Tree of LifePush for growth at the expense of the environment is nothing but extreme short-sightedness
The unprecedented forest fire raging in California and the record-breaking heat wave that engulfed parts of Europe made headlines in the Western media last week. Political pundits wasted no time in declaring that these frightening episodes are evidence of our warming planet. Not that the West really needs any more proof. Because if there is one issue that has been roiling that part of the world in recent years, it has been the influx of migrants, and although not generally able to generate front-page sensation, many reports have demonstrated convincingly that the northward movement from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia are perhaps driven less by strife than by worsening environmental conditions.
Living through the persistent rains that gripped Nepal in recent days, many Nepalis must have wondered if we were also experiencing a manifestation of climate change. But, this is the monsoon after all, and we do have the concept of the Saune jhari, the incessant downpour common this time of the year.
It is a sad but incontrovertible fact that despite industrialised countries—and rapidly industralising countries—being the major polluters, everyone has to live with the devastating consequences of climate change. No country can get off by shirking its responsibility to do its bit to offset some of the ill effects of the coming change. That is as true for Nepal as for any other nation.
We have played our part to highlight the effects of climate change, drawing international attention in December 2009 when the cabinet decided to hold its meeting in the vicinity of Mount Everest. The open-air meeting lasted about 10 minutes, with everything placed on the agenda approved instantaneously. It’s not a Nepali issue or the concern of countries in the Himalayan region alone,” then prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal said about the meeting. “Impact of global change on Himalayas would impact 1.3 billion people living in South Asia. Hence it should concern everyone.”
Prime minister Nepal, of course, did not refer to what in all respects was a much more innovative approach to highlighting the effects of climate change—the Maldivian cabinet meeting held underwater in October earlier that year. With rising sea levels threatening the existence of the archipelago nation, the Maldivian president and his colleagues made a valid point by going beneath the water. Our own government’s publicity effort was marred by the fact that the ministers had to be flown by helicopter to the meeting spot. Taken together with the resources spent on a night halt along the way to acclimatise, and on security and for other logistics, all of which would have contributed further to carbon emissions, it was a stunt that we could have done without.
Talking of stunts, that is what we usually get from the powers that be. Every year, on World Environment Day, we are treated to the spectacle of officers of the state from the highest in Kathmandu to those posted to faraway district headquarters indulging in the routine of planting a tree. While that in itself is a commendable act, it does beg the question: why only on that particular day and why only a few trees? As the biggest landowner in the country, the government could easily order that every open space in land occupied by government offices, including ones such as schools and health posts, be covered with trees. The burden on the exchequer would be quite minimal, but more than made up by the benefits that would accrue to the people from having a more extensive tree cover everywhere.
The initiative can begin at Singha Durbar itself, where anyone passing by can see there is immense potential to create mini-forests. If that can be followed by large-scale plantation on the bare grounds of government offices across Nepal, imagine how that would transform the landscape of the country, and how the changed cityscape would soothe residents of the urban centres expanding everywhere.
A few years ago, the Kathmandu municipal government reportedly made it mandatory for each new house to set aside space for at least one new tree. No one really knows if the rule has been implemented once the building plans are approved. But, if tree plantation were to become a year-round national campaign of the kind envisaged above, one can be pretty sure it would catch on with private individuals as well and lead to the rapid greening of the city.
Development and environment
Lately, there’s a new view gaining ground that development projects are being stymied by environmental regulations.
For instance, at the height of the years of electricity shortage, the government changed the rules allowing hydro projects smaller than 50 MW to conduct only an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) as opposed to the more stringent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Although some action was necessary to meet the electricity shortfall, this push for growth at the expense of the environment is nothing but extreme short-sightedness.
However, despite the pressure to loosen up from the infrastructure sector, when the government issued new rules governing the clearance of national forests by development projects in 2017, it appears to have stood its ground. Accordingly, 25 trees are to be planted for every one tree chopped down, and further, the said project is required to take care of the saplings for a full five years before handing them over to the concerned forest office.
By that reckoning, for the 2.4 million trees to be felled to construct the much talked-about international airport at Nijgadh, 60 million new trees will be planted. That is the kind of development we could live with. Whether that scale of plantation will actually come to pass is the question here.