Flash Flood and Landslides Strike Kagbeni in Nepal's Mustang District

The Buddhist Channel, 2 September 2023

Mustang, Nepal - Nestled in the shadows of the world's highest mountains, the remote village of Kagbeni, located in Nepal's Mustang district, recently faced a daunting climatic ordeal that left its residents grappling with the aftermath of a catastrophic flash flood and landslides.

16 days after the flood, the cleaning work at Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling is still in progress. Photo credit: Khenpo Tenzin Sangpo

On Sunday, August 13th, around 7:00 PM, amidst cloudy skies and persistent drizzle, Kagbeni bore witness to the devastating consequences of heavy rains that had battered the region the previous night.

Students from the Kag Chode Monastic School (KCMS), situated near the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Jhong rivers, were in the midst of their evening meals when they noticed unusual sounds—a faint rumble coupled with the rush of water from the nearby Kag River. Acting swiftly, they evacuated the dining room as warnings from upstream communities regarding rising river levels reached them.

Cherished Buddhist sanctuaries that serve as tourist destinations and spiritual pilgrimage sites in the area also face an ominous threat. Among these revered monastic treasures stands Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling (KCTSL), a place of profound historical and religious significance. This sanctuary comprises two principal edifices: the venerable old wing and the contemporary new building. Esteemed spiritual leaders within the Vajrayana tradition, particularly from the Sakya community, have joined forces to issue an impassioned plea for assistance in safeguarding the sanctity of both structures and orchestrating the restoration of what has been grievously marred.

The unwelcome deluge has infiltrated the inner sanctum of the new temple, leaving behind a trail of devastation.

The old monastery of KCTSL holds a unique distinction, boasting a venerable lineage of nearly five centuries. As per local history and oral tradition, this sacred haven was founded by the erudite Shakya scholar, Tenpai Gyaltsen.
This venerable monastery garners acclaim not only for its exquisite woodcraft but also for its architectural integrity, celebrated as "a standing testament of enduring grace, adorned with a treasure trove of rare bronze icons, thangkas, scriptures, frescoes, and an array of sacred ritual artifacts." It is worth noting that until the mid-1700s, this hallowed monastery served as the residence for a monastic community comprising 100 devoted monks hailing from a dozen neighboring villages.

The perilous inundation has cast a shadow over these cultural and spiritual treasures, prompting a collective call for action to preserve the legacy and heritage of Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling and other invaluable Buddhist sites under siege by the ravages of nature.

Warnings of Severe Weather Conditions

The monsoon season arrived in the early days of August, bringing moderate to heavy rains to high-altitude villages, including Kagbeni. On August 13th, relentless heavy rainfall upstream triggered a flash flood and landslides, resulting in the overflow of the Kag River between 7:30 and 8:00 PM.

Kagbeni, renowned as a religious and tourist destination for Buddhists and Hindus alike, is situated over 2,800 meters above sea level. The initial assessment conducted by the Mustang district administration revealed that 29 houses were completely destroyed, while 13 sustained partial damage.

The deluge also washed away a concrete bridge connecting the Himalayas to the Chinese border, along with three wooden bridges and a suspension bridge. Numerous government offices, including the police station, temples, and a pilgrimage house, also fell victim to the flood. Additionally, the nearly 600-year-old Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery, home to approximately 130 Buddhist monks and students, suffered extensive damage.

The principal of Jana Shanti Secondary School, Prem Dhungana, noted that the timely warnings saved lives but lamented the significant infrastructure damage. He emphasized the potential loss of life had the disaster occurred at night.

Rainfall monitoring stations in Jomsom and Chhoser, situated at higher altitudes than Kagbeni, recorded 25.4 mm and 20.1 mm of rainfall, respectively, in the 24-hour period on August 13th. This is a substantial deviation from the average monthly rainfall in Mustang district for August, which typically stands at 43.9 mm.

Climate Change Impact

Unlike more urban areas with sophisticated warning systems, mountain villages like Kagbeni rely on the vigilance of their residents and the caution of their upstream neighbors. Laxmi Gurung, the owner of Yac Donalds, a trekker's lodge in Kagbeni, explained that they routinely monitor the river's water level during the monsoon season, and on the fateful Sunday evening, a phone call alerted them to the impending danger.

Residents of Kagbeni, which consists of around 100 households, promptly moved to safer locations, including a mountain cave where more than half of them sought refuge. This vigilance was essential, given Kagbeni's unique location in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, which typically shielded it from heavy rainfall.

However, residents have noticed a shift in recent decades, with an increase in both the frequency and intensity of rainfall. Nearby villages, such as Lete, Jhong, Tirigaun, and Jomsom, have also experienced extreme rainfall, leading to loss of life and property.

Meteorologist Sudarshan Humagain from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology confirmed that both average annual rainfall and average monsoon rainfall have significantly increased in Mustang over the past five years (2018-2022). This trend has resulted in more intense and unpredictable rainfall events, causing flash floods and landslides.

Traditional houses in the area, constructed using locally available materials like mud, stones, and wood, were designed to withstand minimal precipitation. However, these once-durable structures are now vulnerable to heavy rains, causing damage to both human lives and livelihoods.

Furthermore, prolonged rainfall episodes lasting 24 hours or more have become more frequent, affecting the region's climate patterns. Winters are warming, and cold days have shifted, with reduced snowfall in the winter months.

Scientific studies of the Himalayas have linked these climatic shifts to a warming atmosphere, with localized, intense rains at high altitudes contributing to devastating flooding events like the one in Kagbeni. Ecological fragility and unchecked infrastructural development, such as roads, have exacerbated the situation.

Across the Himalayan region, intense weather events are becoming more common, with recent floods and landslides severely impacting parts of northern India. Experts are calling for a reevaluation of development practices in light of climate change, emphasizing that climate adaptation should be a top priority in this vulnerable region.

As the residents of Kagbeni continue to grapple with the aftermath of the flash flood, the task of removing debris, including sand, stones, slush, and concrete building remnants, from houses, offices, schools, and monasteries will require days of effort. Uncertainty looms large as they confront the immense challenges posed by the changing climate in the Himalayas.

Note: Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling (KCTSL) requires URGENT assistance to rebuild the monastery. Contact Khenpo Tenzin Sangpo at khenpohimalaya@gmail.com or at +977-9857650400 for more information on how you can help.
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