Politics of Environment

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In the last few months and more intensely in the last few weeks or so, a very different debate has started within the conservation groups. The issue is so appealing that even the senior government officials could not keep but share their views through social media. The issue is about conservation of Chure: the southernmost frontier in the Himalayan range, referred to in literature as the Shiwaliks.

The culprit is the mining of sand, gravel and stone (SGS) in the Chure Piedmont, which  began drawing attention of many when the story was covered, some weeks ago, by a leading newspaper showing picture of tens of heavy machines including bulldozers, excavators and crushers mining and loading SGS in hundreds of trucks in the plains of Chure. The material is exported to construction sites cross the border to India. The mining is so rampant that many places in Chure area already looks devastated.

Chure has always been in the publicity in conservation because of its vulnerability to erosion due to its fragile formation and increased human interfaces. Anyone driving along the East-West Highway could see the eroded hill slopes and ever expanding flood plains in Chure, which made Chure case visible. It came into focused limelight when President RB Yadav, who hails from one of the districts south of Chure, took keen interest in its protection and ordered the government to initiate a conservation programme, which was later named as President Chure Conservation Programme. (PCCP).

After almost 4 years of its implementation, the PCCP was found to be a failure.  Millions of rupees spent on conservation activities did not produce desired results. In the aftermath of this failure and with increased SGS mining, the government declared it as conservation area and formed a high level committee to oversee the conservation programme there.

This move has opened up a strong debate about the pros and cons of the government’s move in declaring it as conservation area and the actual need to protect Chure. In fact, as in any other environmental case, a real politics of environment is in display. There are basically three logics presented. Logic 1: Chure is the recharge area of Tarai groundwater and hence its degradation means depleting groundwater and desertification of Tarai.  Logic 2: Chure biodiversity is important heritage. Logic 3: Chure is inhabited by poor people and they must participate in its protection.

Though these logics seem quite relevant to Chure protection, a bit deeper analysis would reveal how surficial has been the politics of environment. As far as water is concerned, it is the hundreds of feet of boulder deposit of Bhabar that acts as recharge zone for entire Indo Gangetic plain. What happens in Chure will have little impact on ground water resources in Tarai. Removing debris from Bhabar would obviously not seal the Bhabar Surface. In the biodiversity front, they do get damaged wherever there is human interference. The question is which endemic and vanishing species is being affected or is likely to be affected by the interference.  With respect to the local inhabitants, a lot has been said and written about how they depend on not-very-productive-resources of Chure for survival.

It is the economics of things that hold the reign. It is clear that SGS mining has become important for local governments. The local government act provides full mandate to the local governments to trade SGS. Many studies have reported how beneficial SGS mining could be, if done properly. Some say it could be a sustainable source of revenue for local governments, and at the same time excellent way of adapting to climate change threats by making room for annual debris deposit, which is likely to increase with increase in extreme events (http://publication.hils.org.np/hilspub/index.php/IJLE/article/). And there are others who believe that SGS mining can finance Nepal’s poverty alleviation programme, if utilized properly. Speaking of the revenue generation, it is fascinating to see how lucrative SGS trade is. It earns a revenue of about 1072 million a year, while the estimated environmental cost is only about 206 million rupees. The revenue could further increase if resource pricing is enforced  (http://ekrajsigdel.blogspot.com/), which is free at the moment.

The issue reminds one of Godawari Marble Factory in the late 80s, which drew severe criticism from environmentalists saying that the marble factory was damaging the mountains and its environment. But no one has complained about a similar damage being inflicted twenty years later to Shiwapuri Mountains by land developers. It may very well be because it is the private land in Shiwapuri.

These differences are often hidden from view in the debate, but they need to be considered carefully if one is to properly interpret the evidence. It is a question of who gets the benefit and how it is shared among different actors: all in the name of environment. The number of interested parties in the revenue from the SGS mining far outweighs those who actually get hurt by downgrading of Chure resources. 

until next

madhukar

What happened to water?

