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Literature Review on Cross-Border Environmental Hazards

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Published: 13th Apr 2021

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Tagged: International RelationsSociology

Title: Understanding transboundary impacts of multi-hazard early warning systems and their cultural context

Understanding transboundary impacts of multi-hazard early warning systems and their cultural context encompass a wide set of policy challenges and policy clashes, many of which are entrenched and seemingly intractable.  Transboundary multi-hazards are often characterized as a “Wicked Problem”, which suggests that these problems evolve from wide range of geo-political, social environmental roots and simple linear understanding and technical solutions are not enough. Not only the “answers” to these wicked problems are complex but also the “question” itself is complex because it is hard to define and portray the full nature of these problems.

In this research, I would like to simplify the understanding of the wickedness of the problem through four dimensions of theoretical engagements. My first theoretical engagement would be on understanding the transboundary context through the discourses on geopolitics and international relations. Secondly, I would like to engage on the disaster risk governance structure between Nepal and India. Thirdly, I would like to explore the multi-hazard dimension of a risk where hazard transforms and cascades affecting the different functions of the society and becomes disaster. And finally, I would engage into the four components (Risk Knowledge, Monitoring and Warning, Dissemination and Communication and Response capacity) of the early warning system of hydro-meteorological disasters and if the current methodology is flexible enough to adapt to the local understanding and has space for public participation in decision making regarding the early warning system of the hazards. And finally, I would explore how cultural biases affect the perception of risk in community for establishing transboundary early warning systems.

Authors (Grove, 2010, 2013, 2014; Kelman, 2006; Giroux, 2007, Donovan 2017) argue that, power and geopolitics are important aspects of disasters and geopolitical institutions, key actors, link between the intra and international institutions, scientists all can affect the disasters and these links are nonlinear and variable over space time and characterized by reverberations of knowledge and power through topologies of actors, objects and ideas (Donovan 2017). In Nepal and India, there is a lack of understanding on how the inter and intragovernmental institutions function in the transboundary multi-hazard context, and if there is an early warning system how the communities and the individuals living in these risk-prone areas respond and react to these early warning messages. I am keen to evaluate the power relationships between the Indian government and Nepal, through the Mitchel Foucault’s theories of Governmentality while assessing the transboundary treaties between Nepal and India related to water sharing and infrastructure development projects. Also, it would be interesting to observe if there is any space left in decision making for the affected communities and local institutions during these international negotiations. This will provide an understanding how states function during the transboundary disasters and how communities respond to those disasters.

Hazards and disasters encompasses the jurisdiction of multiple disciplines and authorities in Nepal and India, which have often overlapping in nature. These overlaps and gaps leads to the confusion and act as a bottleneck during the interagency coordination as well as coordinating in transnational level during a disaster event. I intend to have a holistic approach to understand disaster as not just a socio-physical event but as a complex process, which involves interactions and interrelations of wide range of actors and involves their interpretation of knowledge about the environment and the affected or vulnerable community.   And in doing so, I would assess the disaster and disaster risk reduction through assemblage theories and governmentality perspectives. An assemblage is a conglomerate of heterogenous components that may be multiscale and the components of assemblage may be also components of other assemblages, where the interactions between the components can be difficult to assess or quantify thus incorporating complexity and non-linearity. Transboundary disasters can be viewed as assemblages, where they incorporate international affairs, power dynamics, institutional networks, physical, social and environmental factors and exhibit unpredictable and nonlinear nature. The assemblage theory allows a subtle approach that can focus disaster risk reduction around its inherently transdisciplinary context (Donovan 2017). Disaster are assemblages of institutional practices, communities, institutions, technologies and complex power dynamics, when human systems and environment system interact. Disaster involve complicated interactions between humans and nature, while governance is crucial in assembling of disaster, which is related through the flows of power and knowledge within it as it interacts with nature and interpretations of nature (Pelling and Dill, 2010, Donovan 2017). Donovan (2017) argues that, while dealing with disasters as assemblages, focus shifts to the nexus between the human and environmental interactions, and incorporates perception of disaster and recognizes that values and cultural factors are important not only for the local knowledge but also for the scientific knowledge and provokes deeper understanding in which these connections affect in space and time, which could enrich the disaster risk reduction attempts.

