In contemporary Nepal, if there is anything that matters to the commoners is how and when the government begins to make them feel that it is seriously working to live up to its promise of building a ‘prosperous Nepal’. With the elections of federal, provincial and local assemblies leading to the formation of the governments at three levels, the long political transition mired with bloody insurgency and long drawn political unrest has ended. The commoners have finally been able to heave a sigh of relief because the constitution is expected to have put to rest the political transition that was stressful, unpleasant and undesirable. People are also hopeful that the new governments in the federal structure have the authority to do anything they consider necessary towards fulfilling the wishes of people.
Additionally, the clarity in the terms of reference (at least in the constitutional sense) and the deliverables that each tier of the government has to deliver, has ended the era of having to wait for the orders and approvals from the central authorities to carryout local development projects. And with that the era gripped with the tendency among officials of evading responsibilities by showing reasons such as lack of authority or budget or required skill workforce has also ended.
The new governments can make their own rules, regulations and even acts required to generate funds, formulate plans, design projects, hire skilled workforce to implement projects of their choice. However, it is easier said than done. There are several areas that require immediate and simultaneous attention. One of the areas that has been either not understood adequately or ignored deliberately as it does not sound high enough to further political agenda is the deteriorating (or changing as some naturalist would like to call it) natural environment in general and water source in particular.
The government, in June 2017, published the findings of a survey it conducted to examine the impacts of climate change in the last 25 years in Nepal. The findings, besides indicating the climate change impact, also perhaps describe the extent to which our natural environment has degraded affecting a large number of people that still depend on the biomass-based economy. Among the 5060 households interviewed, nearly 85% reported of having experienced significant decrease in the amount of surface water, while 86 % households reported experiencing draught. A majority of households in the mountain and hilly regions reported complete drying up of springs. The situation in the high altitude area is even worse. Surprisingly, all households there have experienced increase in draughts, landslides, avalanches and disease/insects.
Significant changes have been observed in the composition of natural vegetation and wildlife too. About 92% households have observed increase in invasive species of shrubs, while 50% have experienced a significant decrease in the number of trees, shrubs, medicinal herbs, non-timber products, aquatic plants, wild animals and birds. A majority of people (97 %) observed an increase in diseases/insects and sporadic rainfall, and 60% observed new diseases in crops.
Sadly, the survey results have not drawn the attention it deserves compared to the hype with which emerging threats of climate change have been portrayed for almost the entirety of the past decade. There is hardly any place left in all hills and mountain where food is not imported from outside. And yet, it has not been part of our discussion about environmental problems. Our knowledge about natural resources has not been able to help us understand how various components of resources interplay among themselves and produce a particular ecosystem service.
As mentioned earlier, serious environmental changes have occurred over a long period of time and they are the results of a complex natural system of the Himalayas, which, I argue that we still have not understood well. Drying up of springs and water sources in the hills and mountains cannot simply be a result of devegetation (as believed by many) or increased temperature or some changes in rainfall or land use. Water sources have reduced or disappeared across various ecological zones suggesting big changes occurring in the region, which could be due to combination of factors that we are not fully aware of. But let’s leave the task of finding the exact reason(s) behind loss of water to the researchers. What is crucial at this stage is to give solutions to the problems that governments at local level can begin to implement.
It’s time for environmentalists or natural resource experts to face the challenge of providing answers to water problems with acceptable level of certainty. Experts have, for years, talked about rainwater harvesting as a solution to water problems. With widespread loss of springs and increasing droughts, the time has come to test these measures. The big question we need to ask is can we expect the experts and specialists that have suggested rainwater harvesting to come up with a modality of doing it that can guarantee the results? The local people (and governments) have not asked for this guarantee directly yet, but sooner or later they will, and at that time the challenge for environmentalists would be to prove that the measures they pushed for years are based on well founded understanding capable of producing desired results.
The dream of building a prosperous Nepal will remain limited to slogan if we fail to achieve; i) reduced vulnerability of biomass-based economy to environmental stresses; ii) production-based food security; and iii) improved knowledge of how natural resources degrade.
Last but not least, the changes (in water and vegetation) seen in the last 25 years are only increasing. Without doubt, the failure of regular development programmes to address even few of them only shows how removed have our development plans been from the reality that affects the commoners. No wonder, increasing number of people have been displaced where water sources have dried (https://www.npc.gov.np/images/category/Displacement_report.pdf). The changes also indicate that the increased amount of public funds being pumped in to build infrastructure has not, and probably will not, strengthen the very foundation of our economy (biomass-based), which is beleaguered with environmental problems across the country.
With support from Irene