Environmentalists warn plan to export stones, pebbles and sand can spell ecological disasterThe announcement in the budget speech was made without Environment Ministry’s knowledge, say officials who fear it could lead to unchecked exploitation of resources to the point the country may not have enough for itself.
The government’s plan of extracting construction materials and exporting them has come under widespread criticism from conservationists, calling the move shortsighted, counterproductive and catastrophic for the environment and guided by ill-intentions.
“Based on environmental impact assessment, mine-based stones, pebbles and sand can be exported to minimise trade deficit,” said Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel, on Saturday while announcing the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 on Saturday.
The announcement means revoking the existing ban on the export of river and mine-based construction materials.
After immense lobbying for the conservation of the Chure region, the fragile zone that stretches east to west below the Mahabharat hills, which is significant for its environmental services like water to downstream districts, the government in 2014 had imposed a ban on the export of such items. The region had been bearing the brunt of unabated mining of sand, pebbles and boulders from its rivers and hills and their export to India,
“There is no doubt that without utilising available resources, in our case which is sand, stones and water, among others, as a mountainous country, we cannot develop. We must convert these resources into capital,” said Prabhu Budhathoki, an environmentalist and former member of the National Planning Commission. “However, the manner the plan has been announced in the budget makes it suspicious for multiple reasons.”
He feels that there is a reason to cast doubt over the plans because it looks too specific as if it was pre-planned, and the sites for mining these materials have also been already identified and serves some vested interest.
The doubt originates from the fact that the government plan also includes a concession in importing materials required to construct a ropeway for ferrying construction materials from the mining site to the export point.
“Transportation of such materials can happen by any other means too but mentioning of ropeway for carrying them raises suspicion as if construction of ropeway has already started,” said Budhathoki. “It seems everything is already fixed behind the scenes. It looks like an instance of policy corruption.”
Apparently, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the central agency responsible for natural resources management, environment and biodiversity conservation, was not consulted about the plan of removing the ban on the export.
“The Environment Ministry was not aware of any such plan,” said an Environment Ministry official requesting anonymity. “The ministry had not proposed this plan, neither in the government's policies and programmes nor in the budget.”
Illegal and uncontrolled mining of construction materials from riverbeds under political protection has been a major environmental challenge for several years. Crusher plants and their heavy equipment vehicles are seen operating unhindered along the highways and riverbanks across the country.
But according to Buddi Sagar Poudel, a newly appointed spokesperson with the Environment Ministry, the collection of these materials will not take place haphazardly, as the budget announcement said the EIA should guide it.
“There have been long discussions in the past that we should move from riverbeds to mining-based exports. The plan must have come considering the demand for such materials at home too. Besides, it has not said it should be extracted from the Chure range,” he told the Post.“Shifting to mining-based export was already envisioned for making things more managed as they will be registered and there will be regular monitoring and extraction will be limited to a few places.”
But environmentalists are not convinced.
“The government might have the right intention behind excavating these resources, but there are reasons for doubt. What is concerning is when, how and how much collection of these resources will happen,” said Binod Bhatta, an environmentalist and leader of the Chure-Tarai Madhes Conservation and Management Master Plan Preparation Team. “Although the government has said that EIA will be conducted, my experience says EIAs are conducted merely as rituals. How can we be assured that a similar trend will not follow while collecting these materials?”
The Chure range, which occupies about 12.78 percent of the country’s total area as the inner Tarai, the Chure hills and the Bhavar plains, has suffered years of deforestation due to migration from the hills, overgrazing, logging, and excessive mining of construction materials like boulders and gravel.
Degradation of the Chure range and its nearby areas has also been blamed for annual flooding in the districts below. Growing population and unchecked human activities have only affected the region further, impacting the livelihoods of the people living downstream. The water table is fast depleting the region, which could trigger a water shortage in the future.
The ecological degradation of the Chure range necessitated the government to come up with a 20-year Chure-Tarai Madhesh Conservation and Management Master Plan, which has identified a total of 164 rivers in 36 districts of the Chure belt for conservation activities.
While the 2021-22 budget calls for digging up of construction materials, it has also earmarked Rs1.53 billion for the Chure conservation programme to construct 200 ponds for recharging groundwater and controlling soil erosion in 164 rivers in the Chure region.
However, the latest plan also clashes against the government’s own commitment to conserving the zone, according to environmentalists.
“The master plan was envisioned stopping the degradation of the region and preventing washing down of stones, sand, pebbles and debris from Chure hills to downstream along with the river. Such materials still kept coming to the rivers and could be taken out as per the need without tampering with the structure of the rivers,” said Bhatta.“The master plan is a government document and if the government has made this its long-term vision, then it should be rechecking its own commitments before announcing such schemes.”
Despite the earlier ban, collection of construction materials is still happening, according to him.
“We can only imagine the scary situation once the ban is relaxed,” said Bhatta. “Floods and inundation will take place in the downstream Tarai districts.”
Despite criticism against the proposed plan of exporting construction materials extracted from the womb of nature, stakeholders, be it government officials or environmentalists, do not deny the need for utilising these resources.
Their concern, however, is that it should happen in a managed manner rather than simply exploiting the resources.
“The budget should have said that the government will utilise these resources by promoting a mining industry, by identifying some areas for collection of these materials where sand mining or stone quarry industry can be allowed on competitive bidding,” said Budhathoki. “But the plan revolved around merely exporting sand and stone rather than doing it through a full-scale industry.”
He also stressed on the need to allow such extraction only in limited areas rather than across the country from east to west so that it will be easier to monitor and impact will be limited.
Such a massive excavation endeavour for export of construction materials, however, faces yet another risk, according to environmentalists.
They fear the country itself might face a shortage of such items for meeting its own development needs.
“While our road and railway projects are yet to be built, sending them out may mean we will not have them when we need them for ourselves,” said Bhatta. “There should be a clear assessment of demand and supply before moving ahead with the plans. Only if we have a surplus we should sell them outside. Besides, we have had the experience of losses from the sale of these materials outweighing profits.”
According to a UNDP study in 2011, the total revenue from the riverbed materials in the fiscal year 2009-10 was Rs 1 billion, whereas the repair and maintenance cost of the road was Rs 11 billion.
Budhathoki, a former member of the National Planning Commission and country chief of IUCN Nepal, also warns that the export plan could turn out to be a counterproductive move for the country in future.
“Sand, pebbles and stones are non-renewable resources. It takes millions of years for them to emerge,” said Budhathoki. “If we sell them hurriedly now, we might face shortage when our development is at its peak.”