Health worker and paddy farmer Rachna Shrestha whose farmlands were destroyed during the 2021 Melamchi floods.

Three years since a devastating flood, women in Nepal recount how they still live in fear

Experts say that Nepal is vulnerable to hazards such as floods, landslides, glacial lake outburst, extreme temperatures, further aggravated due to climate change.

It has been nearly three years since a massive flood destroyed Rachana Shrestha’s property. Shrestha, 54, works as a health worker to support herself and her family of four. Earlier, apart from her duties as a health worker, she used to also work at her farm along with her husband, but the farm does not exist anymore, “It got washed away during the floods,” she said. 

Shreshta and her family were one of many whose lives were affected by the floods that hit central Nepal’s Melamchi and Helambu municipalities in June, 2021. 

Floodwaters from the Melamchi river gushed into settlements and the main market, killing around 20 people and displacing over 300 families. Many homes were destroyed. Motorways, suspension bridges and government buildings remained inundated, and acres of farmlands were washed away.

Both Melamchi and Helambu are located in the Sindhupalchok district — about 43kms away from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. 

Such hazards are becoming more common in Nepal and in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. “Nepal is a mountainous country vulnerable to hydrometeorological hazards such as floods, landslides, glacial lake outburst, extreme temperatures, which is being further aggravated due to climate change,” said Mandira Singh Shrestha, a senior water resource specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu.

According to a 2023 study by Prakriti Resources Centre (PRC), a Kathmandu-based NGO that works in partnership with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the flood resulted from a combination of anthropogenic and climatic factors that occurred along the Melamchi river basin. “Triggered by intense precipitation upstream, the flooding led to cascading effects along the river channels, resulting in a complex interplay between landslides, river damming, and debris deposition,” the report said. 

Women in the area have suffered mentally 

Dressed in a blue sweater and purple salwar kameez, on a winter morning in January, Shrestha stood near the banks of the Melamchi river as she recounted the events of the day the floods ravaged her farmlands, and water entered her house. “We had no option but to take refuge on the terrace. Many people were stuck on their terraces and electricity was gone for days,” she said.

Shrestha is the only working member in her family. Since the farm is gone, her husband has been jobless, she added. She hopes that one of her children who is studying medicine will soon become a doctor and contribute to the family’s expenses. 

She recalls how she couldn’t sleep for days on end and would often suffer from anxiety and panic attacks—she would get up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. She said she lives with this constant fear that a similar event could happen again. “I don't feel safe here.” 

Research has shown that severe weather events can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—with women more likely to suffer with the condition than men. 

Shrestha believes that women in the area have suffered mentally. “Men have the option of moving out for work. As women, we are stuck looking after our households.”

She added that they did not receive any help or aid from the government. “There were immediate relief operations but not for us because we didn't lose our house, we lost our farmland. There was no compensation for the loss of farms,” she added. 

Pratishtha Donwar, 45, sits inside her small grocery store that she has been managing on her own. Donwar’s husband, like Shestha's, doesn't have a job. Donwar, too, is the sole earning member of her family. She has two young children. 

Three years ago, on the day of the floods, Donwar and her family had to leave their house, and settle in an area on an elevated land. “I couldn’t sleep at all those nights. I still think about it, it was scary,” she said. 

A portion of her house broke, and their entire furniture was damaged. Their crops were destroyed too, “we incurred a lot of loss,” she said, adding that it was much worse for pregnant women because healthcare facilities were severely disrupted during that time. 

Climate disasters disproportionately affect women  

“More women than men die when disasters hit. This is due to women’s lack of information, mobility, decision-making power, access to resources and training, and high rates of male outmigration,” said Mandira Singh Shrestha of ICIMOD. 

She cited an example from the 2023 Jajarkot earthquake and the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal that “more women were killed than men. Inequalities that already exist in society are often strengthened at times of disaster.” 

According to Bikram Rana, program manager at Practical Action–a civil society organisation based in Kathmandu, “the focus is usually on post-disaster management whereas the impact of disaster can be reduced by taking risk reduction measures. Whatever disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures are in place lack inclusivity and leave women out,” he said.

Singh Shrestha of ICIMOD noted that often disasters strike those who live in high-risk areas. “It is important that people understand the risk of multiple hazards that they are vulnerable to. The government must co-develop risk maps, create awareness, and put in place people-centred early warning systems. To increase the effectiveness of early warning systems, it is essential to ensure that they benefit women and men equally.”