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Glacial Flooding & Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Exchange and Field Training July 11-24, 2013 in Huaraz, Peru

Snow River  film  project   Stephanie  Spray   Harvard  University,  Anthropology  Department,  PhD  candidate   Snow  River  is  a  film  project  that  employs  ethnographic  research  and  an   attention  to  details  to  convey  the  impact  of  natural  disasters  on  individuals  and   communities,  as  well  as  the  work  of  scientists  who  travel  to  the  remote  regions   where  these  events  are  triggered.  Focusing  on  the  repercussions  of  the  May  5,  2012   flood  of  the  Seti  River  one  year  later,  Snow  River  is  conceived  with  the  hope  that  it  is   indeed  possible  to  convey  the  trauma  of  natural  disaster  survivors,  without   reducing  their  very  particular  experiences  and  life  circumstances  to  abstractions   about  the  “social,”  while  simultaneously  conveying  hard  facts  about  the  physical   environment  that  unleashes  such  events  in  the  first  place.  To  these  ends,  I   documented  in  video  the  work  of  scientists,  geographers,  geomorphologists  and   hydrologists  researching  the  origins  of  the  event  in  the  upper  Seti  River  basin,  as   well  as  some  of  the  intimate  human  stories  of  individuals  who  must  live  and  work   along  the  river  that  took  away  the  lives  and  livelihoods  of  their  families  and  friends.   Natural  disasters,  such  as  the  Seti  River  flood,  will  inevitably  increase  with  climate   change,  and  Snow  River  is  intended  to  enfold  the  magnitude  of  these  events  on  the   physical  environment  with  the  stories  of  humans  who  must  cope  with  the  scars  it   leaves  on  them  as  individuals  and  communities.   The  flood   On  the  morning  of  May  5,  2012,  Keshari  Pun  heard  an  unusual  sound  echoing   in  the  foothills  surrounding  her  humble  Nepali  village;  she  thought  that  perhaps  a   helicopter  was  approaching  from  an  expedition  in  the  Himalaya.  Then,  as  the  sound   increased  to  a  deafening  roar,  she  feared  the  worst  and  thought  the  hills  would   come  tumbling  down.  That’s  when  she  saw  the  massive  brown  dust  cloud,  and,  not   long  thereafter,  a  10  meter  wave  of  churning  earth,  water,  timber  and  boulders   rushing  down  the  river  at  a  furious  pace.  She  watched  with  horror  as  terraces  and   forest  crumbled  into  the  maelstrom.  She  was  one  of  the  fortunate,  for  her  village   was  on  a  small  plateau  above  the  Seti  River,  the  viscous  waters  of  which  would  soon   engulf  the  village  below,  Kharapani,  and  its  famed  natural  hot  springs.  It  was  9:30  in   the  morning.  She  and  others  made  frantic  phone  calls  to  people  in  the  Kharapani   bazaar,  warning  them  of  the  impending  destruction.  Many  did  not  believe  the  news   and  thought  it  was  a  hoax.  Ten  minutes  later,  Kharapani  was  leveled  to  a  boulder-­‐ ridden  muddy  plane.     Phul  Maya  Tamang  had  left  early  on  the  morning  of  May  5th  to  wash  dishes   for  a  middle  class  family  two  villages  away  from  her  rented  one-­‐room  shack  in  

Kharapani. Her  husband  had  gone  to  the  river  even  earlier  that  morning  to  mine   boulders  from  the  riverbed  of  the  Seti,  the  only  work  he  could  find  as  a  landless  man   living  in  the  area.  Later,  when  Phul  Maya  returned,  she  learned  that  the  river  had   swept  away  her  husband.  Stunned,  she  went  to  the  Gandaki  Hospital  in  Pokhara  a   few  days  later,  where  she  sorted  through  body  parts  and  found  her  husband’s  right   leg.  She  recognized  it  by  the  unusual  shape  of  the  big  toenail,  which  years  before  he   had  injured  while  breaking  boulders;  years  ago  it  had  fallen  off  and,  after  growing   back,  it  grew  in  two  pieces.  She  cremated  this  leg  on  the  banks  of  the  Seti  River   shortly  thereafter.  Now,  one  year  later,  in  May  2013,  she  is  afraid  to  walk  the  banks   of  the  river  that  took  her  husband,  for  she  believes  it  is  haunted,  and  says  she  can  no   longer  eat  meat,  as  it  reminds  her  of  the  corpses  she  saw  while  searching  for  her   husband’s  remains.    