In most of the disaster-prone areas of Nepal and India, poverty and limited livelihood options intertwined with subsistence economy are the strongest driving forces and people are constantly concerned with meeting their daily food supplies for their family more than anything else. These vulnerable communities have knowingly or unknowingly accepted to live with the risk because of limited livelihood options related to their land. In such situation how, the establishment of early warning system affect the communities and how their cultural upbringing affects the risk perception and risk communication mechanism? This is the unexplored part in the literature but very essential to the establishment of the early warning systems in the transboundary context and this research intends to enhance the understanding on this regard.


Environmental hazards do not respect the international boundaries (Keith 2013). Mirumachi and Chan (2014) argued that the disasters have become increasingly transboundary in nature and international transboundary river basins continue to gather the attention of the policymakers and researchers pertaining to its complexities intertwined with climate change and uncertainty. UN Water (2008) reports that there are approximately shared 145 rivers worldwide and 40% of the global population is depended on these shared river resources, but due to the climate change, many of the shared river basins suffer from increased poverty and impacts of hazards such as flood, landslides, and drought (Shepherd et al., 2013). Luo (2015) suggests that approximately 21 million people worldwide are affected by the floods each year on average and the number could increase up to 54 million in 2030 due to the impacts of climate change and socio-economic development. Also, the top 15 countries vulnerable to the flood account for nearly 80 percent of the total affected population worldwide, which are from the least developed and developing countries, vulnerable to multiple hazards and impact of climate change.

The recent hydro-meteorological disasters are strong reminder that disasters and their impacts are not contained within the national boundaries and narrowly focused standalone risk governance structures often fail during concatenated and cascading disasters, for which recent South Asian flood can be taken as an example, which affected altogether 45 million people living in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Review of Literature:

Transboundary disasters:

Transboundary disasters refers to the disasters which are not contained in a specific state or national boundaries and have widespread impacts affecting different dimensions of societies. Often transboundary disasters are systemic in nature and due to the narrowed focus while studying these disasters, they often appear in as “rude surprises” (LaPorte 2007) to the society and to the authorities who are responsible managing these disasters. Ansell et al. (2010) stated the transboundary nature of any crisis can be described in three dimensions of political boundary, functional boundary and time boundary. The transboundary disasters can transcend the political boundaries both vertically and horizontally. When the impact of disasters is extensive, requiring assistance from multiple hierarchies within a government structure, then these are referred to have the vertical dimensions of the transboundary activity, and when the crisis spreads horizontally across two or more political jurisdictions of a state or national boundary then the impact is said to have horizontal dimensions (Chisholm, 1989). The functional dimension of a transboundary impact refers to the cross-sectoral nature of a disaster and its cascading effect on multiple sectors within a society, which are initially unforeseen, such as Fukushima Nuclear disaster, which crossed the functional boundary from natural disaster to financial disaster and technological disasters. Also, there is a time dimension of a transboundary impact, where some disaster events have definite start and end date, while some transcend the time boundary with its chains of impact observed over years. The transboundary disasters become more complex due to its interdependence across the jurisdictions and sectors and are challenging due to the uncertainty, multi-layer coordination and communication requirements involving different functions and systems (Ansell et al. 2010).

The transboundary disasters not only crosses the physical and socially established boundaries but also tends to cross the knowledge boundaries which are often isolated between the scientists and communities in the form of scientific knowledge and local level understanding. Lidskog (2011) argued that transboundary disasters transcends the established boundaries or demarcation between experts and citizens and between public and private sectors. Because of the increased awareness of the contextual scientific knowledge, the public involvement in coproduction of scientific knowledge is emphasized as “contextualized science production” (Nowotny et al. 2001), “Extended peer review” (Ravetz 1999) and “Scientific citizenship” (Irwin 2001), negotiating the relationship between citizen and scientists and shifting from the paradigm of government to governance.

The transboundary disasters are complex phenomena which involves conflict between human and nature over spatial dimension and involves multiple authorities and overlapping disciplines to manage the conflict through their perception of knowledge about the nature. And in doing so, Lejano and Ingram (2009) argue that scientific knowledge alone is not sufficient to deal with the complex environmental problems, furthermore, Armitage et al. (2015) argue that, multiple factors such as decision-making context involving multiple jurisdictions, institutional fragmentation across the jurisdictions, unequal power among basin actors in different jurisdictions, high level of political conflict and differences in culture of decision making contribute to the complex or “wicked” transboundary context (Levin et al. 2012) and unless social and institutional dimensions of the problem are accounted for, the wickedness persists. Also, Donovan and Oppenheimer (2014) argue that nature of uncertainty related to the rarer transboundary natural hazards are challenging as the uncertainty are as much socially derived as scientifically.