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Panchkhal Valley in central Nepal is one of many areas in its middle mountain region that has progressively suffered from drying water sources in the last decade. Unless someone is regularly measuring the discharge to compare with the base line information, the dilemma with water is that when its sources begin to deplete initially, it is difficult to verify let alone quantify it, which many people including the decision makers demand to get convinced and take the matter seriously. Unfortunately, we do not have such baseline figures for water sources in the villages. And of course, no two successive years have the same quantity of water flow anyway: there is variability. So, most people consider depletion of sources, when they are reported, as a normal phenomenon. Some even take the easy way out to blame the users for extracting more water causing the depletion. But the water problem being observed in the Panchkhal Valley seems to be more than that, and if not taken seriously can be lot worse in the next few years.

It was only in 2007, that few springs in the upland showed sign of drying earlier than in the years before. Irrigation channels had reduced flow in May when farmers needed to irrigate vegetables. Some irrigation channels had stopped supplying water due to lack of water at the intake. Farmers in upland could no longer grow vegetables that they had been growing for more than three decades, while the land in the valley along the Jhiku Khola (the only stream in the valley) were covered by rich green farms because farmers there were pumping  water from the Khola using kerosene pumps. In general, vegetable supply from the area suffered. The story of water shortages became news. Government declared some of these areas as ‘drought affected’ especially after the paddy plantation failed.

Since then, the valley seems to be getting drier every year. The springs in the lower parts of the hills, which are supposed to yield sufficient water even in the driest month of May and June have also reduced discharge. As a result, the local water sources such as wells and Kuwa had to be put under lock and key to save remaining water. Further down in the valley, the Jhiku Khola has responded in the similar manner. It has ceased to flow even in the middle of the monsoon. In winter, the dry Jhiku Khola is used as road by trucks that go into the inner villages to collect vegetables.

Potato is grown in winter in the valley. Potato crop requires lot of water which the farmers extracted by digging pits in the river bed. Because the Khola does not have flowing water, every farmer having land adjacent to the Khola dug such pits that cost about 10 – 20,000 rupees to dig using bull dozers. The pits used to provide enough water for pumping daily. Come monsoon, the pits got filled with debris rocks and sand. Farmers had to re-dig the pits the next winter. There are hundreds of such pits all along the Jhiku Khola. As the Khola has not flooded like in the past for more than three years, the pits have not been filled with debris.

Since 2013, the scenario began to change further. Water in the pits also went down. Water can be pumped every other day limiting the area that it can irrigate. What this means is that the green farms that existed around the Khola have shrunk in size. Lack of irrigation at critical times has now cost dearly for farmers.

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The ponds have been developing scums, which is an indication that the farmers have not been pumping as much water as in the past. Consequently, many terraces either remain fallow or have dying maize vegetable plants on them.

The efforts of the past four decades to improve agriculture in the valley by making irrigation channels (there are more than 30 such channels) and other inputs have turned out to be going in vain just because the water sources have ceased to exist in many areas. It is a national loss. One does not need to begin calculating what the costs of drought is. It is purely seen in the naked field that have dead maize plants at a time when it is about to bear fruits.

A simple question needs to be asked:  ‘what happened to the water?’

This simple question perhaps is the most difficult to answer. It is not that more people are drawing water, nor is it that deforestation in the watershed has caused drying of springs. And it is not at all, the Climate Change, because no one has yet established if the climate has changed. It is only speculation and projection. The local hydro-met station does not show any sign of reduced rainfall or significant rise in temperature. And yet, the question remains: ‘what happened to the water?’

 

Until next

NB: Photo by: Arun Rai taken on May 24, 2014.

Things, if improved, would enhance the comfort

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I am writing this to reflect upon my experiences of the most public seminars and events organized in Kathmandu, which I, sitting in the audience as a participant, often find quite torturous, not because the programmes themselves are lousy but the manner in which they are organized are.  I have always felt that with little effort and with no extra cost things can be improved a lot to enhance the comfort of those sitting in the audience. So my narrative is about the discomfort that I have always endured while sitting in the audience. Let me share some of them with you.

