There is now strong evidence of drastic changes in South Asia’s weather patterns over the past few decades. Even though Nepal contributes very little in terms of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, it has been witnessing disproportionate damages from climate change: increased instances of floods and landslides, appearance of new kinds of pests and insects, desertification and overall loss in agricultural productivity. The recent heavy rainfall in Tarai-Madhes and the ensuing floods can also be partly attributed to this changing weather pattern, over which Nepal has little control. Yet even the matters well within its control and which could greatly minimize the scale and frequency of these floods have been ignored. According to environmentalists, the recent flooding in Tarai was caused, in part, by overexploitation of the vulnerable Chure range. All the major rivers into Tarai flow through it. The range, which runs from the eastern district of Ilam to the western district of Kanchanpur, altogether spanning 36 districts, acts as a buffer that regulates the flow of rivers into Tarai. Its forests absorb excess water. The rocks and stones these rivers encounter while passing through Chure hills slow them down.
Or that is how things were traditionally. This natural cycle has been badly disrupted due to unsustainable mining of sand and aggregates from Chure. The crusher factories have over the years wantonly mined the rivers in Chure. As a result of extraction of sand and aggregates, there is nothing to slow the speed of the rivers tumbling down from the high Himalayas. The forests in the area are also fast disappearing due to new settlements, and the volume of rainwater they absorb has been reduced, thus adding more and more water to the rivers. When these enlarged rivers reach the Tarai, they create havoc. With big stones and aggregates taken out, more soil and sand from Chure are being carried into Tarai by these rivers, resulting in incremental increase in their water levels. Meanwhile, the government’s ostensible attempts to prevent crusher industries from mining in the Chure range, and to halt unsustainable settlement expansion, have all come to a naught. Around Rs 9 billion a year is needed to carry out the government master-plan on Chure conservation, but this year only Rs 1.92 billion was set aside for it.
But budget shortfall is not the main reason for overexploitation of Chure. Nearly all the crusher factories operating in Chure enjoy strong political protection. This is why all attempts to ban them from Chure have been stymied. Ditto for settlement control. And the risks are rising. Besides acting as a buffer between the high Himalayas and the Tarai plains, the Chure range is home to 13 different kinds of ecosystems and hosts rare plant and animal species, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Their habitat is being systematically destroyed and lives of millions of people living downstream put at elevated danger. Yet the exploitation of Chure continues unabated. We hope recent floods that claimed over 100 lives and resulted in unimaginable loss of land and property serves as a wake-up call. The damaged ecosystems of Chure should be urgently restored if Nepal is to avoid an otherwise imminent environmental and climate catastrophe.