The forest fires that flared unusually viciously in many of Nepal’s national parks and conserved areas this dry season have left conservationists worrying if climate change played a role.
At least four protected areas were recently on fire for an unusually long time. Satellite imagery from US space agency NASA showed most of the big fires were in and around the national parks along the country’s northern areas bordering Tibet. Active fires were recorded in renowned conservation success stories like the Annapurna, Kanchanjunga, Langtang and Makalu Barun national parks. The extent of the loss of flora and fauna is not yet known.
Press reports said more than 100 yaks were killed by fire in the surrounding areas of the Kanjanchanga National Park in eastern Nepal. Trans-Himalayan parks host rare species such as snow leopards, red pandas and several endangered birds.
More than the loss of plants and animals, the carbon dioxide emitted by the fires was a matter of concern, according to Ghanashyam Gurung, a director at WWF’s Nepal office. Some of the national parks in the plains bordering India were also on fire, but those caused less concern among conservationists and forest officials. “Fires in the protected areas in the plain lands can be controlled easily because we have logistics and manpower ready for that – and that is what we did this time,” said Laxmi Manandhar, spokesman for Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. “But in the national parks in the Himalayan region, we could hardly do anything because of the difficult geography. Nor do we have facilities of pouring water using planes and helicopters.”
Forest fires in Nepal’s jungles and protected areas are not uncommon during the dry season between October and January. Most of the fires come about as a consequence of the “slash and burn” practice that farmers employ for better vegetation and agricultural yields. But this time the fires remained out of control even in the national parks in the Himalayan region where the slash and burn practice is uncommon. In some of the protected areas, the fires flared up even after locals and officials tried to put them out for several days.
So, why were the fires so different this time? “The most obvious reason was the unusually long dry spell this year,” says Gurung, just back in Kathmandu from Langtang National Park to the north of the capital. “The dryness has been so severe that pine trees in the Himalayan region are thoroughly dry even on the top, which means even a spark is enough to set them on fire.”
For nearly six months, no precipitation has fallen across most of the country – the longest dry spell in recent history, according to meteorologists. “This winter was exceptionally dry,” says Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari. “We have seen winter becoming drier and drier in the last three or four years, but this year has set the record.”
Rivers are running at their lowest, and because most of Nepal’s electricity comes from hydropower, the country has been suffering power cuts up to 20 hours a day. Experts at the department said the severity of dryness fits in the pattern of increasing extreme weather Nepal has witnessed in recent years.
Had it not been for recent drizzles, conservationists say some of the national parks would still be on fire. They point to “cloud burst phenomena” – huge rainfall within a short span of time during monsoons, and frequent, sudden downpours in the Himalayan foothills – as more examples of extreme weather events. “Seeing all these changes happening in recent years, we can contend that this dryness that led to so much fire is one of the effects of climate change,” said Rajbhandari.
Anil Manandhar, head of WWF Nepal, had this to ask: are we waiting for a bigger disaster to admit that it is climate change? “The weather pattern has changed, and we know that there are certain impacts of climate change.”
However, climate-change expert Arun Bhakta Shrestha, of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), was cautious about drawing conclusions. “The prolonged dryness this year, like other extreme events in recent years, could be related to climate change but there is no proper basis to confirm that. The reason [why there is no confirmation] is lack of studies, observation and data that could have helped to reach into some conclusion regarding the changes.”
Indeed, there has been no proper study of the impacts of climate change on the region: not just in Nepal but in the entire Hindu Kush Himalayas. This is the reason why the region has been dubbed as a “white spot” by experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Limited studies have shown that temperature in the Himalayas has been increasing on average by 0.06 degrees Celsius annually, causing glaciers to melt and retreat faster. The meltdown has been rapidly filling up many glacial lakes that could break their moraines and burst out, sweeping away everything downstream. In Nepal and neighbouring countries, these “glacial lake outburst floods” and monsoon-related floods resulting from erratic rainfalls are at present the most talked-about disasters in the context of climate change.
If conservationists’ and meteorologists’ latest fears mean anything, forest fires may also be something that would be seen as one of the climate impacts.
In the wake of the 2007 United Nations climate change conference in Bali, Nepal has been preparing to join an international effort known as Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). But if the forest fires it saw this year became a regular phenomenon, the country will instead be emitting increased carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – a case of climate science’s not very aptly-named “positive feedback”.
Navin Singh Khadka is a journalist with the BBC Nepali service. He has a sustained interest in environment, with a focus on climate change vis-a-vis Himalayan ecology.
Homepage image by NASA