published on 13 October 2007 in ecosystems

Environmental risk in Nepal

Institutional management
The government institution in charge of management of natural resources in Nepal, is the Ministry of Population and Environment,  and one of its primary tasks is to promote sustainable development policies and correct exploitation of the natural resources. The Ministry is also responsible for matters regarding population growth and domestic emigration of the population, which are phenomena that are closely connected with environmental issues.
Although,  over the past forty years,  the Government has adopted a series of laws in order to regulate the forest sector and to protect the ecosystem, most of these have not been accompanied by the programmes that are required to enforce the regulations practically and to control access to the resources.
With the economic and social changes in the country, the exploitation of natural resources has grown in an uncontrolled manner up to the unsustainable level of today, while political instability, corruption and lack of motivation have contributed to the total absence of policies that are suited for the treatment of both civil and industrial harmful waste. The level of pollution in the cities is serious, and even more serious is the lack of regulations and control by the competent authorities.
The agricultural reform
Since Nepal is a country with a prevalently agricultural economy, the environmental risks it faces are closely connected with the use of the resources and the land by the farming population. For this reason, in 1997, the Nepalese government adopted a twenty-year plan, an agricultural reform called the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) which, through a series of reforms, investments and ecosustainable solutions, has the declared aim of transforming agricultural activities, which today are carried out prevalently on subsidies, into profitable ecocompatible ones.
Through the modernization of the agricultural techniques and the promotion of biodiversity, together with a research of solutions to the more pressing problems of pollution, Nepal is trying to solve its principal environmental problems and to move development in an ecosustainable direction.
In this way only one aspect of the problem is being dealt with, but as we will see, the causes of environmental degradation and the factors that have led to unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources are varied, and require specific policies in order to face them successfully.

Economic, political, social factors
Population growth

The most important resources of the country (land, forests and water) are experiencing a crisis today due to different causes, that are also linked to each other. The main cause, i.e. the uncontrolled growth of the population, has remained unaltered for forty years. From 1960 till today, in fact, the population has increased at a rate of  over two per cent per annum, provoking an unsustainable  pressure on the natural resources and a constant increase in the density of the population in the territory, also aggravated by the deep political and institutional crisis that has been afflicting the country for at least ten years.
Maoist revolution
In 1990, in fact, after the popular revolution that abolished the old political system in favour of a parliamentary democracy, from the remote areas of the country an armed Maoist revolt arose which jeopardized the management of the institutions in Nepal. It began as an uprising against the system of political favouritism and corruption that characterized the development policies of the nation. The revolt soon transformed into a real civil war, that slowly jeopardized the existence of the rural communities in most parts of the country, as they were caught in the grip of this violence. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants living in the remote areas were forced to abandon their lands and move to the part of the country that was under political and military  control, such as the Kathmandu valley, the Terai plains and the Central valleys of Nepal. The consequences of this situation had an impressive impact on the exploitation of the resources from two points of view. On one hand the demand for land for cultivation and the construction of the emigrants’ homes led to the adoption of an uncontrolled deforestation policy, which also aggravated the level of pollution of the water, the air and the soil. On the other hand, the abandoning of vast areas of the country produced a degradation of the environmental conditions due to the erosion of the non-cultivated land and the collapsing of the main infrastructures, such as roads, water channelling systems and land terracing.
Crisis of the Institutions
The difficulty in carrying out a prevention plan for environmental damages and sustainable development is aggravated by the poor control that the institutional system has on phenomena that influence the entire process: the lack of an efficient ecosustainable energy policy, the indiscriminate sale of lumber and water courses, the lack of control over the polluting emissions of industries and transportation vehicles, the state of the waters and the management of waste disposal. These, today, are the principal challenges to be met in order to obtain results in defending the environment and the natural resources, and to contain the threats that weigh on  the fragile, unique Nepalese ecosystem.

