The hills are dyingProgrammes to conserve the Churia range have not translated to effective action; an integrated approach is necessary
The Churia area, including the Tarai, covers 26.6 percent of the southernmost part of Nepal. Physiographically, it extends from east to west of the country and can be divided into Churia hills, Dun valley, Narrow river valley, Bhabar zone and the Tarai. Geologically, the Churia hills (often known as Siwalik) are composed of soft rocks—mudstone and silt stone at the lower, sandstone at the middle and conglomerates at the upper parts and all these rocks are very much susceptible to weathering and erosion. These physiographic units and the systems therein are complex but delicate, interrelated and interdependent. The disequilibrium caused by even a slight variation of a single component of the system can take a path of slow but massive destruction and degradation. For the last two decades, such symptoms have been clearly appearing along the entire Churia area as the exploitation of resources continues in various forms.
Behind the destruction
The causes of degradation of the Churia area should be understood from a natural and socio-economic point of view. The natural causes comprise of geomorphic setting, hydrological system and fragility of the landscape. The rugged topography, soft rocks with discontinuities and loose soil cover have made the area more susceptible to erosion by rivers originating from the Mahabharat and Higher Himalaya range, which usually have a higher gradient. The socio-economic factors are mainly related to the livelihood of the people residing in the area and the downstream Tarai region. These factors include deforestation; unscientific land use methods; improper slope cultivation methods; overexploitation of resources like sand, gravel, boulders and forest products; forest fire; lack of awareness about the importance of Churia conservation; and lack of ownership.
Furthermore, the state’s policy and related factors such as a lack of apposite policy; weak enforcement of existing laws and acts; inconsistency between government policies and commitments; and a lack of empowerment of local people are equally responsible for the degradation. The volatile political situation and increasing impunity have only accelerated the exploitation rate, exacerbating risks to the entire Churia ecosystem and threatening the livelihoods of people residing therein and downstream.
The Churia range has also become a hotspot for landslides. A massive landslide in 1978 in Butwal completely damaged the reinforced concrete bridge over the Tinau River along the East-West Highway incurring losses of millions of rupees. Similarly, a landslide in 2012 along the Churia section of the Siddhartha Highway killed four people and blocked the highway for several hours. Continued deforestation and overexploitation of the Churia area has led to several large landslips along the major highways. Unplanned urban areas (eg, Butwal, Hetaunda and Dharan) located at the foothills of the Churia range are under constant risk of landslide. If proper risk assessments and mitigation measures are not developed and adopted on time, these areas will face greater scale landslides, like that which the Afghan people faced early this month.
Several programmes from the government and NGOs have been implemented in Churia conservation. The Tarai Arc Landscape (TAL) Project and Western Tarai Landscape Complex Project (WTLCP) are two such projects. In addition, several international agencies such as WWF, SNV, GTZ of Germany, IUCN, CARE-Nepal and DFID are also enthusiastically involved in Churia conservation. Realising the importance of the Churia range and the Tarai region, the Government of Nepal, through the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, recently started the President’s Chure Conservation Programme. However, all of these programmes have merely drafted glossy strategy papers and colourful hazard and soil erosion susceptibility maps, utilising millions of rupees without bringing a single visible positive change to the fate of the Churia area.
Instead, overexploitation of construction materials and deforestation are increasing by the day, threatening the delicate ecosystem of the Churia hills, the Tarai, the wetland area and the biodiversity therein. The adverse impacts of Churia degradation have already been observed in form of rising riverbeds, putting strain on major bridges along the East-West Highway, depletion of groundwater in Bhabar and Tarai regions and substantial erosion of fertile soil during unusual flash flooding.
An integrated approach
As existing practices, policies and programmes have failed to cope with the problems, an integrated approach should be designed by identifying the root causes of degradation. At first, as an institutional set up, it is important to establish separate but powerful Churia Conservation Councils at the central level and branch offices in all 33 affected districts. The centre should house experts from different disciplines like geology, environment, forestry, engineering, agriculture, hydrology, economy, rural development, sociology and gender studies to design an integrated action plan. The centre should be given the authority to draft acts, laws and policies on Churia conservation and execute conservation programmes itself in close coordination with other related government organisations and stakeholders.
While formulating a policy, the inherent links between the Chure and Tarai should be understood and the policy and programme designed should not treat the different physiographic units separately as all sub-units are integral parts of the Churia system. Major destruction in the Churia area is related to the livelihood of the people and a lack of ownership of its users.
The government should come up with an integrated area-based land use policy at the lower level and local government-led participatory land use planning at the district level throughout the Churia area. To take ownership of the Churia system, sensitisation and conservation-oriented hands-on training on environment conservation, climate change adaptation, soil conservation, bio-engineering, climate change adaptation, biodiversity, slope farming, livestock farming, river training and community-based disaster management programmes can be organised for Community Forest Users Committees and local users in the Churia area.
Apart from these, the government should also introduce subsidised biogas, solar energy and improved cooking stoves to control deforestation. Conservation programmes that take into account the livelihood of the Churia people and their right to natural resources, effective land use planning, taking ownership, control on illegal extraction and zero tolerance on political impunity can lead to a green, rich, sustainable and disaster resilient Churia system.
Chamlagain holds a PhD in Earthquake Geology and a post doctorate in Geotechnical Earthquake Engineering