The geographical diversity of Nepal never ceases to amaze people. Due to this variation, the country is rich in natural resources and biodiversity, giving rise to unique ecosystems in Nepal. In awe of the same, Sunita Chaudhary has developed as an ecosystem services specialist and works at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Chaudhary holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Protected Areas (Austria) and a PhD in Natural Resource Management (Australia). She started working at ICIMOD in 2009, then joined in 2020 after completing her complementary studies. At ICIMOD, she works for research policy support with a focus on capacity building and awareness raising regarding the ecosystems of Nepal and the Hindu Kush Himalayas.
Recently, Onlinekhabar sat down with her to discuss areas of Nepal’s ecosystems that are easily overlooked in environmental discussions. Excerpts:
There is no debating Nepal’s diverse geography as well as ecosystems. Anyway, what are the areas that people don’t relate to Nepal’s ecosystems?
First of all, Nepal has many mountain and hill ecosystems. In total, it has 118 ecosystems which have been classified according to altitudinal, climatic and vegetation type variations. Its Terai-based ecosystems and to some extent the hilly region ecosystems are relatively explored. However, there are many areas that we have not reached and therefore we have not yet discovered other types of ecosystems, even completely new ones. Yet where people have arrived, solid waste is becoming the next emerging problem.
There are many overlooked areas. Dialogues, discussions and even awareness of ecosystems are always a challenge, even more so outside of Kathmandu.
From a conservation perspective, Nepal is forest-rich and faring better with forest presence increasing from 38% (on average) five years ago to 41.59% today. But the destruction of Nepal’s ecosystems is an equally important problem. There is more emphasis on protected areas like Chitwan National Park, which is doing better, comparatively.
On the other hand, wetlands, even Ramsar sites, are largely ignored; it is deteriorating every day although its number has increased. The majority of wetlands have been encroached for settlement or market or drained. They are excellent for water retention and important in terms of flooding and drought as well, so we need to talk more about them.
Climate change is the talk of the century. Yet, has the nation fully understood the impacts of climate change on daily life and ecosystems in Nepal?
When we talk about climate change, we focus more on the human world. But, the non-human world is often ignored. Climate change carries more weight, but animal welfare is not a priority. The avalanches followed by the 2015 earthquake killed many people in the mountainous region. Yet no studies have been conducted regarding the impact on ecosystems or wildlife.
I recently went to Langtang National Park. I have seen the glaciers recede and the local environment change. In Kyanjin, there are many species, including endangered species like musk deer. With increased tourism, ecosystems and pristine species are exposed to many changes including “modern” human lifestyles, junk food and human solid waste causing microplastics to reach their stomachs. Tourism in the region relies heavily on forests for cooking and heating. If alternatives to firewood for cooking and heating are not launched, forests in the region could be at high risk of degradation. It will take at least 15 to 20 years to recover.
Similarly, instances of human-wildlife conflict also increase as the range of habitats shifts and so does inter-species mixing. Bears attack households in search of specific fruits and vegetation for hibernation. But this is natural when tourists flock, and due to human intervention and climate change, their habitat is disturbed. The habitats of red pandas are also disturbed.
There are many Nepalese ecosystems in the mountains existing on a smaller scale. The effects of climate change and changing human dietary and lifestyle habits have hampered the cryosphere in the mountains and the ecosystem as a whole. Wetland modification and climate change impacts have a cascading impact on society. Everyone should look into this. National parks are positive, as are private and research bodies, so that’s a good thing.
How have you observed the implementation and criminalization of conservation acts and policies here, particularly in the context of Nepal?
Implementation is affected due to limited funding from the national government. First, our federal system is still in an experimental phase. Second, the benefits of conserving Nepal’s ecosystem are all indirect in relation to the national gross domestic product. As a result, the government easily prioritizes and focuses on hard physical infrastructure, which has marginalized the conservation sector.
Meanwhile, the private sector is also inactive in its actions and has yet to recognize its subsequent impacts, including its carbon footprint. We need more synergy between them and the local government.
I believe national parks are better at this implementation. The Terai national parks are better; however, human resources in mountainous areas are very few and not sufficient for vigilant surveillance in all areas.
As for the penalty, it is irregular. Poaching is rampant in the mountainous regions where outside poachers have taken advantage of the low population and set traps to hunt the animals. As a remedy, we can use wildlife tracking and flea, but it is difficult. But, if we work with local communities, we can fight poaching.
To better curb the lack of implementation, the actors are focusing on the census of all species including the red panda and the snow leopard. As it depends on budget and human resources, I hope to see national and international funding for the same.
If there are problems, there should also be solutions. What actions do you think people can take to improve ecosystems?
In Langtang, locals use firewood for household chores and their way of life. During this time, the inhabitants carried out a small hydroelectric project there. However, they only use hydroelectricity to cover 30% of their consumption. However, we encourage awareness by focusing on optimizing hydropower and meeting the remaining 70% of electricity consumption with renewable resources.
Apart from that, we need to engage and mobilize our young population in conservation efforts. We need to prioritize the goal more and engage them in trainings and workshops. ICIMOD organizes a youth engagement center and national workshops, so that interested people can participate.
You have pointed out that active local participation is lacking in ecosystem management in Nepal. How can the country better mobilize the locals?
Local populations are less incentivized, particularly in conservation efforts and their waste sorting and disposal habits. So if we can increase that, mobilization can be encouraged. Ideas about mobilizing local people or local resources are also not clear in the minds of power system actors, as they are not comprehensive in information about conservation efforts.
We must work on the sectoral division between government authorities and agencies. For better management of Nepal’s ecosystems, we must have synergy among all stakeholders by encouraging them to work together and bridge the gap of coordination and communication while focusing on conflict and its management remedies.
Cooperation is with our neighbors and regional efforts are our bright spot so that we can also capitalize.
What areas do people need to work on for the next five years for the different ecosystems to be conserved?
In the coming years, we must prioritize solid waste management and limit its impacts on the ecosystems of Nepal, considering the case of Langtang. Then we need to focus on clean energy and work on ways to support tourism, which is one of the main ways to generate income.
In addition, the projects we undertake must all undergo a detailed assessment of the environment and its impacts which guarantees the efforts of conservation and preservation of the ecosystem of Nepal. We cannot marginalize conservation in the name of development. Raising awareness and raising awareness in the conservation sector should be the way forward.
Nepal is also on the list of top 10 disaster-prone countries. We have a few institutions working in the field, but now we need to focus on technology and automation to get timely information and avoid life-threatening impacts of even a second.
Last but not least, we need to invest in more scientific surveys and research to better understand the ever-changing scenarios and their impacts on our ecosystems and biodiversity. Likewise, we need to focus on local capacity building involving youth coupled with local governments and have a recovery plan in place.