Principal dangers
The more urgent environmental risks can be classified into two principal categories, i.e. those regarding the urban areas and those characterizing the rural areas of the country. For the former, the problems are mainly related to the state of pollution of the air and water, and the risks connected with production and disposal of industrial and civil waste, for the latter, the problems are closely correlated to the state of the soil and the deforestation process.
On the whole, five urgent problems to be faced have been identified : the deforestation process, soil erosion, air and water pollution,  solid waste disposal.
In the last fifteen years, the overall surface of the forests in the country has decreased by over 25%, while the nearly desert areas, covered by shrubs and low vegetation have increased by 126%. These are precise warning signals of an uncontrollable deforestation process that is endangering the survival of the biodiversity of the country, that involves the disappearance of various species of flora and fauna. The main reasons are connected with the demand for land for urban settlements and for the agricultural activities, together with the uncontrolled consumption and sale of lumber.
Soil erosion
Besides the progressive disappearance of the surface area covered by forests, there are also difficulties deriving from the geophysical shape of the country and the process of erosion and degradation of the soil due, partly, to natural causes, and partly to the inconsiderate activity of man.
The Nepalese soil, in fact, is vulnerable to erosion phenomena and landslides, in fact  earthquakes, landslides and landslips are not uncommon, and often these are accompanied by dramatic consequences. Also climatic phenomena have an important role, specially those connected with the monsoon rains that periodically provoke floods, the overflowing of rivers and lakes, with consequent damages to the few infrastructures that are present, such as roads and channelling systems.
Besides this practically natural predisposition, there are also the damages provoked by the activities of man, such as the intensive exploitation of the plains and the hillsides for agriculture, the decline of the fertility of the soil as a consequence of years of monocultures (prevalently rice and cereals), the completion of development projects of the infrastructure networks – roads, dams and bridges without the necessary preliminary studies on their environmental impact, the inconsiderate use of non-natural pesticides and fertilizers and the consequent change in the chemical structure of the soil.
Deforestation and erosion are directly connected. Increasingly vast areas of land are deforested to make space for fields and houses. The number of trees that contribute, with their roots, to keeping the ground in place, specially in case of inundations and landslides, has declined drastically. For this reason the phenomenon of landslips and landslides occurs mainly in the areas with a high population density, and the physical safety of the inhabitants is therefore at risk.
And if this is the situation in the countryside, the threat for the ecosystem is even greater in the areas that are traditionally exposed to environmental risks – the urban areas.

