Sajag-Nepal: Preparedness and Planning for the mountain hazard and risk chain is an interdisciplinary and collaborative Global North-South partnered research project funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (2021-2024). The project brings together social and physical scientists, humanities scholars, policymakers, and practitioners, affiliated with diverse institutional partners in Nepal, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada to undertake new interdisciplinary science to inform better decision-making and reduce the impacts of multi-hazards in mountain Nepal, in particular, the earthquake-landslide-monsoon hazard cascade. Our project is grounded within long-term community-based work and involves applied research with the Government of Nepal and the United Nations to assess and plan for earthquake and landslide risk. Our research is designed to make a significant difference to the ways in which residents, government, and the international community take decisions to manage multi-hazards and systemic risks.

We wish to share knowledge generated through Sajag-Nepal at the Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya by organising three panels. Panel 1 will focus on our conceptual framing of disaster within the project, the earthquake-landslide hazard context in Nepal from the perspective of physical science, and the concept of disaster from the perspective of Indigenous peoples of Nepal. Panel 2 will explore the themes of exposure and vulnerability and the questions of who, when, and where is at risk, in addition to exploring the nexus between geopolitics and development and how this is shaping the risk environment and its governance. Panel 3 will explore how risk is both created and governed under federal Nepal and how risk management is shaping discourse and subjectivities about ‘hazard’ and ‘disaster’ for people who are engaged with it. We will explore opportunities for bringing local, Indigenous, and scientific knowledges into dialogue through our participatory slope monitoring work. Finally, we reflect on efforts to support national-level contingency planning for earthquake and monsoon-related hazards through a unique academic-humanitarian partnership.

Panel 1
Chair/Convener: Katie Oven, Northumbria University and Jeevan Baniya, Social Science Baha
Discussant: Professor Janak Rai, Department of Anthropology, Tribhuvan University

Paper 1.1:
Author: Tek Bahadur Dong1, Mukta Tamang2, & Amy Johnson3
Affiliation: 1Research Associate, Social Science Baha/Sajag-Nepal; 2Research Associate, Social Science Baha/Sajag-Nepal & Assistant Professor, Central Department of Anthropology, Tribhuvan University; 3Assistant Professor, Department of Government and Sociology, Georgia College and State University, USA
Paper Title: Reimagining Disaster in Indigenous Nepal

This paper re-imagines the concept of disaster from the point of view of Indigenous Himalayan peoples through a close, comparative, examination of interlinking metaphysical and practical knowledges configured in and around a pan-Himalayan ritual: the Bhume Puja. Although practised with differences across the Indigenous Himalayan communities featured in this paper, in general, Bhume Puja presents an annual opportunity in the spring for reaffirming essential territorial and communal relations. Performing the ritual wards off possible harms from befalling the territory of the bhume and those who reside there, including landslides. Cosmologically, the Bhume Puja or syihbda in Tamang; bhume in Thami and Magar; and sildo nado in Gurung, harmonises relations across sky, earth, and subterranean realms of existence wherein reside deities (sky), humans, plants, and animals (earth), and serpents (subterranean). But, the performance of the ritual also draws together different communities of caste-Hindu, Indigenous, and Dalits who co-inhabit the territory of the bhume. Taken together, we propose that the Bhume Puja is a ritual that annually re-establishes environmental as well as social relations, and in doing so mitigates the possibility of disturbance in the physical world while preparing residents to respond to disturbances if they happen by reaffirming social bonds across local ethnic and caste groups. The concept of bhume enables us to reimagine disaster as a rupture in the relationship between multiple realms and species including humans, deities, and the environment. The paper builds its arguments from interviews with Bhume Puja ritual specialists and participants and ethnographic participant observation of specific Bhume Puja rituals conducted in Kavre, Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, and Myagdi districts.

Paper 1.2:
Author: Amy Johnson1 and Katie Oven2
Affiliation: 1Assistant Professor, Department of Government and Sociology, Georgia College and State University, USA; 2Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Northumbria University, UK
Paper Title: Conceptualizing Disaster Differently: Negotiating Indigenous, Local, and Scientific Difference in the Sajag-Nepal Project

