Country’s infrastructure projects threaten biodiversity conservation, wildlife movement, study showsA rapid assessment of linear projects in the Tarai region has found adverse consequences on forests, wildlife habitats, their movement and increased negative interactions between humans and wildlife.
Nepal’s linear infrastructure projects in lowland Tarai regions have been adversely impacting the environment, biodiversity, including wildlife movement from the protected parks and adjoining forests, a study has pointed out.
At a time when the death of a tiger in a road accident in Parsa National Park has shaken conservationists, the new study has outlined the potential threats development activities are posing on the country’s biodiversity and wildlife conservation sectors.
According to the study, ‘Impacts of Infrastructures on Environment and Biodiversity in Tarai, Nepal,’ adverse impacts of these infrastructure projects were observed on the tropical/subtropical forests, wild habitats, wild animals’ movement, hydrological cycle and human-wildlife conflict.
“Our motivation was to assess how linear infrastructure projects like road networks, irrigation canals and petroleum pipelines are affecting environment and biodiversity in the Tarai belt,” Roshn Sherchan, the team leader of the study conducted by the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, told the Post.
“We selected highways, irrigation projects, the pipeline and the proposed airport to measure such impacts through field study and consultation with key stakeholders.”
For rapid assessment, the team had selected Motihari-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline project, Madan Bhandari Highway, Narayanghat-Butwal road improvement project, Narayanghat-Muglin road section, Postal Highway, East-West Highway, Rani Jamara Kulariya Project, Sikta Irrigation Project, Kathmandu Tarai Expressway and the proposed Nijgadh Airport.
The study team revealed that environmental safeguard practices were not enforced seriously in infrastructure projects that required massive felling of trees and were built along forests areas that serve as habitats and support rare and endangered wild animals.
According to the rapid study, the EIA report of proposed Nijgadh International Airport was prescribed to cut over 2.4 million trees in the Nijgadh corridor forest, a native hardwood forest with high biodiversity value and an elephant corridor.
“Also, the quality of EIA has been an issue in Nijgadh International Airport,” stated the report. “Moreover, the Postal Highway in Khata and Madan Bhandari Highway do not have EIA study reports.”
Besides, these projects, which traverse natural habitats, have severely hindered the wildlife’s free movement and resulted in the deaths of animals.
The Postal road, which passes via Khata Corridor, a narrow strip of forest area that facilitates wild animals’ movement, has hindered the free movement of wild animals from Bardia National Park, Nepal to Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India and vice versa.
According to the study, the important biological corridor, which is home to more than two dozen mammals, has the risk of vehicle-wildlife collision leading to injuries and deaths of both humans and wildlife.
“The Postal highway has obstructed the movement of animals like megafaunas such as tigers, rhinos and elephants,” said Sherchan, who has more than two decades of experience in the conservation sector. “The corridor is functional for connecting wildlife habitats. However, it is facing negative consequences.”
Traffic congestion is likely to increase along the Postal Highway, exerting increased pressure on wild animals’ free movement through the corridor.
The Narayanghat-Muglin stretch, which passes via the Barandabhar Forest Corridor, has also caused deaths of wild animals due to vehicular collision and led wild animals to move or disperse towards higher altitudes and affect the free movement of wild animals.
The East-West Highway, which traverses through the Banke National Park and Bardia National Park, results in several dozen deaths of wildlife living in these parks annually.
“There are minimal and recent realisations that these infrastructure projects should be environment and wildlife-friendly. The realisation is pretty new that these projects should not only be for the locals,” said Sherchan. “Although the four underpasses in Barandabhar Forest Corridor were not built appreciating the need for wildlife and are merely culverts, they have been functional in helping wildlife cross the highway. Medium size animals have been frequently using those underpasses, showing that such measures work if only we built more for the wildlife at suitable locations.”
The Narayanghat-Butwal road improvement project also carried adverse impacts on environment and biodiversity particularly in Bhedabari Community Forest, Navadurga Community Forest, Madhyabindu, Dhumkibash and Daunne, said the study.
The Narayanghat-Butwal stretch borders buffer zone of Chitwan National Park covering nearly 24 kms and eight forest patches with about 64 km length. The road improvement projects will lead to more obstruction in free movement of wild animals, according to the study.
Irrigation projects like Sikta and Rani-Jamara-Kulariya have also blocked free movement of wildlife while animals also drown in canals laid to supply water. The study team found that existing canals have no enough structures for helping wild animals cross them.
“Most of the places do not have any such measures. As a result, animals have been killed in road accidents and have drowned while these projects fragment their habitats,” said Sherchan. “For terrestrial species, there should be underpasses, overpasses and tunnels whereas for arboreal animals there can be canopy bridges. But we are far behind in installing such measures.”
The study has recommended that green and smart infrastructure should be promoted to allow minimum adverse impact on the environment and biodiversity.
“With the magnitude of infrastructure development, if we do not ensure safeguarding the environment by implementing mitigation measures, it will be too late,” said Sherchan. “A larger chunk of the budget spent by the local level is on infrastructure development or upgradation. Such funds should also be allocated for implementing measures, which is not happening most of the time.”
As per the study, provincial governments, district forest officers and protected areas should coordinate with the local governments in order to make a large number of infrastructure projects green and safe by implementing mitigation measures.
Biological corridors, habitat forests and critical bottlenecks should be identified and mapped out in advance so it would be useful information while planning and designing infrastructure projects, said the study, when the country’s aspiration for infrastructure development is growing.
“With connectivity and infrastructure development, negative interaction between humans and wildlife will also increase. The government agencies should push for environment-friendly designs and compliances,” said Sherchan.
“There are hardly such measures. There are sign boards along the roads, but sign boards are for the people. Animals cannot read them and these measures are merely human-centric—not for wildlife.”