Transboundary disaster governance

The discourses on the transboundary disaster governance have evolved from the economic theories of access to the natural resources and maximization of profit. Constanza and Mageau (1999) argue that much of the literature on the transboundary studies have focused on the environment through the economic utility perspective, and often have ignored the intrinsic value of the ecosystem itself. Mirumachi and Chan (2014) argue that much of the transboundary articles and debates are focused on the politics of access to the natural resources, and how it is influenced by international relations, geopolitics and other social science disciplines, making the transboundary theme an “actor-centric” and representing the natural environment as a subject to state intervention. Similarly, Lidskog et al. (2011) suggested that environmental hazards are increasingly being understood as transboundary matters, and managing or regulating these problems through the coordination among various governments, are supposed to simplify or standardize a complex knowledge and find ways to manage uncertainty, and in doing so, because of the wide range of the actors involved with different interests, often the process is contested and “discursively constituted” (Rose 1999; Fisher 2003) to promote different actors’ own definition of reality, and from this viewpoint the transboundary regulations appears as a struggle for discursive hegemony. Much of the discourse on the transboundary disasters have evolved in a form of conflict or cooperation between the states in a linear fashion (Zeitoun and Mirumachi 2008) but on the contrary the transboundary disasters often behaves in a complex and nonlinear way.

Economics as concerned with the regulation of scarce resources, water scarcity and conflict have taken a mainstage of transboundary discourses in the 1990s. Gleick (1991 and 1993) expressed the link between the water scarcity and conflict in a transboundary context, after which much of the environmental studies on transboundary studies have developed to include the securitization of the transboundary waters, leading it to the notion of “Water Wars”, which was the term first used by Chellaney (2013) to express the interstate rivalry and diplomatic tensions, the term is much being used to indicate the non-violent disputes in the interstate relations . Mirumachi (2015) argues that, transboundary disaster governance discourses have wrongly portrayed the conflict and cooperation as mutually exclusive functions, but conflict and cooperation can occur simultaneously within a society. she argues that transboundary governance need to incorporate factors outside the conventional thinking and should include land use, food security and energy demands and the conflict and cooperation in the transboundary context, which should also subject to a broader political contexts.

Transboundary governance are often related through the Foucault’s theories of governmentality and power play between the different states to claim its dominance over the shared natural resources. Lowi (1993) argued that when countries with asymmetrical power relationships cooperate in a transboundary context, the powerful states often play significant role in establishing rules and agreements during the process, and especially when cooperation is perceived vital to its national security, and these downstream hegemon states use ‘influence, force, or simply fear” to secure compliance with the mutual agreements or treaties from the weaker states. Also, Zeitoun et al. (2011) suggested that transboundary interactions are shaped by the power relations between the basin states, often at cases with subtle influences of persuading the low power states, resulting in consent without violence, termed as “soft power” for embedding asymmetrical allocations in the negotiated agreements. The soft power case between Nepal and India for the transboundary bilateral treaties are presented by Mirumachi (2013) and showed how a bilateral treaty can legitimize the unilateral water management practices with “soft power basin countries” or “hydro-hegemons” (Zeitoun and Warner, 2006).

The transboundary literatures have been shaped quite differently after the success of the Mekong water governance project and “Room for River” project in Netherlands; and provided newer dimension of thought in the disaster governance. Myint (2012) draws a cohesive framework drawing upon the polycentric governance, based on the assumption that problem solving is not only the responsibility of the state actors and applied the issues, interest, and actor-network framework to show how local communities and INGOs in Mekong and Rhine river basins have contributed to making rules of water resource management, pointing to the diversity in institutional development. Furthermore, referring to the success of polycentric governance in subnational context rather than in the international context, Huitema et al. (2009); Lankford and Hepworth (2010) have provided the critique to the transboundary politics as “Theoretically underdeveloped”.

Sternberg (2014) explained, how societies interact differently with hazards in a common environment landscape with the example of transboundary Gobi Desert between northern China and southern Mongolia, where recurrent climatic hazards are dominant with both countries, yet the disasters vary significantly. The comparison between the two states revealed, how the disaster risk and vulnerability are shaped by culture and human action as much as by the physical climatic event.