The term ‘disaster’ has a conceptual history in the sciences that shapes conventional pathways for conducting research about disaster, hazard, and risk. However, in the Nepal Himalaya the question of what constitutes ‘disaster’ and, further, how it is anticipated and experienced is both salient and sensitive given the recurrent nature of hazard events, such as earthquakes and landslides, in an environment marked by high socio-cultural and linguistic diversity. As a project, Sajag-Nepal researchers work in a number of locations across the Middle Hills, each home to different Indigenous and caste communities with their own conceptualizations of ‘disaster’ and ideas for anticipation and response. Likewise, the project features high disciplinary diversity, bringing together scholars and researchers from the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, each with their own methodological preferences and research cultures. This paper reflects on the intersection of sociocultural and disciplinary diversity represented in the Sajag-Nepal project. It addresses what acknowledgement of overlapping and intersecting knowledge systems has meant for the project’s research process. To place the project’s research design and approach in perspective, the paper will briefly review interdisciplinary and decolonial research frameworks, which are conventionally treated separately in the literature. Using case studies from the Sajag-Nepal project, the paper will then explore how appreciating ‘disaster difference’ across communities and researchers involved in the project has shaped the research process and its results. The paper is intended as a preface to the topical papers presented across the three panels that follow, providing an introduction to the epistemological framing supporting the findings discussed.

Paper 1.3:
Author: Sarmila Paudyal1, Ram Shrestha1, Dammar Pujara1, Gopi Basyal2, Erin Harvey3, Mark Kincey4, & Nick Rosser5
Affiliation: 1Research Associate, Sajag-Nepal, National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), Kathmandu, Nepal; 2Director, National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal (NSET); 3Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geography, Durham University, UK; 4Newcastle University, UK; 5Professor Geography, University of Durham, UK
Paper Title: Changing Landslide Hazard in Rural Nepal: Roads, Earthquakes and Risk

There is great deal of anecdotal evidence around the nature of multi-hazard risk in rural Nepal, from the long-term legacy impacts of earthquakes elevating geohazard risk, the apparent association between rural road construction and landsliding, and in the challenge of identifying the relatively small number of people who will be impacted by landslides each year from the large proportion of the population who are potentially at risk. In this paper, we tackle each of these questions through the analysis of new multi-temporal data that describes landslide hazard, risk, and impact in Nepal. Our findings show that there are subtle patterns in the evolution of landslides apparent after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. These patterns include changes in the location, size, and nature of landslides, which importantly changes the threat to people and infrastructure through time. This has significant implications for how geohazard risk is managed after earthquakes and for policies around planning for the next event. We also find that changes to the landscape arising primarily through the construction and development of rural roads have a comparable scale of impact to that of the Gorkha earthquake. We identify the complexity of the road-landslide nexus, via road construction triggering landslides and, importantly, the spread of the road network which is increasing the exposure footprint to landsliding. Our data indicates a stark increase in landslide exposure since 2016, with the area affected by landsliding doubling and outpacing the increase in the road network length, which holds significant implications for landslide risk in Nepal in the future. Finally, we note that many landslide risk reduction efforts undertaken at present remain limited in the degree to which they are able to anticipate future fatal landslides, raising important questions about how best to tackle landslide risk in the future, specifically under a changing climate.

Panel 2
Chair/Convener: Katie Oven, Northumbria University and Jeevan Baniya, Social Science Baha
Discussant: (TBC)

Paper 2.1:
Author: Dipak Basnet1 & Katherine Arrell2
Affiliation: 1Research Associate, Sajag-Nepal Project, Social Science Baha; 2Research Fellow, Northumbria University
Paper Title: Participatory Mapping of Mobility: Understanding Dynamic Exposure to Cascading Mountain Hazards in Rural Nepal

Risk maps form a key component of many disaster risk reduction programmes and activities, by highlighting where and who may be exposed to particular hazards. They provide both a spatial impression of areas or regions likely to be impacted and often an indication of the number of people or households at risk. They therefore have the potential to inform national and local level planning. However, risk maps are commonly based upon static representations of where people are within the landscape, commonly inferred from building location. This is problematic as rural populations often spend significant periods of time outside the home, with their use of the landscape varying over daily, seasonal, and generational timescales, and depending on their livelihood activities.

Using a participatory mapping approach, we capture daily, seasonal, and generational patterns of mobility through the landscape. We bring these data into conversation with our landslide inventory, susceptibility, and runout data, to quantitatively assess where, when, and who is most exposed to landslide hazard. We compare two communities: Kodari, in Bhotekoshi Rural Municipality in Sindhupalchowk District and Gairothok, in Bhimeshwor Urban Municipality in Dolakha District. Both communities are exposed to multiple hazards including earthquakes, landslides, and floods, but have differing socio-economic contexts and mobilities. Our findings identify the most exposed demographic groups, the regular journeys that result in the greatest exposure, and the key role that mobility plays in modifying and determining overall patterns of exposure and risk. Importantly, we can see how significant local adjustments to daily, weekly, and seasonal routines would be in reducing exposure to hazards, for example, during the annual monsoon.

