Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Kees van der Geest

Kees van der Geest

Kees van der Geest (PhD) is a human geographer who studies the impacts of climate change, adaptation, human mobility, environmental change, livelihood resilience, and rural development with a people-centered perspective. He has extensive fieldwork experience, mostly in Ghana (5 years), but also in Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bolivia. Presently he is a senior researcher at United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn. He coordinates the work on "Loss and damage from climate change in vulnerable countries" and leads a 5-year research-to-action project about livelihood resilience in Bangladesh.

Nov 21st 2016 by Kees van der Geest

Loss and Damage: A Case Study from Nepal

Nirjala Adhikari vividly remembers the moment a landslide hit her village in Sindhupalchok District, Nepal. “It was a very scary moment, and I couldn’t think of anything else than grabbing my mobile phone and my school certificate before I ran out of the house,” she recalls. “I secured my certificate because only this will help me establish a bright future.”

Nirjala, who was 18 when we interviewed her, now lives with her family, along with nine other affected households, in tents located in an abandoned factory.  As well as making her homeless, the landslide of August 2014 also destroyed her school and the family paddy field, which was her family’s main source of food and income. Still, Nirjala feels lucky to have survived at all. With a death toll of 156, this was one of the deadliest landslides in Nepal’s history, and innovative new research by United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) has revealed the range and extent of the loss and damage it caused to hundreds of households.

Building on methods designed by UNU-EHS, a team of six enumerators surveyed 234 households to gain an understanding of the wide range of economic and non-economic losses and damages sustained by as a direct result of the landslide.

One of the most severe impacts of the landslide was loss of land."

The study also looked into the effectiveness of various preventative and coping measures adopted by the respondents, and analyzed what might have stopped households from doing more to protect themselves.

One of the most severe impacts of the landslide was loss of land. Two thirds of the respondents (68%) estimated the losses and damages to land for their households at more than US$1,000 and for over half of this group, the losses were more than US$10,000.

The research also found that households with an annual income of less than US$1,000 incurred median losses of around US$6,000, equivalent to 14 times the average annual income; whereas respondents with an annual income of more than US$2,000 had median losses of more than US$10,000, which was roughly three times their annual income on average. So wealthier households incurred higher losses in terms of total monetary value, but it will be much more difficult for poorer households to recover because their losses were much higher in relative terms.

Raju Pandit Chhetri, the Nepalese Executive Director of Prakriti Resources Centre and member of the Climate Change Council, has advised the researchers throughout several stages of the project. He explains: “This was an innovative and useful people-centered study into loss and damage carried out in our country. Nepal is highly prone to natural hazards such as landslides, flooding, and droughts. Until now, however, we have lacked a scientific understanding of what loss and damage following such an event looks like at a local level. With these findings, we can analyze how communities are protecting themselves against natural hazards and what can potentially be done to help them become more resilient.”

People are not passive victims of climactic changes or natural events. They do much to avoid loss and damage but the stressors are often too overwhelming for them."

Indeed, examining what communities do to minimize the potential consequences of a natural event such as a landslide, flooding or earthquake, is just as important as assessing what is lost or damaged when disaster strikes.

Our research shows that loss and damage is not only an issue for the future, but something that vulnerable communities are experiencing right now. Another key insight is that people are not passive victims of climactic changes or natural events. They do much to avoid loss and damage but, as seen in this case study, the stressors are often too overwhelming for them.

Notably, the study found that a majority (65.3%) of households had adopted preventive measures prior to the 2014 landslide. Livelihood diversification was found to be the most common tactic for minimizing any potential losses and damages, with 41% of households finding new ways of earning money to supplement income from agriculture. Meanwhile, around four in ten households were found to have placed physical barriers around their properties so as to protect them from natural events – though, again, in many cases, despite people’s best efforts, this was simply not enough. Indeed, one of the most common preventive measures – the installation of physical barriers – was found to be one of the least successful. By contrast, moving one’s house out of the high risk area was the most effective preventive measure, according to respondents.

A local and people-centered approach to studying loss and damage from climate change is crucial for making this complex concept less abstract.

The Nepal Loss and Damage Case Study was launched at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. 

The full report (80 pages) can be downloaded here. The related article (4 pages) in the journal “Natural Hazards and Earth System Science” can be found here.