Transboundary hazards in south Asian context:

Hazards are becoming increasingly severe in the south Asian context and its root causes are proving to be very complex to have a single understanding. Due to which, Ives and Messerli (1989) stated that the only generalization that can be made about the Himalayas, is that the region is too complex to provide generalization, and the poor mountain people have wrongly identified as a problem rather than a part of solution, where the problems are not primarily environmental but social and political.

Also, there is a lack of regional institutions with the power to negotiate the dialogue between the countries, due to which the institutions are becoming seemingly redundant for coping with increased vulnerabilities, scale, and intensities of the disasters affecting at the transboundary scale. Also, Himalayas are facing with growing uncertainty due to the hydro-meteorological impacts of climate change, because of which development responses have failed to provide the sustainable livelihoods and safety of the socioeconomically marginalized local communities in the Himalayas (Satyal et al. 2017).

The economic utilities of the rivers with respect to their resource potentials are given attention by both Nepal and India while engaging in the transboundary agreements. There are approximately 6,000 rivers and watercourses shared between the countries but only the rivers which has resource potentials of hydropower use or irrigation purpose are given attentions as evident from the bilaterial treaties such as Kosi Treaty, Gandak treaty and Mahakali and Karnali river treaty, while most of the small rivers with less resource potential have failed to attract the attention of the policy makers, academicians as well as the institutions from both the countries.

The transboundary treaties between Nepal and India have emerged from the standpoint of hegemonic control over the shared natural resources and its governance have strong links with the geopolitics as all the rivers originating from Himalayas are transboundary in nature and involve countries with unequal size and power and political situations. India has a strong interest in Nepal’s rivers and India and China are in the phase of rapid economic expansion resulting in high demand for use of water for irrigation and hydropower. In South Asian context, there is an absence of multilateral trans-boundary river treaties. Much of the disputes surrounding the Trans-boundary rivers have adhered to certain principles of the international law but are governed only by a few bi-lateral treaties, that are derived from international legal instruments (Chintan 2012).

The Global Platform for DRR held by the United Nations focused on the establishment of regional Multi-hazard early warning system to deal with the concatenated and cascading impacts of the hazard through the “people-centered” approach and exchange of information across different countries (UNISDR 2017), in which Nepal and India are member states and have ratified to the agenda of the conference. Ali and Zia (2017) suggest that holistic planning and effective disaster risk management requires greater trans-boundary data sharing on the environmental indicators and reliable and accurate hydrological information flow across the political boundary and raising awareness within a wider framework of climate change and resilience.  Contrary to the global aims of the United Nations through SDGs and SFDRR, data sharing has been the major issue in the transboundary context. Surie and Prasain (2015) argue that public access to the transboundary basin level climatic and hydrometeorological data is limited in South Asia at the local level because of the history of disputes between the co-riparian countries in the region. The hydrological information pertaining to the transboundary rivers such as Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra is particularly considered sensitive and classified on the grounds of national security. In this scenario, developing a holistic transboundary basin wide understanding would be a difficult task. The right to information (RTI) laws have been adopted throughout the South Asia and regions have made progress in cooperation in the sector of trade, energy, and food security, but still, the transboundary water has remained politically active nationalistic issue and hydro-meteorological data are highly scrutinized leading to the de facto denial to access. Also, the available hydrological data in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh are fragmented and data records are poorly kept between multiple departments.

Transboundary flooding a case study:

Mahakali River is a transboundary river demarcating Nepal and India boundaries and originating from the Himalayas, with a catchment area of 14,871 sq Kms and flows about 223 km in Nepal and 323.5 km in India to its confluence transboundary Karnali River in India (ICIMOD, 2013). The river has a very high potential for hydropower and 6480MW of electricity generation plant has been designed in Pancheshwor, Nepal to provide the electricity to both the countries (pmp.gov.np).

Figure 1 Mahakali river basin. source:https://completenepal.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/mahakali-treaty-pancheshwar-multipurpose-project/

The Sarada agreement in 1920 formed the basis of Sarada barrage built to irrigate Uttar Pradesh. In the spirit of furthering cooperation within the Mahakali River area, the Governments of India and Nepal entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), commonly referred to as the Tanakpur Agreement, in 1991. The Agreement provided for the construction of the retaining wall on Nepalese territory for which the Nepalese provided 2.9 hectares of land.

