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Nepal’s development projects will remain in limbo if it fails to achieve an environmental balance

Nepal’s development projects will remain in limbo if it fails to achieve an environmental balance

A deceased rhino is being lifted from a ditch in Chitwan.

On February 8, 2022, a Malabar silkcotton tree (commonly referred to as simalin Nepal) was found along the Prithvi highway. cut down. The nest of an endangered species, the Griffon Vulture, was found on the tree. Pokhara Bird SocietyThe Department of Roads was asked to not remove the tree by the griffon, which had laid an egg there on January 4. The organisation was ignored and the tree was taken down, angering conservationists.

Their anger was also valid. The most endangered vulture of the nine found in the country is the griffon. Experts say they have discovered four locations in the country where griffon vultures have laid eggs. This is still a contentious issue between the government and bird conservationists.

The incident occurred at a time wildlife activists were critiquing the death of a Chitwan rhinoceros who died in a ditch on January 23.

Over the past decade, Nepal has been trying to find the right environment-development balance, but due to haphazard planning of development projects, Nepal has not been able to find it. While conservation experts claim that Nepal is trying to destroy nature and the other side claims that these people are anti-development. A lot of the country’s development projects are still in limbo due to inability to find the right balance.

Crucial conflicts

A deceased rhino is being lifted from a ditch in Chitwan.
A Chitwanese rhinoceros is being removed from a ditch.

Environmental activists may be right in some ways. The negligence of contractors and project managers caused the death of the rhinoceros in Chitwan. In its report, the committee that was formed to investigate the matter also blamed the District Forest Office as well as Chitwan National Park. The committee reported that the road was constructed in an unsafe way due to its proximity to the national park.

This shows how many development projects are not properly researched and assessed for potential environmental and wildlife damage. Wildlife activists are frustrated by this because they claim that these incidents would not be a problem, if people responsible for building these projects were sensitive to the issue. 

Recent developments include the Gaurishankar Conservation Area projectThe GCAP and the different hydropower development projects in the area are at odds. GCAP has been asking these projects to halt construction until it gets its permission. It also requested that they complete an environmental impact assessment.

However, hydro projects have stated that their initial work on this project has halted due to the EIA. Bimal Gurung, deputy manager of Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project says it was not practical to request an EIA in the initial stages of the project.

Bigu Rural municipality has also spoken out against the GCAP, claiming that it impedes the progress of various projects that will be in its rural municipality.

Yudhisthira Khadka, the chair of the rural municipality, says that it was unconstitutional on the GCAP’s part to halt the construction of these projects due to the EIA. 

Khadka states that if we only think about the environment we will never progress.

Another example is the exploitation the Kamala river. Dhanusha police confiscated seven tippers and an excavator from seven tippers on February 14. Police discovered that the tippers were being used by China Railway Engineering Group, which was responsible for expanding the Kamala-Kanchanpur section on the East-West Highway.

Police claim that the Chinese company has no permission to extract any water from the river. However, the company argues it should be allowed because it was building a section along the river. Even the Department of Roads has sided with the Chinese team and wants these roads completed as soon a possible.

Preparations are underway for installation of a fiber lotus in Kamalpokhari, Kathmandu.

The Kathmandu valley has been engulfed by the issue of environmental balance in developmental projects. The Kathmandu metropolitan area is set to inaugurate the Kamalpokhari renovation despite the protest. Activists had criticized the KMC’s use of concrete to destroy the ecosystem around the pond. The project was still approved. 

According to the KMC, it had consulted heritage campaigners and experts. However, these people claim that the original plan to use concrete to build the pond was drawn up at the beginning and that the KMC didn’t want to change its mind and build the pond it desired after noise settled. Water experts have said that the pond cannot be considered a wetland as plans are being made to build a fibre lotus at the center of the pond.

Another project that is currently in limbo because of the conservation-vs-development debate is the Kathmandu–Terai Fast Track. The Nepal Army, which is executing the project, has asked the government for permission to work in areas where the EIA has not been completed. 

Bikash Pokharel, project head, says the army has realized that it must acquire land in areas that have not been subject to the EIA. He is asking the government for speedy action if it wants the project to be completed on time. He claims that the project can’t move forwards as the army can’t cut trees in areas without the permission of the government.

