Fanned up flamesNepal may be a global leader in community forestry but it has a long way to go to fight forest fires
Despite years of political instability, it is one of those very rare sectors that have remained stable. The latest report published in March showed the country’s forest coverage had reached nearly 45 percent of the total land area—an increase of nearly five percent in the past 15 years. No sooner had Nepal celebrated the good news than huge swathes of the forests were engulfed by fire in the past one month or so. Forest department officials say some 250,000 hectares of forest lands have been affected. Final assessments are yet to come. Initial figures however already show that the forest fires were the worst in the past 15 years—also in terms of loss of human lives and settlements. The western part of the country was particularly affected.
Across western Nepal’s border, India’s Uttarakhand state was also very badly hit. Indian experts say such levels of forest fires were not seen in the past 20 years. The government in the state has said nearly 4,000 hectares of forests were lost but these are said to be reserved forests only. Forests falling within the civil administration have also been said to be destroyed.
Some pockets of eastern Nepal also saw forest fires, as did the forests in Bhutan, which lies further east. Bhutanese officials told the BBC that preliminary figures showed some 21,000 hectares were affected as they waited for pre-monsoon rains to douse the fire for final assessment.
Natural and human factors
Prolonged period of dryness has been the main reason behind the forest fires in these three countries although some local factors vary. In India’s Uttarakhand state, for instance, there have been claims that budget was not made available timely for some groundwork to prevent the fires from spreading. Experts also point to widespread plantation of pine trees that catch fire very easily.
In Bhutan, officials said less rainfall apart, significant reduction in snow coverage also played a key role. “In the past, the forest-fire prone mountains around Thimpu used to be covered with snow for a month or so and therefore even when there was no rain the snowmelt kept the forests moist,” Bhutan’s forest department officials told me for a report I did for the BBC. “Now the snow lasts for a day or so and forests become totally dry and then there is so much of wind and they all add up to the fire.”
Nepal shares similar geographical conditions to those of Bhutan and India, which means it can learn from what has happened in the two neighbour countries. But, notably, Nepal’s loss due to the forest fire has been far higher than that of the other two—more than 60 times than in Uttarakhand and nearly 15 times what happened in Bhutan.
Experts and officials say one of the main reasons for the fires to have become so serious in Nepal is because several community forests adjoin other forested areas that were torched by human activities. This is, however, not to undermine the natural factor—the acute dryness caused by El Nino, the warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that influences weather conditions including the monsoon. Just like community forests are affected by illegal logging in the national forests as they share borders in several places, fires too engulf them together.
Sprawling forests, raging fires
According to the forest ministry, more than 1.6 million hectares of national forests have been handed over as community forests. The latest government figure shows Nepal now has nearly seven million hectares of forest coverage. Half of that is in the mid-hill region, which is exactly where the country’s community forestry has been a smash hit.
While the sprawling forests are good news, raging forest fires are not. The disaster not only eats up forest coverage but also causes huge loss of flora and fauna, as the region is a biodiversity hotspot. Add to that what the smoke from the fires does to human health and to other areas including air transport.
These forests, including the community-managed ones, are believed to be storing more than 1,000 million tonnes of carbon that would have otherwise been dumped into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas, when released to the atmosphere, traps heat from the sun. This is said to be causing global warming. Now when these forests catch fire, instead of holding back the carbon, they become the source of emission of the greenhouse gas.
What all this means is that when you have managed to expand forests so well, you now also need to be able to deal with forest fires. Of course, you cannot prevent the disaster as it is predicted to be on the rise with the changing climate. But preparedness and meaningful mobilisation of resources will certainly help minimise losses. The Indian government, for instance, deployed its air force to fight the fires in Uttarakhand. True, Nepal cannot do something of that scale but it can at least train and equip firefighters and members of the local communities.
“Even when we had such serious forest fires this time, we did not have a single helicopter to help us douse the flames,” said forest department spokesperson Chandraman Dongol. Are those so excited about preparing Nepal’s yet another high-sounding climate change document—the National Adaptation Plan—listening?
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London