Five Key Lessons for Watershed Management and Disaster Risk Reduction

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Some events in a lifetime remain noteworthy and teach valuable lessons. I came across similar events on the third week of December 2021. Developing Climate Resilient Livelihoods in the Vulnerable Watersheds in Nepal (DCRL) organized 1.5 days workshops in Okhaldhunga and Khotang districts to strengthen local disaster management committee (LDMC) and link them with concerned institutions working in the lower Dudhkoshi watershed in eastern Nepal. Seventy-five participants including 10 females and 65 males participated in these two events. The majority of the participants were chairpersons of local governments, while others were heads or representatives from institutions such as Basin Management Centre (BMC), Koshi, Soil and Watershed Management Office (SWMO) Okhaldhunga, Division Forest Office (DFO), and Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) from each district. The workshop used a participatory approach in which brainstorming, experience sharing, and storytelling by experts and participants occurred, leading to the drawing of conclusions and ways forward in plenary in integrated watershed management using lessons from local level climate change and disaster impacts. Based on the preparations, both formal and informal contact throughout the workshops, and facilitation to bring these workshops to a close, I have drawn a few lessons that are broadly applicable.

i. Managing watersheds have an immense role in reducing and/or managing climate-induced disaster risk (DRR/M) :

Climate change is a global problem but its impacts and vulnerability are pronounced high in the least developed and Himalayan countries like Nepal. Climate change is also characterized by too much or too little water situation that triggers hazardous and often disastrous situations with loss and damage of life and properties. If we look at the impact area of different forms of disasters like forest fire, floods, and landslides, they all expand or limit primarily within the boundary of watersheds, sub-watershed, or the catchment. The upstream and downstream linkage is also a crucial part of both disaster risk reduction and integrated watershed management. Not only the external situation of the watershed but the geology of the watershed also matters for susceptibility to the multiple hazards, vulnerability, and risks of disasters. Water remains at the core of both watersheds and disaster risk reduction, response, and management. Both, the quality and volume of water (or water budget) are generally the function of the watershed. Integrated management of watershed (IWM) involves management of 5 ‘Ja’ in Nepali – Jal (people), Jamin (land), Jangal (forest), Jaibik Bibidhata (Biodiversity), and Janata (People) within the watershed that offer opportunities to reduce and respond disaster risk, loss and damages. Thus, watersheds and disasters are highly interlinked and integrated management of watersheds at different levels has an immense role in reducing and/or managing disaster risk.

ii. Small thing, matters for a big difference:

Because problems begin tiny and expand gradually as a result of ignorance, it is easier, more efficient, and cost-effective to treat them when they are small. As an example, a small splash or sheet erosion gradually grows to a big and so if we could stop/treat the erosion when it is small, it’s efficient and effective. Similarly, small treatments by many obviously give a big result. In order to address the problem of drought or drying water resources, construction or maintenance of one or a few recharge ponds will not be that effective. Rather if it grows in number, its effect will be seen. In order to do so, if each of the households or community construct a pond, collect roof water or gray water, that will give a scale to make a difference. So, campaigning for such kind of individual efforts for a common goal will be vital for a big achievement.

iii. Relief to Recharge for responding to drought:

It is a general tendency to provide relief when there is prolonged drought/dry season losing production of crops. The Government of Nepal also declared ‘Khotang and Okhaldhunga’ as a drought-affected area. However, the support to respond to the problem has been limited generally within the distribution of seeds/food as a relief. Responding to drought needs goes beyond distribution of relief, embracing nature and nature hood through nature-based solutions. While using modern technologies like water-lifting also provides some options, traditional watershed-friendly activities like conservation of existing water sources and ponds, reviving/renovating old ones, and constructing new ones and conservation farming provides a nature-based solution to mitigate the problem. Thus, a paradigm shift is necessary from the traditional relief approach to promoting measures to enhance recharge for responding to drought.

iv. Changing paradigm in the use of forest:

Forest has an immense role in both disaster and watershed management. With the increasing availability of convenient means of alternative energy, the dependency of the community on forests for forest products particularly fuelwood and fodders has decreased significantly. Because of the species composition, the timber value of most of the hill forests is also low. So, the importance/utility of forests for the community is apparently reducing. The successful model of community forestry is contributing to the increased area and density of the forest. However, the increase in the population of wildlife, particularly monkeys and tigers is creating pressure on human settlements by damaging crops and creating fear of attack on women, children, and elders. People are gradually losing food security and often compelled to outmigration. Backlogs in the renewal of operational plans of community forests are one of the ready evidence that communities are gradually losing interest in forests. Prime reasons why wild animals are entering the settlements are the lack of adequate food materials and water in the forest. Planting fruit trees and construction of water holes in the forests are considered appropriate to reduce wildlife pressure on human settlements. As a positive remark, forests have been a useful site for ecosystem/environmental services through aesthetic beauty, recreations, carbon sequestration, and eco-tourism opportunities. In the context of climate change and increasing droughts, forests can play a crucial role to enhance precipitation and recharge. Watershed friendly activities like water source conservation, construction/maintenance of conservation/recharge ponds, contour trench, run-off harvesting dams shall catalyze the role of forest to manage watershed and maintain or increase the availability of water for the wildlife and community in the face of climate extremes.  Thus, considering all these scenarios in mind, there is a need for a paradigm shift in forest use from traditional dependency for forest products to the provisioning of environmental services and enhanced watershed function to support the modern population (as well as biodiversity conservation). This can be translated into action by considering changing context while preparing and/or renewal of forest operation plan. This also demands activating/capacity building of forest user groups with joint cooperation of Division Forest Office and local government.

v. Coordination is crucial:

Local communities like farmer groups, leasehold forestry groups, community forest user groups; local government, Red Cross at different levels, Division/Sub-division Forest Office, Soil and Watershed Management Office, Basin Management Centre, and the like play crucial roles in disaster risk reduction and integrated watershed management.  In the context of federal restructuring and institutions at a different level with concurrent and exclusive rights and responsibilities, both vertical and horizontal linkage and coordination mechanisms will be necessary. Thus, effective DRR/M and IWM is possible through enhanced coordination and cooperation amongst these institutions and stakeholders.

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