 First the banner. The banner which is hung to indicate the title of the programme and other key information about the programme is the first thing that welcomes you in the hall. But they are hardly readable from a distance because of their size. They are too small compared to the size of the room. And they are usually done with very bright and dazzling colors that do not match with the color of the wall around. Any sensible designer would go and see the color of the wall and the size of the room size before designing the banner to make it go with the wall and the room.

  1. Banner’s letters. The letters in the banners, especially the subtitles and other details, are too small to read even from the first row. It feels even worse if they are in italics. What is the purpose of having all the details on the banner if they are not readable? It would be unfair to imagine that people would figure them out anyway.  The organizer should realize that there is always someone in the audience who has come for the first time and has little knowledge about the issues being discussed. The banner provides a lead to such audience and hence should be readable.
  2. The multimedia. The common problem with the multimedia is that it does not work at once. When one turns the lap top to show the first slide of the presentation, the screen says: no signals. It is a panicking moment for the speaker. Not knowing what to do, begins to push all available bottoms in the machine; and, all of a sudden the projector begins to work. The probability of fixing the problem is 50:50 anyway, but that short moment is embarrassing.
  3. The bouquet of flowers set in front of the speakers are to decorate the dash, but their heights are just high enough to obstruct the face of the speakers.
  4. While showing a documentary, the sound does not come, and when it comes it is hardly audible at the back. Just pretend that everything is fine, because it is customary to accept these tortures.
  5. Microphones are usually placed all over the place for the audience to interact with the speaker, but when one picks them to say something, it either does not work because the battery is dead, or you get a nasty feedback (that annoying screeching sound you get) to your embarrassment. If you are brave enough you just throw the microphone and begin to ask what you intend to ask in the loudest possible way. Then you face another embarrassing moment: someone rushes to you with another microphone when you are halfway through your question: take the microphone and repeat the question all over again.

 It is not a question of how much extra would it cost to fix these problems, all it requires is that people should start to learn to honor the audience.

 More later.

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The Tough Gets Going

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The Tough Gets Going Photo: Shree Bhagwan Thakur, PEI Consultant.

The recent international conference, the CBA8, held in Nepal provided opportunity to representatives of over 60 countries to interact among themselves and learn from each other about how the local communities have been preparing to adapt to the anticipated impacts of climate change and in some cases how have they been already adapting to the environmental stresses likely to have been caused by the change in the climate. The participants had the opportunity to observe local initiatives ranging from protection of forests to new plantations and from managing water (and river) to maintaining agricultural biodiversity in different parts of Nepal. Since Nepal has huge diversity in its landscape and climate, the type of activities being innovated by local communities are also equally diverse and was probably not possible to observe in a short visit. Hence, I provide an example here.
This is a case from a village from Panchthar in eastern Nepal, which has been experiencing drought for some years now. Many mountains springs have dried and access to water sources have become very difficult. Farming is possible only during the monsoon months. Thus, many villagers have abandoned the houses and have moved to new areas in the low land for settlements. However, some in the village have ventured to adapt to increasing water stress and continued to develop ways of making productive use of parched land. Seen in the picture is the tree plantation of Teak.
The striking thing is that each plant has its own container (costing at least Rupees 100 or $1.0, I guess) to water it. The farmer fills the container when it is empty with water carried in a tractor from the Tamor River in the valley. What a way to reduce evaporation loss and continue to maintain the much needed green water in the soil to this valuable plant!

Nepal’s CPEIR wins GSSD 2013 Leadership Award

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The Global South-South Development Expo (GSSD Expo), a UN system-wide global high-profile event, is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya from October 28 till today – November 1. The Expo focuses on ‘Building inclusive green economies-South-South Cooperation for sustainable development and poverty eradication’. This theme aims to facilitate an exchange of country experiences on green economy among Southern countries that have contributed to economic development, decent job creation, and poverty eradication at the global, regional, national and local levels.

