school.

One morning, leaving for school, I witnessed a “fresh” landslide on a neighboring slope amid the rolling hills surrounding our home. The landslide had stripped the vegetation and scooped out a vast swath of earth, leaving behind mud and devastation. What used to be green grasses and trees was now an open wound. I remember the slushy downward pathway the landslide had carved as it careened down the hill. The sight drew a gasp from me. I thought about how very close it was to our home. What if it happened to us next?

The sounds and sights of the monsoon have been romanticized, even used as meditative music. Monsoon imagery is integral to many novels, movies, and works of poetry.5 As a lived reality, the awe-inspiring spectacle takes on a different meaning. The din of rain on corrugated sheets can be deafening; the continuous reverberation of water pouring down on earth, accentuated by a cloak of low-hanging clouds, dominates my memories of the monsoon. Inside our home during a downpour, we had to shout at one another to make ourselves heard. In the South Asian Monsoon, the rain pours seemingly nonstop, and nothing and no one can remain dry. Laundry on the clothesline can remain soaked for a week. This experience contrasts sharply with the monsoons I have been living with in the southwestern United States where, despite the occasional torrential storm, we see six inches of rain in a lucky year.

The onset of monsoon season, whether I’m in Arizona or in the Himalayas, brings up intense emotions. It has left forever in me a low-grade fear and terror whenever I experience a heavy thunderstorm and rain or hear about a storm brewing from family and friends still living in the foothills. When will the rain let up? Are there signs of slippage occurring in the vicinity? How are homes draining their sewer and water? I instinctively look out for these signs and portents.

Even after almost twenty years living in the arid and flat valley of the Phoenix, Arizona metro area, memories of the monsoon and the potential for landslides on the slopes of our homes haunt my conversations with family back in the Himalayas. We inevitably gravitate toward measures to protect against new landslides, reinforcement, and drainage. In just the past five years, two landslides have occurred within a hundred feet of our home, where my sister and her family still live. The monsoon gets worse every year; it is more unpredictable now. My sister has lamented this changeability every season for five or six years now: we get a deluge over the course of hours, and then nothing for days and weeks on end. We all think it is because of global warming and climate change, she says. We no longer know our monsoons.

Every year I read about infrastructure damaged, towns isolated by mudslides, fatalities, and homes swept away around the globe. So how could this persistent fear ever go away when it’s made ever more urgent, with extreme events made more dangerous by climate change?

On calls with family, I heave a sigh of relief and feel a little guilty when I’m told things are okay. My first remarks in our conversations, especially in the past few years, have ranged from, “was our home okay because our parents had the foresight to build on rocks?” or “is it because are the gods are on our side and they spared us the wrath of the rains?” In these moments, the rational scholar in me disappears—the rains have such a hold on me.

With all of this painful emotion and risk of catastrophic loss, why don’t people stop building on such steep, fragile slopes? The answers are not simple. For many millennia, people have farmed, traded, and built homes on these hillsides. They have loved and thrived and died on these lands. They have grown world-famous Darjeeling teas, Assam teas, and rare orchids, and exotic flowers for export around the world. Hydropower dams harness the rushing rivers on these slopes, enabling Bhutan to become the only carbon-negative country in the world.6 In India, many of the towns and cities in the Himalayan foothills were built as “hill stations,” serving as winter homes for British colonial rulers seeking to escape summer heat on the plains of India, decamping to cooler climes that more closely resembled the weather back home. Schools and summer mansions were built, roads were carved out of the hills, tea plantations were established, and people started to settle down in these areas in greater numbers.7, 8 As urban centers grow, will the danger of extreme weather and ever-more-ferocious rain drive people away? It’s safe to say that won’t happen any time soon. People will continue to live with the landslides; it’s the same as telling people not to live near floodplains and rivers, or on the coastlines of North America, plagued by increased flood risk and rising sea levels. It is easier said than done.

When our mother told us to sleep light, despite her soothing voice, the undercurrent of nervousness reverberated among her children, especially me, even as she tried to hide it from us. We couldn’t help but be aware of the constant threat of landslide. My childhood, though joyous, was laced with the chilling uncertainty of the landslide and the horrors it could bring—the risk of being swept away. We never had a drill or a warning system or a radio alert; these were days before smartphones, and while we had a TV, there were frequent blackouts. Our fate was all in fate’s hands.

