The Gorkha Earthquake

On 25 April 2015, the worst earthquake to shake Nepal since 1934 struck the district of Lamjung in the Gandaki region. Most of the approximately 9,000 casualties were estimated to be in and around Kathmandu, as infrastructure crumbled and buildings fell, burying residents with a disproportionate effect on the poor who could not afford solid houses. Once again, so-called natural disasters disproportionately affect low-income populations regardless of context, a breathtakingly shortsighted fact overlooked by escalating climate induced risk. In Nepal, the disaster also reveals who is and who is  not peripheral to the interests of the state. Glacial melt is accelerating globally, and too often the images of melt are polar and uninhabited. Yet, there are thousands of high valley villages around the world, settled, foraged, and pastured for thousands of years that are now thawing from a century of outsized anthropogenic emissions.

Plant life shifts with changes in altitude. As we reach Langtang valley from the temperate zone (2600– 3000m), the composition of the forest trees fades from oak, silver fir, and hemlock, to smaller, more twisted plants in the lower sub-alpine zone (3000– 3600m). Here, I had my first experience with a  patch of young Langtang larch (Larix himalaica),  unmistakable for its long branchlets, and golden  hues despite its winter dormancy. The famed 19th century botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker first identified this plant, so it is also known as Sikkim larch (Larix griffithiana), and locally as talis patra.

The village of Langtang once lay sixty-five kilometres north of Kathmandu. The village was tucked into a small valley surrounded by Himalayan peaks, close to the border of Tibet. Following the Gorkha earthquake, tremors dislodged hanging glaciers on Langtang Lirung and Langtang II, loosening glacial till from 2500 to 3000 metres above the village. As the glacier fell, it propelled 150 kilometre-per-hour winds that were so intense the gusts flattened forests on the opposite side of the valley. The avalanche destroyed whatever the earthquake might have spared, as young, jagged stone and ice were overlaid on village life, a process of a land formation in the high valleys that devastated as it filled Langtang Valley. Some residents knew where to run, occupying nearby caves. Most did not have time. The valley disappeared, leaving in its place new land, without a trace of what had been there minutes earlier.  

According to some accounts, the rockfall buried 116 houses, a cluster of teahouses, and a cheese factory. Over 300 people died instantly, some of them tourists, most of them Langtang residents. According to the first-hand account of Gyalbu Tamang, a Lantang resident,

My childhood memories are of a holy valley steeped in culture and religion. We were deeply ingrained into our traditions, carrying on as the spirits of our ancestors looked down upon us. For us the mountains are not inanimate, they are spiritual beings as well. Every rock, tree, the breeze fluttering the prayer flags, the water gushing out of the glaciers, herds of tahr grazing above the treeline, the alpine choughs soaring on the updrafts, were all fellow-sentient beings connected to humans through a divine bond.

I was not a witness, but when I arrived in Langtang four years after the earthquake and avalanche, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of complete awe. I was not only amazed by the scale but by the energy it took to cross the rockfall. I experienced an embattled relationship to land.

The extents of the glacier that landed on Langtang Village. The avalanche followed the earthquake and divided people in what was left of Langtang village from others huddled together near Bamboo village to the East. According to a USGS tectonic summary: “While commonly plotted as points on maps, earth-quakes of this size are more appropriately described as slip over a larger fault area. Thrust-faulting events of the size of the April 25, 2015, earthquake are typically about 100x50 km (length x width); early modelling of this earthquake implies dimensions of about 120x80 km, directed from the hypocenter eastward, and towards Kathmandu.”

The ground under my feet felt foreign, somewhere between the surface of another planet and how I imagined the earth might have looked before microorganisms, land plants, and soils crept across the rocky shores of Pangea. It was an infant land, free of lichens, weath- ering, and accumulation. This kind of blank space landed in one of the richest botanical refuges in the world. We arrived at the rockfall after admiring a range of plant types. In just a day the climatic variation offers low-lying subtropical forest to mid-elevation temperate forests of oak and pine, to alpine scrublands and grasses that seem to give way to bare rocks and snow cover. The rockfall seemed lifeless by comparison. Even after a long recovery period and ongoing reconstruction processes, the area remains a fragment site, an anomaly of early succession in a late succession landscape.

If aid is everywhere in Nepal, it hides when the earth begins to shake. Help was sluggish, and worsened by the borderization of our lands, since healthy foreigners were helped before suffering villagers. The dichotomies between the “West and the rest” were exposed at an international scale as humanitarian agencies scrambled through their largely urban protocols. The dichotomy impressed by those who write and defend policy is evident in that almost all of the Langtangpas were helicoptered to the Yellow Gumba Monastery in Kathmandu where they stayed for almost a year. Some are still there, as the promises of urban employment keep families from returning to Langtang. Why is the removal of people from place the default humanitarian response? The regulatory environment, the industrial scale of non-governmental agencies, and the stacks of policy that outline Langtang as a National Park do little to recover and heal people and place.

Forests on the other side of the valley were flattened by wind gusts created as the glacial till filled Langtang Valley. This is a valley that has hosted plant hunters and adventure tourists for more than a century, a place where locals care for tourists by opening their homes and sharing their ways of life.

“Ordinarily, I never question the ground I am on but in this place of determined verticals, everything seemed delicately perched, waiting for the day it would come tumbling down. What if that day happened to be when I was just passing by?”

          — Jamaica Kincaid, Among Flowers