Six Solution Exchange Forums has taken place during the Expo. One of them is ‘The UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) which featured prominently through participation of country partners from Burkina Faso, Nepal and Rwanda as panelists at the UNDP Solutions Forum, dissemination of PEI country case studies on south-south exchanges through various channels.

At the closing ceremony of the EXPO, attended by high-level representatives from Governments and UN agencies, the annual South-South Cooperation Awards is presented to individuals and organizations that have been prominent champions of South-South cooperation throughout the world. The Expo confers particular recognition on those solutions that stand out as global in scope, reach, and impact, and exemplary of the most important elements of South-South cooperation – Innovation, Partnership, and Leadership. We had submitted nominations of solutions from the participating PEI countries to UNOSSC.

The great news is that the solution on Government of Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC) and Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MoFALD) has been selected to receive the GSSD Expo 2013 Annual Leadership Award for South-South Cooperation. This award is a testament to Nepal’s exemplary and innovative work on the Climate Public Expenditure and Institutional Review (CPEIR), which was supported by PEI.

Using CPEIR, Nepal has been able to show ways of tracking climate public expenditure and coordinate climate change activities delivered through diverse structure and processes used in the delivery of development finance. 

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Is Jhiku Khola Dying?

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Is Jhiku Khola Dying?

While western Nepal was flooded repeatedly following the catastrophic events in Uttarakhanda in India in 2013, rest of the Nepal received a bit late but above average monsoon. Barring some places in eastern Terai, where the monsoon arrived quite late and dumped all its share of rain within a short duration, this year’s monsoon by farmers’ account was satisfactory in central and eastern Nepal. However, Jhiku Khola in Panchkhal which has ceased to flow in winter since past 8 years did not have flowing water even in the middle of the monsoon. This picture taken on August 16, 2013 shows that Jhiku Khola is dying.

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Shrinking Oasis in the Mountain

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Oasis in the Mountain

The picture shows a mountain village in Nawalparasi district of western Nepal. The only source of water for this village consists of two springs: an upper spring and a lower spring. These two wet areas are surrounded by trees, whereas the entire upper area is devoid of any forests. The springs flow not because there are trees around it, but the trees have survived because there is water available in the springs. Recharge area of these springs have been demarcated. What is to be noted is that a road has been constructed on the ridge area that cut through the recharge area of upper spring. The road has diverted runoff during rainfall to a different place from the upper part of the recharge area. This is perhaps why most of the springs in the mountains have declined or died after the construction of networks of roads throughout the hills in the last two decades.

Until next

Madhukar

Contaminated Milky Way

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 A healthy life and proper diet is what people work hard for day and night. But if you get to drink milk that has coliform count up to 2400 in a millilitre, I guess that’s not really happening, eh? Recent news about the presence of coliform in the milk should be taken as a wakeup call to examine if there are other wrongs associated with this knotty field of dairy industry, where thousands of farmers, a number of middle men, and some profit hungry entrepreneurs are involved on a daily basis. Thanks to the government for making this case public and also sealing some of the dairies which were found to be selling contaminated milk.

A systemic flaw in dairy business often results in coliform contamination. Local cooperatives collect milk from farmers. While transporting the collected milk to the chilling centres the cooperative adds water and soda to keep the milk from curdling, because milk rich in solid-not-fat (SNF) curdles fast in summer. Milk producers are paid on the basis of fat content only, whereas the cooperatives get paid separately for the fat, SNF, and lactose contents of the milk as well as ‘total solid commission’, which is calculated as some percent of fat, SNF, and lactose; and the quantity of milk transported. The contractor makes profit because he increases the volume by adding water and transports more milk (detail information available in Bhattedanda Milkway: Making Markets Accessible to Marginalized Farmers in Ropeways in Nepal, 2004). Since a substantial quantity of water is needed, the cooperatives do not hesitate to use water from any source, including unsafe sources. This is where the problem generally begins.