Looking back, I’ve realized that during the monsoon I always went to bed alert, and though the sound of rain on the roof could be comforting, it simultaneously ignited a dull fear. What could a landslide could do to us? This vigilance has left a permanent mark. The old fear of Would we be buried? has morphed to Will someone I love become a landslide victim? and Would boulders or the falling roof kill us? has changed to Will someone I know be injured, or worse? That this event would happen in the pitch dark was always something that terrified me, and does so even now. And despite decades of technological change, things are largely the same—twenty-five years later, our conversations are still speckled with anxiety, especially if I happen to call during a downpour. People are still living at the mercy of the rains, and there are no warning or alert systems set up by local or national authorities. Smartphones and computers have made communications easier and faster, but blackouts can happen during storms, and phone service can still be cut off. It’s as if time has stood still, and no measures have been put in place to alleviate fears and anxiety. Local residents continue to proactively take matters into their own hands, and do not wait for authorities. Concrete retaining walls, which support the hillside structurally and ensure the proper drainage of water from fragile slopes, are a ubiquitous sight in the region.

As an academic living in the U.S. for decades now, I have learned to apply a more rational lens to my childhood monsoon memories, and I’ve kept track of research on landslide hazards, though it hasn’t been a central focus of my work. Recently I’ve been paying closer attention, and I’m appalled at the scarcity of research, policies, and concrete plans. Even a cursory exploration of the literature suggests that studies in this area remain few and far between. Articles published as recently as 2020 bemoan the lack of basic meteorological databases—for example, data on precipitation in the Himalayas, essential for creating models to detect potential landslides, remains sparse and spotty. This failure to collect reliable precipitation data represents mind-boggling negligence on the part of state and local governments; landslides in the Himalayan region are usually shallow in nature, with mostly the top level of soil sliding, which means that rainfall is the most common triggering factor.9 Researchers readily admit that forecasting incipient landslides, while key for risk reduction, is acutely challenging. But a significant contributor to these challenges is the lack of robust rainfall and soil-sample datasets to make even preliminary predictions or forecast events in a given region—let alone on a micro-scale, for a specific neighborhood where homes are located.10, 11

Landslide researchers assess risk using protocols that take into account data from landslide mapping, historical analysis of landslide events, categorization of different types of landslides, rainfall threshold measurement, and landslide susceptibility.12 While these protocols are widely used in more densely populated areas in the western Himalayan region, infrastructure for this kind of analysis does not exist in the less populous region where I grew up. These protocols are necessary for pre- and post-hazard landslide analysis, especially for rescue and relief operations. They do not, however, act as warning or alert system prior to the landslide. Remote sensing technologies, high spatial resolution data, and temporal data are beginning to be used to assess landslides, but they are being deployed for larger scales, and do little to temper the risk to life and property, and the attendant emotional turmoil, at the level of a neighborhood or small town. Some efforts involving GIS mapping other imaging techniques are emerging, but these are not widely used in the Himalayas and, again, almost no scientific or research-based knowledge exist at the micro or neighborhood level. For the government to step in, the landslide must have already occurred! And then the only feasible preventative measure is to construct concrete check dams13 to stabilize the land and drain the water safely. Check dams and retaining concrete walls with water outlets remain the only trusted form of infrastructure to alleviate landslide fears, but they don’t eliminate the need for better data, more thorough research, and the establishment of protocols for assessing risk and providing early warnings.

Every time I call to check on my relatives during the monsoon, I find myself asking about landslides, inquiring about whether concrete check dams and other mitigation measures are in place or being funded by the government. My heart sinks when I’m told a portion of the land near our ancestral home has given way, that yet more retaining walls must be put into place. That danger never goes away, and I’ve accepted that it’s etched on my soul. Living abroad for decades has not removed that fear and that terror—it resides in my cells and in my being. Until better measures for detection and analysis are put into place, the impact of the monsoon rains on my family will have to be left “in God’s hands” when the next monsoon downpour drenches my ancestral home. Without fail, the terror of loss of lives and property will reoccur for me, even halfway around the globe in the Sonora Desert.

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