Growth of the cities

The last decade of the history of Nepal has been characterized by an impressive growth of the urban and sub-urban population and the related infrastructures. Since the rural areas of the country have slowly proved to be unsuited for the development and economic growth of its inhabitants, due to the concentration of the economic activities around the urban areas of Nepal, an uninterrupted flow of emigrants is concentrating in relatively small areas, particularly in the Valley of Kathmandu.
This situation, besides bringing about the problem of overpopulation in the area, has primarily led to an exponential increase in air and water pollution and the onset of a problem that had never been faced adequately till today, the treatment of solid and chemical waste.
The problem of the quality of air and atmospheric pollution is particularly recent for Nepal as the industrialization process and use of motor vehicles are relatively new elements in Nepalese society.
However in the urban areas and in the Kathmandu valley in particular, due to its particular morphological conformation and the presence of mountain ranges all around the perimeter, the quality of the air has deteriorated remarkably during the course of the years for many reasons.
Economic development, triggered by the growth of tourism and by the urbanization process,  has favoured the diffusion of two and four wheeled vehicles that are highly polluting due to the poor quality of the fuel and the inadequate maintenance of the engines. Kathmandu today is a city with very bad air and chaotic traffic and the number of  private car matriculations  is constantly increasing.
Also public transport is responsible for the level of pollution, so much so that  since the year 2000, the characteristic Tempo, the three wheel diesel vehicles used by the entire population for transportation across the city, have been banned from the valley and have been replaced by models that run on gas or electricity. Notwithstanding a mild improvement, the quantity of minibuses and taxis circulating on the roads is high, and this contributes to worsening an already critical situation.
Even outside the cities, pollution remains a problem, the quality of air in the suburban hinterland and in the surrounding countryside is not good. In fact, due to the increased flow of population to the towns, around the Kathmandu valley a number of cement and brick factories have been set up, and according to a number of studies these are the principal causes of pollution, due to the harmful emissions of exhaust gases in the surrounding air. But in the rest of Nepal the situation is not very different because out of the industries operating in the country, at least 74% have been declared highly polluting.
Also the soil has many problems connected with pollution, for present or past reasons. In fact, since 1960 on the fields in Nepal, large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers have been used to boost the agricultural productivity of the country, without any real policies regarding the treatment of toxic residues from these substances and without the awareness of the threat of the problem of soil erosion.
Tons of pesticides and other chemical residues were therefore secretly disposed of in the waters and in the soil, without any concern for  health and safety regulations. Among these substances there surely were the persistent organic pollutants (or POP), which are among the most harmful substances for the environment due to their toxicity and capacity to accumulate for long periods of time.
And today, many tons of these substances are stocked in deposits with poor safety measures, waiting to be treated.
Even normal rubbish, the waste produced by the population, is creating a serious problem for the state of the waters and the soil. It has been estimated that the daily production of waste, pro capita, is of over half a kilo per day, that is disposed of in the rivers or in open-air dumps, thus creating sanitary problems and contributing to the state of pollution of the country.
This is particularly evident in the cities, that are invariably dirty, where harmful waste from the industries, from the hospitals and from the commercial activities is abandoned in the environment. In many rural areas, where domestic waste is thrown on the sides of the road near to the rivers, the situation is unchanged, thus contributing to the deterioration of  the state of the water and the soil.
The state of pollution of the waters, and specially in the highly populated areas, is another important protagonist of the environmental risks in Nepal.  If, in the rural areas, the problem is usually represented by access to sources of clean water, in the urban areas the rivers are regularly used as dumps, the Nepalese towns do not have a suitable sewage system for their population and the city drains inevitably pour into the rivers, without undergoing any treatment whatsoever.
Kathmandu, in particular, has a chronic lack of water, as also most of the villages and cities in the hills have too. The amount of clean water that is available, is often insufficient for the entire population, so that water supplies reach less than 80% of the citizens. For this reason it is common to see lines of women and children queuing for water at the large public fountains scattered around the city, to fill up the quantity of daily water necessary to wash up, cook, do the washing and for drinking.

Climate change and glaciers
Even Nepal is conditioned by the main climatic changes of the planet, in particular the increase in temperature, which has been estimated to be around 0.5 degrees centigrade per decade. The impact of the global warming on the perennial snows of the Himalayan mountain range is particularly dramatic. In the last fifty years due to this there have been a number of glacial lake floods, better known as GLOF (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood) that are characterized by a flow of water, mud and debris that invest and destroy everything.
These lakes form due to the progressive melting of the glaciers, because of the temperatures that are higher than average, and they increase in volume, near to morainic formations that act as embankments.  When the mass of water exceeds the limits supported by these natural dams, or when seismic events, even of a minor intensity, hit their fragile structure, these cause devastating floods.
Dig Tsho Lake
Unfortunately, the above phenomenon is sadly known in Nepal, because it has occurred quite frequently in the last thirty years, but mainly because at the higher altitudes there are many dozens of lakes that are potentially dangerous. After 1985, when an  outburst flood  of mud and water flowed from the Dig Tsho glacial lake into the underlying valleys destroying everything, the institutions and the international community realized the danger and started to investigate on the nature of the phenomenon and its threat.
Since then, many similar episodes have occurred, even though these were less destructive in nature, and the government has begun a systematic monitoring of the lakes and the withdrawal of the perennial snow line. In one of the researches carried out during these years, it has been pointed out that the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake, situated to the north of Kathmandu, has increased its extension from 0.2 to 1.7 square kilometres, thus causing a constant source of preoccupation and the need to monitor the phenomenon constantly. In the rest of the world, the decrease in the size of the glaciers is an urgent threat, here in Nepal, the consequences of a similar disaster would be  unimaginable.

Written by Filippo Tessari

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006