The demand for milk and milk product is rising and so is the number of dairy industries. But, the production of milk in many areas is falling due to either shortage of workforce to look after animals or simply because farmers are abandoning animal husbandry due to lack of water and grazing land. In the last four decades, most of traditional grazing land around villages has been converted into forests for environmental protection. Lately, springs in the mountains have also begun shrinking. Now, the question is: where is the milk coming from?

Even under normal conditions, milk production varies between summer and winter. Milk holidays are observed in summer because there is too much of it, whereas powdered milk is used to meet the demand in the dry season. So, what is consumed as fresh milk is not necessarily fresh. One can even go further and be surprised to note that there are malevolent persons who have invented something like Synthetic milk and have the audacity to sell it as fresh milk.

Synthetic milk looks like natural milk, except in taste and nutritional qualities. However, the cost of producing synthetic milk is less than half of natural milk. Invented in Haryana in India by some milkmen about 15 years ago, synthetic milk spread to other milk deficit parts of India.

Synthetic milk is prepared by blending urea, caustic soda, cooking oil, and detergents. Once prepared it is very difficult for common users to detect urea, caustic soda, starch/ glucose, sugar, or nitrate etc. Detergents emulsify and dissolve the oil in water giving the frothy solution, the characteristic white colour of milk. Cooking oil is used as milk fat. Caustic soda neutralizes acidity, which prevents the milk from souring. Urea/ sugar acts as solid-not-fat (SNF) – a major component of milk. Once mixed with natural milk it is even more difficult to detect it.

Synthetic milk is harmful to humans, but is more harmful to fetus and persons with heart and kidney problems. Urea and caustic soda are very harmful to heart, liver and kidneys. Kidneys have a difficult time trying to remove the urea from the body. Caustic soda deprives the body from utilizing some essential amino acid.

Despite repeated action by the police to unearth the racket in India, the practice continues. The recent one has been reported in May 2013. It is not to suggest that synthetic milk is already in the dairy market in Nepal, but one cannot rule out the possibility of it being used by unknown, unregistered milk vendors or even dairy workers to make extra money. Especially when one has seen animals bones, plastics, old rags being used in brewing low grade alcohol, what is being pumped into our food system is any one’s guess. 

 

Until next

Madhukar

 

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Reaping Or Raping ?

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Reaping Or Raping ?

Sand and gravel mining in the flood plains in Nepal Tarai is a key income source for local governments of many districts here. Mining offers employment to hundreds of people and business to numerous crusher industries and transporters. But the way in which and the scale to which sand and gravel is mined raises serious question: is it environmentally safe at all, or do we have the slightest idea of the environmental consequences, if it would have any in the course of time?
The reason this needs to be asked is because there were times when we took pride in building roads across mountains to bring economic growth and prosperity in the remote mountain villages. Today, more than 50,000 kilometres of road criss-cross the mountains, only to add to the problems of erosion, landslides, and loss of water sources. Many springs have either lost from their places or shifted to new locations. How much has the road network helped to bring production oriented economic growth is anybody’s guess.
Realizing the problems the rural roads have created in the mountains, the government is working on making it mandatory to conduct survey for proper alignment. May be a similar attention is needed, before it is too late, in regulating sand and gravel mining in the plains as well.

Photo: Pushpa Raj Adhikari in Mahottarai District

Spreading Pines: A Story Worth Exploring

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Photo: Pos Raj Adhikari

The assumption that more trees equals more water (which has inspired most forests and water policy) is based on incorrect understanding of the hydrological cycle in forest ecosystems, according to the FAO. FAO’s forestry paper 155 ‘Forests and Water’ published in 2008 stated in its executive summary that the forest ecosystem is in fact a major user of water. Tree canopies reduce groundwater and stream flow, through interception of precipitation; and evaporation and transpiration from foliage. It further stated that as both natural and human-established forests use more water than most replacement land cover (including agriculture and grazing), there is no question that even partial forest removal increases downstream water yields. It was probably the first time that a debate about a contentious subject as the role of forests in regulating or enhancing stream flow, which has continued throughout history, has now been explained with the help of science. 