The water sharing arrangements were governed primarily by the Sarada agreement in 1920, while India was under British rule and the population of Nepal was small 253198_406626129388098_1123323329_n.jpgwith a relatively low demand for water, and water sharing was not the same priority that of present context. Considering the embedded views of both sides on the Tanakpur controversy, in 1996, the Mahakali Treaty was signed by the Prime Ministers of India and Nepal, keeping the validation of treaty for 75 years.

Figure 2: showing Transboundary river Mahakali, in which flood repelling spurs are constructed on Indian side and no protective measures constructed on Nepal side, (Source: DWIDP 2013)

Mahakali Treaty established a joint Indo-Nepalese commission, called the Mahakali River Commission. This Commission was guided by the principles of equality, mutual benefit and no harm to either of the countries. The joint nature, both from an organizational as well as a financial standpoint, was well reflected because the Commission was composed of an equal number of representatives from both countries and its expenses were envisaged also to be borne equally. The Mahakali Treaty specified the equal entitlement to utilize the waters of the Mahakali River without prejudice to their respective existing consumptive uses. The Treaty further specified to implement the Pancheshwor Multipurpose project (PMP) in accordance with the Detailed Project Report (DPR) to be jointly prepared by the countries. Maintaining the flow and level of water in the Mahakali River was one of the general principles established by the Treaty. India and Nepal each agreed not to use, obstruct, or divert the waters of the Mahakali River, affecting the natural flow and level of the river level except by an agreement. This provision of the obligation was applicable also to the major tributaries of the Mahakali River.

paudel et al. (2013) argues that, violating the specifications of the Mahakali treaty, Dhauliganga power project was constructed on the tributary of the Mahakali river upstream in the Indian side in 2005, affecting the natural flow of the river. The government of Nepal was unaware of the project until there was a devastating flood in mahakali river in 2013 and the investigation committee by Department of Water Induced Disaster Management of Nepal (DWIDM) drew the causal links to the flow alteration on one of the major tributary of the river upstream.

Figure 3 Swollen Mahakali river smashes suspension bridge at khalanga, Darchula on Monday June 17, 2013. (Source: Narendra Bhatta, The Himalayan times).

Rigne tali area (1).JPGThe monsoon rainfall event of June 2013 was unprecedented in Uttarakhand state of India and far-western development region of Nepal. Due to the flood generated by rainfall, heavy loss of land and property was reported in Darchula and Kanchanpur districts in Nepal due to the Mahakali River.  Also, the flood affected 20 districts in Nepal and several districts in the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The three days of continuous rain in the upper catchments caused the discharge in the Mahakali River to rise from 139,000 cubic feet per second to 440,716 cubic feet per second.

In Darchula, in the Far Western Development Region of Nepal, the flood swept away 77 buildings and displaced 2,500 people. The effects were even more devastating in Uttarakhand in India. The flood occurred in the peak tourist which also contributed to the high number of casualty and 90 rest houses for pilgrims was swept away by floods affecting five districts, where 550 people died and 50,000 people were stranded.

Figure 4 widespread erosion and landslide due to the flooding event.                  (Source: DWIDP 2013)

This disaster has unraveled a lot of possibilities as well as bottlenecks in the transnational governance sector. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which is a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing center in south Asia, reported that major lesson learned from the flooding was that severity of the disaster could have been mitigated with a better end to end information system and proper infrastructure planning (ICIMOD 2013). Although some warnings were disseminated by the India Meteorological Organization about the possibility of high to intense rainfall, this information was not transmitted to the people at risk. There is a need to strengthen disaster management and preparedness mechanisms, which requires awareness and sensitization at various levels to ensure that early warning information is conveyed to end users well in advance. Advances in technology have made it possible to provide three to four hours warning of such events – which is enough to save lives, as ICIMOD report (2013) suggested, that there is a need to set up hydrometeorological stations on the transboundary rivers to inform communities beforehand. The Hindu newspaper of India reported that the flooding is “manmade disaster” and damage could have been contained through proper policies regarding the construction of infrastructures in the mountain areas as well as through the control over the settlements expansion in these high-risk floodplains (thehindu.com 2013)


From the literature review and case study, it can be suggested that transboundary disasters have been on the discussion as these hazards have repeatedly surprised the institutions and scientific community with its scale and intensity over the duration and it has been increasingly recognized that the existing governance modality and institutional arrangements are proving inadequate to cope with these disasters.

Authors have discussed the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the hazard and how these transboundary disasters are becoming elusive to tackle as it crosses the jurisdiction of administrative boundaries, functional boundaries, and time boundaries and even more entangled with complexities as it crosses through the indispensable form of uncertainties, interdependencies, multilayer coordination, and cross-boundary communication.

