Nepal ecosystem debates should shift to non-human ecosystems

The geographical diversity of Nepal never ceases to amaze people. Because of this variation, the country is rich in natural resources and biodiversity alike, giving rise to unique ecosystems in Nepal. In awe of the same, Sunita Chaudhary grew herself as an ecosystem services specialist and is working at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Chaudhary has a graduate degree in protected areas (Austria) and a PhD in natural resources management (Australia). She first started working at ICIMOD in 2009 and then joined again in 2020 after she completed her further studies. At ICIMOD, she works for research policy support with a focus on capacity building and awareness regarding Nepal ecosystems.

Recently, Onlinekhabar caught up with her to discuss the areas of the Nepal ecosystems that are easily missed from environmental discussions. Excerpts:

There is no debate regarding Nepal’s diverse geography as well as ecosystems. Regardless, what are the areas that people do not connect to the Nepal ecosystems?

First of all, Nepal has many mountain and hill ecosystems. In total, it has 118 ecosystems that have been globally classified. Its Terai-based ecosystems and, to an extent, hilly region ecosystems are relatively explored. However, there are many areas that we have not reached and, hence, we are yet to discover more kinds of ecosystems, even totally new ones. Yet, where people have reached, solid waste is becoming the next emerging issue.

Sunita_Chaudhary-Nepal-ecosystem-specialist ICIMOD
Sunita Chaudhary, ICIMOD specialist about Nepal ecosystems. Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD

There are many ignored areas. Dialogues, discussions and even awareness about the ecosystems reaching outside Kathmandu is still a challenge. 

Conservation-wise, Nepal is rich in forest and doing better in its conservation with forest presence increasing from 38 per cent (on average) five years ago to 41.59 per cent today. But, the destruction of the Nepal ecosystems is an equally prominent issue. The focus is more on protected areas like Chitwan National Park, which is doing better. 

On the other hand, the wetland areas even Ramsar sites are heavily ignored; it is degrading every day though its number has increased. Some 50 per cent of the wetlands have been encroached for settlement or market or dried down. They are great at water retention and important in terms of flood and drought too, so we need to talk more about them.

Climate change is the talk of the century. Yet, has the nation fully understood what impacts climate change has on everyday lives and the Nepal ecosystems?

When we talk about climate change, it is more focused on the human world. But, the non-human world is often ignored. Climate change has got more traction, but animal welfare is not prioritised. The avalanches followed by the 2015 earthquake killed many people in the mountain region. Yet, there have been no studies conducted regarding the impact on wildlife. 

I recently went to Langtang and glaciers are melting there too. In Kyanjin there, there are many bears and other critically endangered species. Many of the species are travelling to lower grounds. This is exposing them to “modern” human lifestyles, junk foods and human solid waste, causing microplastics to reach their stomach. Modern human lifestyle is degrading the forest and so far about one to two km of forests are already gone. It will take at least 15 to 20 years to recuperate yet that is also heavily ignored.

Nepal ecosystems in mountain - Kyanjin Gompa- the last settlement of Langtang valley
Kyanjin Gompa, the last settlement of Langtang valley. Photo Courtesy: Sunita Chaudhary

Similarly, cases of human-wildlife conflict are also increasing as habitat range is shifting and so is inter-species mingling. The bears are attacking the households in search of specific fruits and vegetation for hibernation. But, that is natural when tourists are flowing in and, due to human intervention and climate change, their habitat is disturbed. Habitats of red pandas are also disturbed. 

There are many Nepal ecosystems in the mountains existing on a smaller scale. The effects of climate change and change in eating habits and human lifestyle, even in the mountains, have hampered the overall ecosystem. The change in wetlands and impacts of climate change have a cascading impact on society. Everyone needs to look into that. National parks are positive so are the private and research organisations so that is a good thing.

How have you observed the implementation and penalisation of conservation acts and policies here, in particular in the context of the Nepal ecosystems?

Implementation is impacted due to limited funding, from the national government. First, our federal system is still in the experimental phase and the local government is yet to get the required power to correct their ways locally. Second, the benefits of Nepal ecosystem conservation are all indirect. Hence, it is only indirectly connected to the national gross domestic product, and the government easily sidelines the sector from its priority and focuses on concrete physical infrastructures. 

Meanwhile, the private sector is also inactive and irresponsible as it is not owning up to its actions and subsequent impacts including its carbon footprint. We need more synergy among them.

I believe that national parks are better in this implementation, maybe because of army intervention. National parks in Terai are better; however, the human resources in the mountainous areas are very few and they are not enough for vigilant monitoring in all areas.

Regarding penalisation, it is irregular. Poaching is rampant in mountainous regions where the outside poachers have taken advantage of the thin population and lay traps to hunt the animals. As a remedy, we can use tracking and chipping the wildlife but it is difficult. 

Yak in Langtang village Nepal ecosystems in mountains
Yak in Langtang village. Photo Courtesy: Sunita Chaudhary

To better curb the lack of implementation, stakeholders are focusing on the census of all species including the red panda and snow leopard. As it depends on the budget and the human resources, I am hopeful to see national and international funding for the same.

If there are problems, there should be solutions too. What measures do you think can people take to better the Nepal ecosystems?

In Langtang, locals are using firewood for household chores and their lifestyle. Meanwhile, locals have made a small hydropower project there. However, the fuel to operate the hydropower is coming from the forest and they are only making use of the hydropower to fulfil 30 per cent of their consumption. However, we are pushing for awareness with a focus to optimise hydropower and fulfilling their remaining 70 per cent of power consumption with renewable resources.

Apart from this, we have to engage and mobilise our young population in conservation efforts. We have to give more priority to the objective as well as engage them in training and workshops. ICIMOD is organising a youth engagement hub and national workshops, starting in July, so interested ones can participate.

You have pointed out that active local participation is lacking in Nepal ecosystem management. How can the country mobilise locals better?

environment campaigns
Representational image. Photo: Pexels/ Artem Podrez:

Since the local government would rather prioritise infrastructural development projects than environmental issues including the Nepal ecosystem management, it is natural to have low priority.

Local people are less incentivised, especially in conservation efforts and their waste segregation and disposal habits. Hence, if we can increase that, the mobilisation can be encouraged. Ideas regarding the mobilisation of local people or local resources are also not clear in the minds of those in power systems either as they are not well-rounded in information.

We need to work on the sectoral division among the government bodies and agencies. For better management of the Nepal ecosystems, we need to have synergy among all stakeholders encouraging them to work together, and bridge the gap in coordination and communication while focusing on conflict and their remedy management. 

Cooperation is with our neighbours and regional efforts are our plus point so that we can capitalise on too.

In what areas do people need to work for the next five years so that different Nepal ecosystems are conserved?

In the coming years, we have to prioritise solid waste management and curb its impacts on the Nepal ecosystems. Next, we have to focus on clean energy and work on ways to support tourism, which is one of the key revenue-generating ways. 

Further, the projects that we undertake all need to undergo a detailed assessment of the environment and its impacts that ensure efforts of the Nepal ecosystem conservation and preservation. Awareness and sensitisation in the area should be the way forward.

Nepal also is included on the top 10 list of disaster-prone countries. We have a few institutions working in the field, but we now need to focus on technology and automation to get timely information and avoid life-threatening impacts, even by a second. 

Last but not the least, we need to invest in more surveys and scientific research for more information and focus on local capacity building involving youth coupled with local governments that have a recovery plan in place.

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