It has already been five years since the revelation; nevertheless, it went unnoticed in the mainstream environmental field. It must be stressed that forests are very important source of timber and fuel wood. Forests maintain greenery and help maintain forest ecosystems as well as natural habitat for wildlife and thereby support biodiversity. Forests are equally important to capture carbon. But its role in regulating stream flow and conserving water has been extended far beyond. In fact, the debate about forest – water relationship has continued since the Roman era. Romans who championed the skills of solving the problem of water supply to the people of Rome by developing aqueducts circa 312 BC, were already debating about how forest are important in reducing floods and preserving water sources.

The story goes something like this. Romans required huge quantities of timber for mining, and heating, as well as for construction and the production of iron and other metals. As a result, forests were depleted particularly in the Mediterranean basin which had been largely denuded by the beginning of the Common Era. About the same time, the Romans suffered frequent floods and droughts.  Since forests were being cut to meet the timber and wood demand, the fluctuating water level in the streams and rivers were thought to be the result of deforestation in the hills.

The debate continued and efforts to protect forests as well as deforestation went on throughout the history in Europe. Louis VI of France issued an ordinance in 1215 with regard to forest and water. Swiss communities began establishing protected forests in 1342. Many protected forests had been established by the 16th century. With industrial revolution in the 18th century, demand for timber increased and so did deforestation as well as the effort to protect forests.  Increased events of floods in the streams and rivers in France, Austria, and Italy were considered a result of deforestation in the Alps. Series of articles published attracted the attention of the then rulers, who made rules for forest protection.

The story in North America was not different. The new European settlers cut vast tracts of forests to establish farms in order to supply food and timber to Europe. Floods events here were also attributed to deforestation and legal measures were taken to protect forests. After a two decade long debate, the state of New York established national forests in 1891.  But critics began asking for scientific basis behind the logic of protecting forests to reduce floods. Critics asked the reasons for occurrence of floods before the settlers arrived and cut forests. Scientific research in the first half of the 20th century gave enough ground to argue against the belief about the role of forests in controlling floods and regulating dry season flow. However, the environmental conference held in Stockholm in 1972 and subsequent publication of the book Losing Ground brought forth the theory of Himalayan Degradation, which once again bolstered the preconceived belief about deforestation and increased floods. With all the investments in protecting the forests (which has been quite successful), floods and droughts continue to impact our lives. Finally,  with the FAO revelation of 2008, we can be assured of how much to expect from forests in maintaining water flow.

It is a challenge for people living in the present day to reflect on the debate that has gone on for over two millennia and pause to take note of the happenings today. The FAO’s revelation is important and provides us with critical lessons to consider as we wrestle with the importance of protecting our own critical watersheds in Nepal. Pine trees (Khote salla) growing in the abandoned terraces and slopes in the eastern Nepal (seen in the picture above) is perhaps signalling a different message than what has been made to believe. The fact is that Khote salla grows in dry places and not that they make places dry. The spread of pines in Panchthar district perhaps indicates that the hills and mountains in the eastern parts of Nepal have gone dry. We have seen that old springs have disappeared for years. One of the reasons for this is the impacts of repeated earthquakes since 1988 together with the expansion of network of rural roads across the mountains that have diverted the runoff filling the groundwater aquifer. Change in temperature and rainfall, if it has occurred significantly, would not have impacted water sources to the extent as has been seen in the area.

The lesson is that when systems begin to collapse or change from one system to the next, the fallout is often visible even in the most unexpected places for everyone to see and perhaps be sorry for being unmoved by the writing on the wall.  Spreading khote salla is perhaps telling a similar story about changing hydrological regime in the area.

Until next time

Madhukar

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