It is notable to observe that, throughout the series of discussion and arguments, the social and cultural dimensions are always neglected. The whole of the discussions seemed to have backed up by the sole motive of the extraction of the natural resources through soft or hard influences in the geopolitical dimension, through water wars or through discursive hegemony theories. Also, the intrinsic values of the ecosystem are framed as a commodity of the state and regulated by its governmental actors. Hence it can be stated that transboundary interactions and geopolitics are theoretically underdeveloped as it misses the cultural and social dimension throughout the transboundary debate.

Also from the case study, it was observed that there is a severe gap of basic required information to have a transboundary disaster management system in place. The lack of basic climatic and hydrological data in the region impedes forecasting and evaluation of climate events that generate catastrophic flooding for the effective flood early warning system and to save lives. Also, due to steep slopes, the high mountains are subject to the localized flood events associated with the landslides, GLOFS, cloudburst, and LDOFs, that are difficult to predict. The Global flood models are of limited use in the mountain region due to the uncertainty caused by lack of data availability on topography, boundary condition, exposure and vulnerability, land use, precipitation pattern and existing infrastructures. The localized hydro-meteorological characteristics of high mountain region lead to the complexities in the understanding of the flood prediction.

There is a lack of understanding on how the inter and intragovernmental institutions function in the transboundary multi-hazard context, and if there is an early warning system how the communities and the individuals living in these risk-prone areas are reached through the early warning messages.

Transboundary disaster due to the governance failure

Kosi is a transboundary river originating from Tibet and drains 71,500 sq. km of area in Tibet, Nepal, and Bihar until it reaches the Ganges River. On 18th August 2008, the flood control embankment along the Kosi River in Nepal was breached due to the monsoon rain and river took a new course shifting 120 km eastwards flowing over settlements and inundated 3700 sq. km of land. Kosi flood was regarded as the worst flood disaster in the history of Nepal and India. The flood affected Sunsari district of Nepal and six districts of north-east Bihar state of India. The flood washed away 4,648 ha of agricultural land in Nepal (UN-OCHA 2009) and river deposited sand up to seven feet in the settlements and agricultural fields (Shrestha et al. 2008). Approximately 50 thousand in Nepal and 3.5 million population in India were affected by the flood (Dixit 2008).

Figure 1: Transboundary Kosi Flooding and disaster due to river embankment breach in Nepal, Source: Vatra 2013, https://www.slideshare.net/GRFDavos/k-vatsa-resiliencebased-approach-to-flood-risk-management-in-south-asiappt

Authors have argued that Kosi flood disaster cannot be attributed to the monsoon or climatic hazards as the rainfall was as recorded below normal precipitation and the discharge of river was six times lesser than the peak flow discharge of 25, 878 cubic meters per second recorded in 1968 (GOI 1981). It was argued that the disaster is a result of poor transboundary disaster governance and institutional dysfunction and lack of risk communication (Dixit 2004, 2009; Gyawali 2008; Kale 2008; Mishra 2008; Reddy 2008).

The Kosi river in Nepal demonstrates unique features as it passes through six geological and climatic belts and runs 150 km from north to south with altitude varying from 8000m to just 95m above mean sea level. Kosi has seven tributaries, among which Sunkosi, Arun, and Tamor are the main ones. The Kosi catchment covers 36 glaciers, 296 glacial lakes in eight highest peaks above 8000 m (Bajracharya et al 2007). The three major tributaries of Kosi meet at Tribeni and immediately turns direction and runs into the gorge before reaching the flat areas of Chatara. A large quantity of sediment is dumped on the river bed as the steepness of the river declines. As the riverbed is aggraded, the river shifts its course following the path of least resistance.

In the last 220 years, the Kosi river has moved about 115 km (Cole and Chitale 1996). The unpredictable shifting of the river course has caused annual flooding in Bihar and the river is termed as “Sorrow of Bihar” and “Serpent around the neck” (Sinha 2008, Reddy 2008, Dixit 2004). After the Bihar flood of 1953, due to the social pressure, Indian government prioritized the flood protection through the Kosi Treaty of 1954 between the government of India and Nepal. The treaty required the construction of Kosi barrage and embankments do divert the river into the Kosi barrage. The Kosi treaty was formalized as a means of flood protection between the government of Nepal and India, where it clearly spelled out the construction and maintenance of the barrage and embankments Indian government in the Nepalese territory (Dixit 2004). Engineers from India and Nepal suggested that river diversion through embankments are not suitable for rivers like Kosi with high sediment load, but it was thought as the only feasible flood protection option at that time (Mishra 2008; Dixit 2008).

