Bilateral trade through the Tatopani-Nylam border pass, until now Nepal’s only road link with China, had been stalled since the 2015 earthquakes. There was no trading through the vital border point even though the roads that were damaged in the earthquakes, on both the sides of the border, had been repaired. Apparently, when requested by Nepal to open Tatopani, the Chinese cited ‘security reasons’ for the delay and urged Nepal to step up its ‘security and surveillance’ in border areas. Now these bilateral discussions to reopen Tatopani for bilateral trade have become redundant after a landslide on Sunday washed away the Larcha Bridge over Bhotekoshi River, thereby isolating Tatopani from the rest of Nepal and putting paid to any hope of quick resumption of trade via Tatopani. The bridge—which had been built with Chinese assistance in 1982, after a previous bridge was also washed away by landslides—had been weakened by the 2015 earthquakes, as had the surrounding hills. So when a big chunk of a nearby hill fell upon the bridge on Sunday night, it gave away and was completely washed down the river.
Larcha Bridge must be urgently repaired, and not just for possible resumption of bilateral trade. Following the earthquakes, Tatopani area was only just coming back to life. Small shops and eateries were opening in the anticipation of resumption of Nepal-China trade. Sunday’s incident will once again set the area back. Since the closure of the border, Tatopani locals have been getting all their vital necessities through the nearby markets across the Larcha Bridge. Now they will have to walk for two hours to reach the nearest suspension bridge. Tatopani locals fear an acute food scarcity. Chief District Officer of Sindhupalchowk, Antar Bahadur Silwal, told Republica that as a temporary measure a suspension bridge would be built in the place of Larcha Bridge. It’s a wonderful idea. But it is also vital that the work on the suspension bridge be started without any further ado in order to avert a humanitarian crisis.
The destruction and washing away of Larcha Bridge also buttresses China’s claim that Nepal is not ready for resumption of bilateral trade via Tatopani. Whatever the reasons behind China’s reluctance to open Tatopani, Nepal had been consistently raising the issue. Because of this the Chinese too seemed to be considering it, after flatly refusing to entertain the idea for better part of a year following the earthquakes. If and when a new concrete bridge over Bhotekoshi is finally ready, negotiators will again have to start from the scratch. The strategic importance of Arniko Highway and Tatopani is hard to overstate: during the Indian blockade, it was our only operable road route to China. Although we are now in the process of opening other border points with China, Tatopani is easily the most developed of them all. Any way you look at it, there is no option to rebuilding the Larcha Bridge on a war footing. There is not a moment to lose.