World leaders, scientists and journalists are currently in Paris days for the Conference of the Parties to discuss global warming and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions particularly, carbon dioxide emissions. Although Nepal’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is insignificant, less than one percent, Nepali delegates are also participating in the conference. Hopefully, they are deliberating on Nepal’s forest policy, mainly the achievements of community forest management and forest conservation programmes that help carbon sequestration and other clean and alternative energy programmes to reduce carbon emissions. Forest management programmes in Nepal have been highly successful, particularly in the mountainous region, in improving the socioeconomic conditions of the people. This has decreased the pressure on forest resources in recent years. But this is changing due to the ongoing crises in the country.
Nepal is prone to multiple natural disasters such as floods, landslides, snow avalanches, thunderstorms, droughts, earthquakes and epidemics. In particular, floods, landslides, hailstorms and drought occur in regular basis in the country. The fragile mountains and flood-prone plains combined with a lack of awareness, illiteracy, poverty, political conflict, rapid and unplanned urbanisation, and poor institutional and legal frameworks for disaster risk management make the Nepali people, their property and the country’s infrastructure highly vulnerable to natural hazards. The Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks that took place earlier this year was a terrible calamity for Nepal as it affected more than one-third of the country. According to the National Planning Commission, nearly 9,000 people died and more than 22,000 people were injured in the quake. Likewise, the quake destroyed and damaged more than half a million houses and affected eight million people, almost one-third of the population of Nepal.
And less than six months after the quake, India imposed a blockade on Nepal. As a result, the country is facing an acute shortage of petroleum products such as diesel, petrol, kerosene and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) since the last three months. These concurrent natural and political disasters in Nepal have added to the pressure on forest resources for daily use and as well as for construction. The demand for firewood for cooking has increased in urban and sub-urban households, hotels and restaurants. In the earthquake-affected areas, the arrival of winter has increased the demand of wood for heating purposes because the quake victims are still residing in temporary shelters and they do not have any other alternative to stay warm.
According to government estimates, more than 33 million cubic feet of timber will be required for the reconstruction of the earthquake-damaged houses. Therefore, it has formulated a policy for the collection, sale and distribution of timber from Chure region. Similarly, to cushion the impact of the fuel shortage, the government is now also selling 100 kgs of firewood for each household on an average and more to the hotels, restaurants and organisations as a substitute of LPG. Unofficial reports claim that the demand for energy in the hotels and restaurants is higher than government estimates. Additionally, political instability, limited monitoring in the Chure and Tarai regions have increased illegal harvesting of forests and deforestation in recent days. The increased demand of timber and firewood has necessitated the harvesting of more trees. According to a study, one kg of firewood generates approximately 1.5 kg equivalent of carbon emission. Therefore, the sharp rise in the demand and use of firewood could undo the gains made by Nepal in minimising carbon missions through years of persistent efforts.
Furthermore, past studies have shown that environmental degradation in poor countries is dominated by the poverty-environment hypothesis, which asserts that poverty alleviation is a precondition for environmental sustainability. The hypothesis is based on the fact that poor people rely more than others on common property resources such as forests to fulfil their basic requirements. We know that forests act as a safety net during disasters mainly for poor and vulnerable communities. The Post Disaster Needs Assessment mentions that income shock from the earthquake is likely to push an additional 700,000 people below the poverty line. Similarly, the Nepal Rastra Bank estimates that the ongoing blockade by India and the Tarai agitation will push another 800,000 people below the poverty line in Nepal. It looks as though the impact of the natural and political disaster along with climate change will make more Nepalis vulnerable. And all of this is likely to make forest conservation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation a challenge for Nepal in the future.
(This article was published in The Kathmandu Post 9th December 2015.)