                       Still  from  Snow  River,   Kharapani  in  May  2013  

Origin of  the  flood   While  the  flood  was  thought  initially  to  be  a  glacial  lake  outburst  flood   (GLOF),  and  reported  as  such  by  local  and  international  media,  this  conjecture  was   soon  disproved,  since  there  were  no  glacial  lakes  in  the  river  basin  at  the  source  of   the  flood.  Scientists  Jeffrey  Kargel,  from  the  University  of  Arizona,  and  Dhananjay   Regmi,  based  in  Kathmandu,  developed  a  working  hypothesis  to  address  the  key   question  about  the  flood:  what  was  the  source  of  water,  and  the  means  of  storing  it?   Using  satellite  observations  before  and  after  the  flood  of  May  5,  2012,  and  based  on   a  helicopter-­‐borne  field  reconnaissance  a  couple  weeks  after  the  disaster,  they   establish  a  working  hypothesis:  water  had  been  blocked  and  stored  by  layers  of  rock   fall  into  the  deep  gorge  near  the  upper  Seti  River  basin,  filling  it  during  the  couple   weeks  prior  to  the  disaster.  Thereafter,  a  large  rock  and  glacier  ice  avalanche  on  the   morning  of  May  5,  2012  caused  the  sudden  unleashing  of  this  naturally  dammed   reservoir.  This  hypothesis  was  supported  by  an  eyewitness  report  by  an  Avia  Club  


ultra-­‐lite aircraft  pilot,  Alexander  Maximov,  who  called  the  Pokhara  air  traffic   control  to  report  a  massive  avalanche  off  the  face  of  Annapurna  IV  early  on  May  5,   2012.    


                     Still  from  Snow  River,  Capt.  Maximov  in  May  2013                                                          Nepali   Times,  the  dust  cloud  seen  on  May  5,  2012       Nearly  one  year  later,  in  April  2013,  a  group  of  geographers  and   geomorphologists  on  a  trip  organized  by  Dr.  Jeffrey  Kargel  and  Dr.  Dhananjay  Regmi   travelled  by  helicopter  to  a  pitch  camp  at  the  upper  Seti  River  basin  where  they   collected  samples,  conducted  surveys,  and  made  detailed  maps  to  supplement   satellite  data.  I  travelled  and  camped  with  them,  shooting  as  they  explored  the   surrounding  landscape,  which  included  what  appeared  to  be  an  ancient  lake  bottom   alongside  glaciers  tumbling  down  from  Machhapuchhre,  and  as  they  planned  a   descent  into  what  they  later  learned  was  a  500  meter  slot  canyon  gorge,  likely  one   of  the  deepest  in  the  world.  Later  an  Australian  television  crew  joined  the  group,   and  I  shot  them  as  well,  to  provide  commentary  on  the  directed  nature  of  most   television  documentaries.  The  group  soon  aborted  the  idea  of  a  manned  descent  into   the  gorge,  for  they  deemed  it  a  “suicide  mission,”  and  looked  for  an  alternative   solution.  To  these  ends,  I  assisted  them  by  customizing  an  everyday  Nepali   household  item,  a  plastic  barrel  for  storing  water,  in  which  we  placed  a  number  of   GoPro  cameras  and  weighted  with  sandbags,  which  was  then  deployed  into  the   gorge  via  the  helicopter.  I  also  took  footage  from  the  helicopter  itself  using  a   mounted  GoPro  camera.  While  this  footage  will  be  in  Snow  River,  it  has  also  assisted   the  scientists  in  determining  the  depth  and  composition  of  the  gorge.      


