Oxfam in Nepal and ICIMOD joins hands with communities to manage flood risks in Nepal

Friday, March 20, 2020

Globally, the climate crisis has shown increased variability in the water cycle. This has resulted in extreme and erratic weather, threatening the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable communities, and threatening sustainable development and biodiversity.

If recent assessments of the global climate scenario are any indication, then along with rising temperatures, other climate driven disasters are to be seriously considered. An assessment of the climate carried out by the UN in 2019 shows that floods have also had a significant impact on loss of life and property. The annual statement of World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on the State of the Global Climate for 2019, noted that, “Over 2200 lives were reported to have been lost in various flooding episodes in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar during the season.”

A number of studies (Mirza and Dixit, 1997, Shrestha et al., 1999, IPCC reports, 2007, 2011) including the 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Assessment Report have indicated an increase in severity of climate change impacts in a number of countries in the HKH including Nepal. Changes in this regard can already be felt in the region’s rivers, in its water quality and its availability which will have a profound impact on associated sectors like infrastructure, ecosystem, agriculture, human health, and energy production.

Women, men and other vulnerable stakeholders living in the river basins of the HKH stand to be impacted the most. Due to socio-cultural norms, such impacts on women and men are different (IPCC, 2007) due to asymmetrical power relations which also influence unequal access, control and ownership of resources such as land, property, livestock, labour, and development resources (FAO, 2011). The result of extreme events such as drought, floods and other climate related disasters has added additional risk to women and forced them to bear the disproportional brunt of disasters. Countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh have particularly high proportions of women in the agricultural sector, with approximately 60% of the women work force engaged in agriculture, to produce mainly rice and poultry (FAO, 2010a).

Under the five-year multi-country[1] project, Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA), Oxfam in Nepal and ICIMOD have been working to understand the dynamics that affect vulnerable river basin communities. TROSA has centered its water and river basin work on the rights of remote rural communities, many of them indigenous or ethnic minority peoples. The target communities being those with strong connection and reliance on rivers and their floodplains and watersheds for their livelihoods. This work principally focuses on supporting rural river communities to remain connected to, and in control of, their lands, waters and resources. The work area has focused on the districts of Kanchanpur, Dadeldhura, Baitadi and Darchula in the Sudurpaschim province.

The study conducted by Oxfam in Nepal with technical support from Practical Action Consulting to understand the feasibility of Early Warning System in Mahakali basin showed that people living in tributaries are more vulnerable to recurrent disasters. Disasters like floods which are triggered by climate change have more impact on riverine communities, especially women living in the tributaries of Mahakali river.

The Government of Nepal has prioritised the Mahakali river for preparedness against disaster like floods by investing in Early Warning Systems. Recent federalisation in Nepal, has also led to the decentralisation of power to local governments for the management of tributaries, delegating major aspects of disaster risk reduction to local governments.

Among the eight major tributaries of the Mahakali river, the Rangoon has been chosen as the project area to install a Community Based Early Flood Warning System (CBFEWS). This was done as a result of a feasibility study and technical support carried out by ICIMOD with its partner Sustainable Eco Engineering in consultation with Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), and the Parashuram Municipality. ICIMOD has previously worked in other riverine communities and piloted the CBFEWS in order to provide early warning. Its interventions in Assam, led to it winning the 2014 UN Lighthouse Award which it shared with Aaranyak. ICIMOD’s continued involvement has led to CBFEWS being installed in other river basins in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

A local partner of Oxfam, the Rural Women’s Development and Unity Center (RUWDUC) has also extended support in site survey and assessment. The feasibility study of the EWS in Mahakali basin has revealed that there remains a huge gap of institutional capacity in local governments. It also shows that women have limited control over resources making them susceptible to disasters and other climate hazards

An intervention like the CBFEWS needs sustained support from the community, so that it can continue to function in all conditions. For this, flood affected stakeholders, especially women need to have ownership in the dialogue and decision-making process. “As the climate changes, river systems change too. The threat of floods is significantly increasing across the HKH, and preparedness is becoming critical. ICIMOD's experience with the Community Based Flood Early Warning Systems has shown that community lies at the heart of preparedness, and with communities’ women have a crucial role. Without including women into these interventions, these interventions would not be sustainable.”, says David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD.

The establishment of Women Empowerment Centres (WEC) by Oxfam, has been to support women leadership in decision making process, policy dialogues around transboundary water governance through regular meetings and advocacy. In previous interactions, women in the empowerment centres have discussed about their rights and responsibilities for disaster preparedness. Women also lobbied with local governments to develop early warning system in Rangoon. “Oxfam keeps women at the heart of everything we do. We are committed to ensuring women’s rights on riverine resources and amplifying women’s profile and their influence in dialogues and decision making on water management”, says Sarah Blin, Country Director, Oxfam in Nepal.

Early warning information received by women has also helped them to be better prepared from floods while crossing the Rangoon tributary for daily livelihood activities. This joint initiative of Oxfam in Nepal and ICIMOD has found that better preparedness by communities goes a long way in minimising damages and saving lives of riverine communities especially women during a July 2018 flood.


[1] TROSA project is being implemented in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar from 2017-2021.