Paper 2.2:
Author: Marcus Power
Affiliation: Department of Geography, Durham University, UK
Paper Title: Geopolitics, Development and Risk

This paper examines the ways in which the nexus between geopolitics and development impacts on risk in Nepal. Drawing on semi-structured interviews conducted with various development and foreign policy actors and on two years of ethnographic research (2021-2023) across four districts (Myadi, Kavre, Sindhupalchowk, and Dolakha) the paper explores the changing (geo)political and economic context of Nepal’s development. It examines a range of different macro and micro-scale geopolitical interactions, discourses, and practices both within localities and also across the wider (inter)national and regional contexts. In particular, the paper takes a close look at the intensification of Nepal’s bilateral relations with China, drawing out some of the ways in which foreign policy and geopolitics have shaped and influenced major infrastructure developments like road and hydro projects (and with what implications for risk and disaster management). More generally, the paper sets out a framework for better understanding how the different assemblages of Nepal’s development are imagined, enframed, and conditioned by the geopolitical and offers some reflections and insights on how this might be affecting governance or impacting communities and livelihoods in their interactions with risk, hazard, and disaster.

Paper 2.3:
Author:  Anuradha Puri1 & Jonathan Rigg2
Affiliation: 1Research Associate, Social Science Baha; 2Chair in Human Geography, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
Paper Title: ‘What can I do?’ Placing Cascading Hazards in Context

It has long been recognised that disasters are produced not just because of a population’s exposure to natural hazards but also because of the ways in which processes of social, economic, and political change re-work conditions of vulnerability. The 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal is just such a case where exposure to various cascading hazards is overlain by infrastructural developments like road construction and hydro projects and these, in turn, are underpinned by broader and more insidious – but also less discernible – structures and processes of societal change.

Drawing on two years of ethnographic research (2021-2023) in four municipalities of four districts (Annapurna rural municipality in Myadi District, Temal rural municipality in Kavre District, Bhotekoshi rural municipality in Sindhupalchowk District, and Bhimeshwor municipality in Dolakha District), this paper explores the ways in which vulnerability and resilience in the face of cascading natural hazards are co-produced in the study sites. Drawing on interviews with local residents and other key informants, we complicate the vulnerability/resilience binary across three dimensions: the social (who), the temporal (when), and the spatial (where). Attempts to build resilience and reduce vulnerability can appear smooth, even simple, when viewed from afar. This is the standpoint from which most policies are devised. But when seen up-close and personal, it becomes evident that such efforts are always partial in their effectiveness and mixed in their success. This arises, in part, due to the tendency to view natural hazards as presenting a generalised threat to exposed populations, rather than as differentiated according to time, place, and social context.

Panel 3
Chair/Convener: Katie Oven, Northumbria University and Jeevan Baniya, Social Science Baha
Discussant: Sumit Dugar, UK FCDO, Kathmandu

Paper 3.1:
Author: Nyima Dorjee Bhotia1, Jeevan Baniya2, & Sara Shneiderman3
Affiliation: 1Research Associate, Sajag-Nepal, Social Science Baha; 2Assistant Director, Social Science Baha; 3Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia
Paper Title: Governing Risk in Federal Nepal

This paper explores disaster risk governance in the changing political and development landscape of federal Nepal. Drawing on multi-year, multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork conducted across four districts of Nepal – Myagdi, Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, and Kavre, the paper examines linkages between infrastructure development, risk creation, and risk management at the local municipal level. It also explores how disaster risk management is shaping discourse and subjectivities about ‘hazard’ and ‘disaster’ for people who are engaged with it.

Our findings suggest a growing emphasis on institutionalising Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Disaster Risk Management (DRM) locally which is reflected in the prioritised allocation of a budget for DRR and mitigation within annual plans and policies. Local governments are also found to have enhanced their capacity in disaster response and preparedness including the establishment of Municipal Emergency Operating Centres (MEOC), Disaster Management Committees, and rescue and relief mechanisms. As a result, there has been an increased awareness and sensitisation around disaster risk and risk management at the local level. However, our findings also indicate that current development practices–mainly implemented under provincial government–often fall outside the purview of local governments which has resulted in a substantial challenge to participatory planning and risk governance locally.