The Kosi catchment is under the influence of monsoon which lasts from June to September and marked intense rainfall with extreme variation over the catchment. The monsoon cloud bursts trigger debris flow resulting mass wasting and occurrence of landslide dam outburst floods (LDOFs) in the tributaries of the Kosi river (Dixit 2004). In the Kosi catchment, the occurrence of LDOF is common but randomly observed and development is too rapid to issue the sufficient early warning information to the downstream (Dixit 2008). The high gradient flows, hydrological variability, LDOFs, and GLOFs are the major source of sediment load in the Kosi River (Bajracharya et al 2007). The river transports approximately 120 million cubic meters of sediment every year, and 95% of it during the monsoon period, due to which Kosi received extremely high flux density Dixit (2008).

Mishra (2008) argues that river of 180 km with is diverted and contained to the width of just 11 km and contained in a Kosi barrage of 1 km width, which has resulted sediment deposit in the river bed as well as on the barrage, resulting approximately 10 cm of increase of the river bed annually and from the time of construction of the barrage which was 30 m depth, approximately 15m is already filled by the sediments, which could cause impending devastation any time (Mishra 2008). The Kosi barrage contains 54 gates to regulate the discharge into the river, and only government of India has the keys to open the gates; The government of Nepal has to go through the ministerial level communication to open the gates during the monsoon season when Nepalese territories starts flooding (Dixit 2004).


It can be argued that the disaster is a cause of technological error and management dysfunction at the transboundary scale. Firstly, the diversion and containment of the natural river system through inappropriate technological means, concerning more with the cost-benefit scenario is the error in the first place. This suggests that in contemporary society, the notion of risk is very much socio-cultural phenomena, as Francois Ewald (1999) argued that in sociological perception, the risk is potential or possible and remains within the boundary of its monetary valuation. Here, the risk of flood in Nepal and Bihar are assessed not only on the grounds of moral perception but also on the monetary valuation, where the values of something lying in the measure of risk it has, which should neither be too high or too low to be valuable( Lupton 1999).Also, the Kosi flood is a reflection of Beck’s risk society, it is not just a society where disasters are present, but society which is reflexive, regarding how risks are produced as part of modernization, prevented, minimized and channelized away so that it neither hampers the modernization process not exceeds the tolerance level of society (Beck 1992). In Kosi, the flood is diverted to facilitate the modernization process, but the risk has become even more pervasive in one form or another. The Kosi flood revealed the false sense of security over the embankments which have led to the lack of preparedness in the local and government level, which has led to the colossal damage due to the disaster.

It appears from the literature that, due to corruption in the bureaucratic structure and lack of monitoring, the amount of money allocated for the monitoring and repair of the infrastructure is used for personal benefit and the corruption goes from top level to the junior level staff. Due to the lack of monitoring, false reporting and showing the false expenditure report, while there was no work done at all for removing the silt and maintenance of the embankments for a long run resulted in the disaster. Shrestha et al (2008) argued that disaster is caused also due to the Institutional dysfunction and governance deficit. Referring to the article by Bharati (1991), which suggests that the main cause of the disaster is poor governance and corruption in Bihar. He writes “Such is the racket of breaches that out of 2.5 to 3 billion rupees spent annually by the Bihar government on construction and repair works as much as 60% used to be pocketed by politicians, contractors, and engineer nexus. The actual expenditure never exceeds 30% of the budgeted cost and after doling out the fixed percentages contactors are able to pocket as much as 25% of the sanctioned amount. A part of this they use to finance the political activities of their pet politicians and to get further project sanctioned. Thus the cycle goes on. As a result of which the contractors, bills are paid without verifying them. The same lot of boulders and craters are shown as freshly purchased year after year. Many of De-Siltation and repair and maintenance works are shown to have been completed are never done at all and yet payments are made…so much is the income of the engineers from the percentages that engineers do not even bother to collect their salaries” (Bharati 1991). This reveals that due to the corruption and malpractices within the governance structure, even if there is some money allocated for the infrastructure improvement and management, it was wrongly channelized for the personal benefit.