The Ministry of Forest and Environment has yet to reach an agreement with the army, as it knows that doing the EIA only after the work has been done in the area is incorrect. However, the army has been pressing the government to get things moving quickly.

Environment v development

Army cutting down tree for the Kathmandu Terai fast track, one of the biggest development projects that are currently underway.
Army cutting down a tree to support the Kathmandu Terai fasttrack, one of the most important development projects currently underway.

Incomplete development projects can result from inability to find the right balance between development and conservation.

The government officials are also at odds. A verbal argument took place at the Delegated Legislation and Government Assurance Committee of the National Assembly in early January. Baburam Adhikari (the then defence secretary) expressed dismay at the Ministry of Forest and Environment’s nine-month delay in granting permission to them to cut down trees. Adhikari was supported in this by a joint secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure. He said that the forest ministry took ten years to give permission to his ministry to chop down trees, even though they had a theoretical agreement.

Man Bahadur Khadka (Director of Department of Forests and Soil Conservations) replied by saying that being a national pride project does not exempt development projects form following rules and regulations. He even accused some ministers and leaders of not consulting them before granting permission.

Khadka stated that we cannot allow anyone to cut more trees then what was agreed upon during the meeting. 

Experts believe that development projects should involve some destruction of nature. They say that despite this, concerned bodies should strive to do minimal destruction. Conservation has been pushed to the sidelines by policies that favor destruction. Experts say that the tussle among different government agencies has not helped.

Bhushan Tuladhar is an environmentalist who says Nepal has a problem as it only sees development in the construction of roads and other projects. He believes that the country’s development projects have stagnated because of this limitation and the neglect of social development.

Prosperity does not always refer to money. That was what we needed to see. We must try to leave behind resources for the next generation so when we are working on megaprojects we need to think about future. Tuladhar added that it was time Nepal began to integrate environment and development.

Surya Raj Acharya, an infrastructure expert, says Nepal should begin to evaluate the pros and cons of these projects instead of just objecting. 

I think it is becoming fashionable to be against something. He says that we need to think about what our options are before we take a position.

Environmental assessment is a formality 

Nepal has its own rules for balancing development with demolition. These rules have become a formality over the years.

According to the Environment Protection ActAll major projects must do an environmental impact analysis (EIA), and smaller ones should do an initial environment exam (IEE). These reports should include information about the environmental impact of the project and the possible mitigations. 

Acharya claims that these reports are merely formalities and that development projects have caused significant damage to the surrounding. These are the causes of flash floods and landslides in various areas.

A poorly prepared report led to over 1,000 additional trees being cut during Narayanghat–Muglin road construction. Similar situations are occurring again, as the army claims it needs to reduce more trees.

Nature’s fury

Landslide debris being removed from the Butwal–Palpa section of Siddhartha Highway

Even though there are suggestions in the reports, developers don’t always follow them and do what they like. EIA reports recommend that all hydropower plants release 10 percent water during winter. This is not a standard that everyone follows. These projects often ask for someone they trust to prepare the EIA. However, they can only add the things that the project is willing. 

Tuladhar believes the problem is not paying attention to the errors. Tuladhar says that if development projects remove 1,000 trees, they will plant 1,000 trees. In Nepal, however, they rarely do this. Even though they do an afforestation program, they rarely take care these plants. 

Tuladhar says that 1,200 trees were cut down during the ring road expansion. But, did we plant trees to replace them?”

To save face, developers have claimed that they haven’t been able plant trees because there is no land. They also state that when they approach the Forest Ministry, they are not taken seriously. 

A former member of the National Planning Commission, Krishna Prasad Oli, says that he is concerned with the “dozer development” that has taken place in the hills of Nepal. These roads were paved without any environmental assessment, resulting in landslides.

Yes, roads benefit people. But, we needed to look at the ripple effect and how it is wasting taxpayers’ money, says Oli.

Experts agree that Nepal should implement the EIA in order to improve its development projects. Tuladhar said it was high time Nepal learned from other countries and followed it. 

He suggests that we can learn good practices from these countries to help protect the environment.

Tuladhar states that Nepal’s hills and mountains are fragile as they are among the youngest countries in the world. He believes that this is a crucial point to remember before developing projects in these areas. They will have a long-lasting ripple effect.

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