Paper 3.2:
Author: Katie Oven1, Nick Rosser2, Ramesh Shrestha3, & Mukta Tamang4
Affiliation: 1Associate Professor in Human Geography, Policy and Development, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Northumbria University, UK; 2Professor Geography, University of Durham, UK; 3Postgraduate Researcher at Durham University; 4Research Associate, Social Science Baha/Sajag-Nepal & Assistant Professor, Central Department of Anthropology, Tribhuvan University
Paper Title: Listening for Landslides: Integrating Local and Scientific Knowledges for Landslide Risk Reduction in Rural Nepal

Landslides are a pervasive hazard in rural Nepal resulting in loss of life and livelihood. Despite attempts to scientifically predict their occurrence with the aim of reducing risk, such efforts have proven difficult. This largely reflects a tendency to focus on surface conditions and processes including the monitoring of rainfall and responses of the land surface such as the development of ground cracks. While an important part of the puzzle, these alone are often unreliable indicators of movement, as they overlook the stresses and strains acting underground (e.g., rock strength and water pressures) which are immensely challenging to monitor but are important in defining where and when landslides might occur.

Working with community and government partners, we utilise a novel Acoustic Emissions (AE) sensor to ‘listen’ to subsurface movement associated with ongoing landsliding in ten locations across central Nepal. We bring the AE data into conversation with data on weather and soil moisture, as well as local observations and understandings of processes acting above and below ground, to collaboratively make sense of how landslides occur. Through this, we aim to provide a more tangible, relatable indicator of movement and hence risk by identifying the conditions triggering landslides.

Paper 3.3:
Author: Tom R. Robinson1, Prem Raj Aswathi2, Alex Densmore3, Katie Oven4, Nick Rosser5, Ragindra Man Rajbhandari6, Stine Heiselberg7, Sweata Sijapati8, Alex Dunant9, Sihan Li10, Katherine Arrell11
Affiliation: 1Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk and Resilience, Te Kura Aronukurangi School of Earth and Environment, University of Canterbury, New Zealand; 4Associate Professor in Human Geography, Policy and Development, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Northumbria University, UK; 5Professor, Department of Geography, University of Durham, UK; 11Research Fellow, Northumbria University
Paper Title: Academic-Humanitarian Partnerships for Disaster Risk Management (DRM): Co-producing Knowledge to Improve Contingency Planning for Future Disasters

Planning for expected but highly uncertain future disasters such as earthquakes requires a high degree of collaboration across a wide variety of disciplines and communities. Within the academic and humanitarian communities, such inter-disciplinary collaborations are common in Disaster Risk Management (DRM), however academic-humanitarian partnerships themselves remain rare. Numerous barriers exist, including both communities having limited every-day interactions, working at different speeds and on individual projects for different lengths of time, and having different appetites for risk and uncertainty. Nevertheless, given the shared objectives, academic-humanitarian partnerships can play a key role in planning for future disasters and reducing the consequent impacts.

Here, we reflect on a decade-long partnership, of which Sajag-Nepal is part, between cross-disciplinary academics and humanitarian organisations within the Humanitarian Country Team in Nepal. This partnership stemmed from data sharing and science advice in response to the 2015 Gorkha earthquake and has developed into a broader partnership for supporting humanitarian contingency planning. The core focus of this partnership has been the development of more detailed and specific Emergency Response and Preparedness Plans (ERPPs) for earthquakes and the monsoon. Importantly, the partnership has focussed on co-producing knowledge between academics and humanitarians, rather than a simple linear data-sharing approach. The duration and level of engagement across both individuals and institutions in this partnership is, to our knowledge, globally unique and we share our reflections here to highlight the benefits to both communities and to DRM in Nepal and the wider Himalaya.

A key facet of this partnership has been bringing together different stakeholders around a specific objective and set of tools. By focussing on the ERPPs, this has provided a shared forum for discussion and a focal point for engagement. Importantly, it has required building and maintaining trust between all partners, a shared commitment to the partnership, fairly representing each other’s perspectives and interests, being clear about what the science can and cannot say, listening to and reflecting on different perspectives, and being willing to try new approaches. As a result, this type of partnership takes time to develop, something which typical research or humanitarian project-scale funding alone is unable to support. Since most actors are often aware of this from the start, it can instantly limit the partnership as participants have little confidence it can continue beyond the funding period. Finding ways to financially support such partnerships is therefore key. Finally, our partnership has clearly shown that new science isnot always the answer. Often, the biggest gains are achieved in finding effective ways to communicate existing knowledge, and importantly to tailor that knowledge to the specific needs and requests of humanitarian partners.