White (1945) argued that ‘human tendency to remain passive in the face of uncertain events’ and the ‘excessive faith in government mitigation measures’ (Kenny, 2009) can cause serous disasters. Kosi flood revealed that there was the absence of disaster preparedness mechanism, which could have rooted from the false sense of security over the government infrastructure and deluded the bureaucratic structure of Nepal and Bihar that everything was under control and evacuation was not initiated until the flood water entered the houses. In the Bihar state of India, the flood preparedness and rescue efforts were poor and assistance was provided only a week after the disaster took place Mishra (2008).

It is evident that, due to the hierarchical communication mechanism in place and awkward setting where management of the infrastructure totally is within the jurisdiction of another country, has contributed to the disaster. Mishra (2008) states, The Kosi flood victims explained that, local people from the Kusaha village, where embankments were rapidly weathering, made several calls to the local authorities to warn the probable damage of flooding, however the local authorities did not feel the urgency as the monitoring and repair of the embankment was under the jurisdiction of the Indian government and it has not mentioned anything in their reports regarding the bad condition of the embankments.

The communication mechanism established in the management of the Kosi river was described as lengthy, indirect and complex by different authors (Mishra 2008, Shrestha et al. 2008 and Dixit 2004). Two major problems are identified by Shrestha et al (2008) is too much of bureaucratic hierarchy and transboundary sensitivities, which failed the overall risk communication mechanisms between the countries. When the field level action was needed, field officers did not have sufficient authority to act without seeking approval further up from the management hierarchy, which takes weeks entailing the formal procedure.

Also, the transboundary communication between Nepal and India suffered complexity, as none of the local authorities or community, CSOs have direct communication access the water resource department of Bihar. Also, due to the different departments involved, if local authority of Nepal has to communicate with Kosi management authority in India, it has to go through ministerial communication between ministry of local development to ministry of water resource involving ministry of foreign affairs and then communication can be made to ministry of water resource of India, through complex and formal channels, which proved to be ineffective. Also, the message communicated was incorrect, as the chief engineer of the Kosi project gave a report that Kosi embankments were under control even in 17th of August without proper inspection and both governments were not aware of any problem with the failing embankments. Furthermore, there is no role of civil society and the local community of both the countries in the communication and decision making and neither the local people are informed about the decision made in the higher level (Shrestha et al 2008).

Boyce (1990) argued that governments prefer the policies that have tangible results to spatially concentrated groups, which measures such as water diversion strategies and dam construction although these are less cost-effective than disaster preparedness efforts (Boyce, 1990). The study by Kenny (2009) suggested that emergency preparedness and communication system are among the most effective disaster management measures, which require less construction and are likely to be both comparatively cost-effective and institutionally simple.  Birkland (1996) argues that, only after the high impact disasters, the policy weakness becomes highly evident and opens the “policy window” to policy reforms, but during these policy reforms, priorities are given on the deficiency of the relief efforts but sustainable long-term strategies are totally ignored during the recovery and reconstruction phases. During the policy reform, disaster risk management efforts are weighted against the political and economic costs, which suggests, for example, to prohibit the development in flood and hazard-prone areas, means losing revenue from the development charges and property taxes, which are two vital funding resources for the local government (Henstra and McBean, 2005).

Mirumachi (2015) argued that in Kosi flooding “Shallow cooperation” described as narrowly defined agreements between the states focussing on specific water resource management project, established by state elites has a major repercussion on the watershed and local communities are poorly represented. Which is evident from the Kosi treaty, where state elites focussed their attention to the communities of Terai in Nepal and Bihar, overlooking the river characteristics, which led to the poorly maintained and top-down approach of the management system and communication system which provided the grounds for corruption to the state actors. The state driven approach to Kosi ended up being not only poorly maintained but also increased the risk in the community.

The disaster governance for transboundary disaster risk management in Kosi river should be linked to the neoliberal agenda of “hollowing out” (Jones et al. 2015) of the state functions, by  opening up the areas for wider non state actors, through upward dimensions wherein governments are accountable to global institutions or donor communities, downward dimensions with decentralized governance and enabling space for local communities in the decision making, and through Outward dimensions by mainstreaming holistic disaster risk management agenda in revising the Kosi treaty (Jones et al. 2015).

herefore, this review of literature leads to the following research questions:

  • How cultural biases affects the transboundary interaction of hazards?
    • Can scientific awareness and EWS in a society play role in reducing the impacts of transboundary hazards?


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