The island of Rajapur is a place made and remade by the fluid movements of the Karnali River. Straddling the Nepal-India border and the divide between Nepal’s Bardiya and Kailali Districts, Rajapur is situated just beneath the Chisapani gorge where the Karnali River plunges out of the Himalayan foothills to form a sweeping inland delta. Here, the river fans into a complex network of waterways that wander across the northern edge of the Indo-Gangetic plain, known as the Tarai. Although Rajapur sits on both political and geographical boundaries, it is a landscape that refuses to be contained or defined by sharp lines. Even the banks of the river are unstable, changed through seasonal inundation that plays a significant role in shaping this fluid landscape. As monsoonal rains wash sediment out of the hills, the Karnali’s riverbed frequently fills, displacing water with earth. This causes the river to spill over its banks and carve new paths across the floodplain. It is through this process of sand and water constantly being swept across the landscape by the river that the island of Rajapur was made and continues to be remade.

As a Master’s student at the University of Colorado Boulder, I chose the lower Karnali Basin to conduct my thesis research not only because of Rajapur’s history of inundation, but because of the many interventions initiated by international non-governmental organizations (INGO) and government institutions to arm and protect what Nepal considered to be some of its most vulnerable people. What I set out to understand here was how floods were being managed as disasters within the emergent effects of climate change and the extent to which government and INGO-initiated projects aligned with or displaced local adaptive strategies. Yet, as I began to interrogate the various solutions to flooding that were inundating Rajapur and its people, I came to realize that I had assumed that floods were inherently disasters and that people simply had different strategies for coping with them. It was only while analyzing contradictions in my data regarding local people’s expectations of, doubts about, desires for, and frustrations with external ‘solutions’ to inundation that I realized I had begun with the wrong questions. Floods had not always been the disasters that they are today in the lower Karnali basin. Rather, they had become so as the destructive effects of inundation were gradually amplified by policy, law, and infrastructure developments that also redistributed risk unevenly onto certain bodies.

When I returned to Rajapur the following year, I began with different questions: Who defines what counts as a catastrophe? If floods are considered to be disasters in Rajapur, then disasters for whom? How have inundation events come to be understood and experienced in this way? It is with such questions, I realized, that a situated accounting of disasters and those who suffer from them must begin. This approach took me deeper into the heart of Rajapur where Tharu farmers still practice their religious, social, and customary rituals of maintenance along their irrigation canals and the Sonahas people go daily to collect gold on the Karnali’s shoals and fish its currents. From these people, I began to understand a radically different way of relating to inundation and the river’s agency that did not rely only on the language of disaster.

Many of Rajapur’s inhabitants have lived with inundation for generations as they fished the Karnali’s waters, collected gold from its sandbars, and farmed the island’s interior. While floods have always been destructive, periodically carving away large swaths of the island and taking people’s crops, homes, and livestock with them, they were far more complex than disasters. Cyclical inundation, which carries both rich humus and gold out of the mountains, has sustained local livelihoods for centuries and is the reason, in fact, why the Sonaha and Tharu people first settled Rajapur to begin with. Rather than resisting the Karnali’s floods, the Tharu and Sonaha people practiced a semi-nomadic lifestyle that enabled them to shift with, and continue to benefit from, the Karnali’s vagrant path.

It was not until Rajapur was claimed and divided as private property in the early twentieth century and its original residents became not only ‘fixed’ to the landscape, but also pushed onto the island’s most vulnerable margins, that floods became the chronic disasters that they are today. For example, through progressive waves of marginalization as Rajapur was settled and developed, nearly 70,000 bonded laborers and landless people were pushed onto the island’s most flood-prone edges, lining the Karnali’s riverbanks and squatting in other waterlogged places. This violent history of dispossession and marginalization over the past century remains embedded in the landscape, fundamentally shaping local exposure to floods. Yet I found that this is also a narrative of disaster that is not revealed by, but rather concealed through, many attempts to ‘fix’ flooding in Rajapur.

In my thesis Training Rivers, Training People: Interrogating the making of disasters and the politics of response in Nepal’s lower Karnali River Basin, I examine three different interventions to structurally control the Karnali River and support communities in coping with climate-induced disasters through networks of human infrastructure. These include: 1) the Rajapur Irrigation Project, a large-scale government initiated infrastructure project that has attempted to ‘modernize’ the traditional farmer managed irrigation system in order to exclude internal inundation on the island, 2) the government-funded Karnali River Training Project , a recent endeavor of the Department of Water Induced Disaster Management to embank 43 km of Rajapur’s most vulnerable riverbanks, and 3) a community-based early warning system initiated by Practical Action that relays live river-level data downstream to over 52,000 Nepalis and 400,000 Indians. Informed by five months of fieldwork including 200 interviews and 25 focus groups, I examine each of these projects to analyze the material consequences of ignoring, either intentionally or not, the uneven landscape of vulnerability that underlies all disasters as well as any attempt to mitigate them. In doing so, my objective is not to deny the biophysical reality of inundation nor the material impacts that floods have on people’s lives, but rather to confront the politics through which such hazards manifest as disasters at a particular time and place.

Through a situated accounting of the material effects of these three interventions in Rajapur, I examine the ways in which local people participate in and benefit unevenly from ‘solutions’ implemented by various institutions to ‘protect,’ ‘secure,’ and ‘save’ their lives. In particular, I document who gains protection and who is displaced by embankments, who controls the shape of irrigation infrastructure and the locations in which it gets built, who bears the cost of its maintenance and at what price, and who is able to secure themselves with an early warning or is left with the burden of dissemination. More importantly than what these interventions claim to do for communities, I expose the material effects of their enactment. In particular, I illustrate the ways in which interventions can actually end up exacerbating, entrenching, or silencing patterns of uneven exposure through the assumptions they make about causality, vulnerability, and people’s capacities to secure themselves. This is why, I argue, it is critical for both scholars and practitioners of development to investigate the entangled web of broader social and political processes that enable inundation to become a disaster to begin with. It is only by understanding disasters first through the politics of their production that interventions in places like Rajapur can begin to relieve the vulnerability of those who suffer most.

Download and read the full text of  Sierra’s thesis hereGladfelter_MastersThesis.

Check out a recent blog post related to this research and an earlier photo essay