Still from  Snow  River,  upper  Seti   River  basin  in  May  2013       I  then  spent  weeks  in  the  villages  of  Kharapani,  Sadal,  and  other  villages   affected  by  the  flood.  This  is  how  I  met  Kesari  Pun,  in  whose  home  I  stayed,  and  Phul   Maya  Tamang,  whom  I  interviewed  at  length.  I  also  documented  the  work  of  men  as   they  worked  with  their  feet  in  the  very  same  river  that  killed  Phul  Maya’s  deceased   husband,  performing  the  very  same  labor.  I  believe  that  the  combination  of  the   footage  with  the  scientists  and  what  I  have  with  villagers  will  allow  me  to  show  two   differing  perspectives  of  this  catastrophic  event.     Context  and  Style   Most  mainstream  documentaries  seek  to  present  an  event  or  topic  in  as   seemingly  a  holistic  view  as  possible;  to  distill  their  film  subjects’  experiences  into   manageable  sound  bites;  and  to  convey  that  the  documentary  reveals  or  witnesses   something  already  past.  In  my  work,  I  wish  to  keep  the  viewer  in  the  immediacy  of   the  moment,  such  that  the  present  time  of  the  film  feels  like  an  unfolding  in  itself,   rather  than  documentation  of  something  remote  or  in  the  past.  I  attempt  this  in   shooting  techniques  and  editing,  seeking  to  allow  time  to  unfold  within  shots  to   convey  a  sense  of  how  time  passes  in  a  particular  place.  I  attend  not  only  to  what   people  say,  but  how  they  say  it  and  how  they  live  it—or  how  they  don’t.  Most  of   what  I  shoot  is  “observational,”  in  that  I  usually  do  not  interview  film  subjects,  with   the  hope  that  what  we  need  to  know  will  unfold  naturally  in  the  course  of  the  film,   and  that  any  conversations  are  spontaneous  and  undirected.     In  working  with  flood  eyewitnesses  and  victims  in  Snow  River,  exactly  one   year  after  the  May  2012  flood  event,  I  moved  away  from  one  aspect  of  my  usual   approach,  for  instead  of  remaining  in  an  “observational”  point  of  view,  I  choose  to   shoot  informal  interviews  with  villagers  in  and  around  Kharapani.  I  felt  this  was  a    


situation in  which  an  extended  direct  address  to  the  camera  was  an  ethical   imperative,  and  that  Snow  River  could  still  retain  some  qualities  that  I  find  valuable   in  verité  filmmaking.  In  my  editing,  rather  than  extensively  edit  or  chop  up  these   interviews,  I  will  allow  the  film  subjects  to  ramble,  as  revelations  are  often  found  in   unexpected  turns  of  phrase  or  gestures.      

         Still  from  Snow  River,  Phul  Maya   Tamang  informal  interview     Post-­‐Production   I  am  currently  working  in  the  post-­‐production  phase  of  the  film,  editing  and   subtitling  footage.  I  am  also  assessing  what  I  have  shot  to  see  what  else  I  might  need   to  shoot  to  give  my  film  subjects,  particularly  those  in  the  village,  greater  depth  of   being  on  the  screen.  The  film  will  likely  begin  with  footage  taken  in  the  upper  Seti   River  basin  and  include  the  GoPro  footage  that  I  shot,  which  at  times  looks  like   animated  satellite  imagery.  This  footage  will  allow  for  a  distanced  tone  and   approach,  perhaps  even  seemingly  “objective,”  which  is  reflective  of  the  general   attitude  of  the  geomorphologists  and  engineers  who  study  these  regions.  The  film   will  transition  to  a  focus  on  the  individuals  living  in  and  around  Kharapani  as  they   seek  to  piece  together  a  living  day  by  day,  along  the  banks  of  the  river  that  has   irrevocably  altered  the  course  of  their  lives  forever.     While  I  had  a  small  inkling  of  the  pain  that  an  event  such  as  the  May  5,  2012   flood  might  cause,  it  was  only  through  direct  engagement  with  these  people,  which   entailed  my  own  vulnerability  and  dependence  upon  their  goodwill,  that  I  came  to   experience  a  small  fraction  of  their  pain  and  fear.  I  hope  that  the  final  edited  piece   will  enable  their  stories  to  be  heard  and  their  daily  life  struggles  to  be  seen   alongside  the  immense  challenges  of  what  it  means  to  implement  effective  risk   response  and  development  solutions  in  places  such  as  Nepal.  I  believe  that  in  spite  


of the  specificity  of  the  event  and  my  film  subjects’  particular  woes  and  experiences,   that  the  disaster  and  the  stories  of  its  survivors  speak  to  the  fragility  of  human  life   more  broadly,  which  is  heightened  among  vulnerable  populations  in  countries  such   as  Nepal.  This  is  what  will  continue  to  guide  me  as  I  edit.      


Stephanie Spray: Snow River film project  

Snow River is a film project that employs ethnographic research and an attention to details to convey the impact of natural disasters on ind...

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