Forest fire fears

Forest fire fears

03 June 2011

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Nepal — While melting glaciers and preparedness on future catastrophic earthquake that could destroy the nation’s capital have been highly emphasized and imprinted in the general psyche, the flames that time and again engulf Nepal’s forests, and the massive natural and socio-economic implications that tags along with it, have been under the shadows.

The statistics for a country like Nepal with almost 25.4% of its land area covered with forests, the rate at which it is flaring is alarming.

This year, as of May 21, 1,444 forest fires have been reported, out of which 970 fires occurred in April and 327 in March.

“Almost 80% of the forest fires in Nepal occur during March-April and 50% in April alone,” said Sundar Sharma, coordinator of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network.

With the increasing trend of forest fires in the country, Nepal has also been in the international spotlight.

UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, in his speech at the 5th International Wildland Fire Conference in South Africa in May, said, “The year 2011 has already seen a number of terrifying wildland fires in Western Australia, in the high mountain ecosystems of Nepal, in Mexico, the United States, Russia and, most recently, in Europe.”

In retrospect, in 2009, 2,137 fires were reported in Nepal, consuming more than 146,742 hectares of forest area.

The fire led to the death of 58 people and affected 516 families. This was when the government realized wildfires as a natural hazard, prompting it to introduce the Forest Fire Management Strategy in 2010. Forest fire is now considered one of the climate-induced disasters in the National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPA).

The government’s strategy plans on policies on legal and institutional development, awareness programs, community involvement in fire management, and coordination and collaboration with various partners.

However, Sharma pointed that the government still hasn’t allocated enough budget, nor has it adequate infrastructure and tools to combat forest fires.

Noone from the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation was available for any comments. While the concerned person, Annapurna Das, was at a conference abroad, his substitute Mohan Koirala said he would need to verify it with his seniors and would thus e-mail the details on the rescue, relief and rehabilitation plan of the government along with the budget allocation and infrastructural resources for forest fires.

However, until press time, The Week didn’t receive any response.

Forest fires in Nepal aren’t a new phenomena but the government hadn’t realized its threat until recently, said Santosh Mani Nepal, director of policy at the World Wildlife Fund-Nepal.

And the threats are on different levels—natural, human and in the area of conservation.

Birendra Bajracharya, senior GIS specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said the environmental hazards, apart from the loss of forests, cannot be ignored. “The black carbon issue in the local climate change is one of them,” he said.

Sharma also pointed at another environmental hazard caused by forest fires: Atmospheric Brown Cloud, also known as ABC, “a worrying phenomena” according to scientists. The effects of ABC were apparent early last year in the Everest region, and The Week reported on this phenomenon in its September 17 issue.

According to a 2010 report by P. Bonasoni from the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the Italian National Research Council, South Asian regions like eastern Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are the “brown cloud hotspots,” and meteorological conditions in these places also promote an ideal environment for wildfires, which can emit more carbonaceous aerosol and ozone precursors in the atmosphere.

This could further lead to “trans-boundary fire and haze pollution,” Sharma pointed out.

In one of his research papers along with Johann G. Goldammer, coordinator and secretariat of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GMFC), Sharma writes about the visible impacts of ABC: a thick blanket of smoke (Brown Cloud) hanging over the south of the Hindu-Kush Himalaya region, mainly south of Nepal covering major cities like Butwal, Birgunj, Janakpur, Biratnagar and Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh in India in April 2009.

On global scale, according to GMFC, fire consumes about 5% of net annual terrestrial primary production per annum, and releases about 2 to 4 billion metric tons of carbon per year, which is equivalent to about 20-30% of global emissions from fossil fuels.

While the smoke affects the environment, it equally impacts the floras and faunas in the area and its surroundings, Nepal from WWF said. He pointed that the national parks and protected areas in the Himlaya have been affected.

“Cattle have also been killed, and there’s been loss of property too,” he said about how forest fires have affected the nearby human settlements.

“A single layer of the ecosystem gets burned, affecting animals and their habitats,” Nepal said.
But at the same time, experts like Sharma and Nepal said that controlled fires in the forests as well as conservation areas are necessary, and is also practiced, in the forest areas.

As Sharma said, “it is necessary for habitat managing for landscape,” and Nepal from WWF said that controlled fires “help to recycle nutrients [in nature].”
But in Nepal’s case, forest fires have seemed to become uncontrolled.

Sharma noted that almost all forest fires in Nepal are human-induced, which is directly or indirectly related to livelihood of the people. Also lack of awareness and carelessness of people leads to the burning in the jungles.

Many people in Nepal, who primarily depend upon agriculture, still apply the slash and burn technique for better productivity. But in many cases, they aren’t careful or well aware, which might be a factor for the fire, especially during the two fire seasons: winter fire from mid-November to February in high altitude Himalaya, and summer fire from March to mid May throughout the country, particularly Tarai.

 It’s the southern belt of the country more vulnerable to fires because the area is drier, including the soil and vegetation.

Also, of other problems, it is the “fuel accumulation” in the jungle, said Nepal, which refers to the accumulation of chaparral that sparks fire easily.

But what role does climate change play in this phenomenon? Experts say that the warming temperature has helped to induce fire, but it cannot be concluded yet that this is because of global warming.

In Nepal’s case, compared to this year, the past two years have been comparatively drier.

“But April and May are usually the driest months before the monsoon starts,” said Mani Ratna Shakya, deputy director general of the Meteorological Forecasting Division.

Because of the heating of the land, the air evaporated upward creating a low pressure on the ground, which Shakya said, is the reason for high speed wind. And it is during this time that forest fire is at its peak. The wind might thus be a contributing factor to fan the fire.

Disregarding the weather conditions, the other problems can however be solved, said the experts, if all the efforts are expedited and the government’s strategies seriously implemented.

“There should be community-based fire management,” Sharma said, which is also a part of the government’s Forest Fire Management Strategy 2010. “This is the best approach as it increases awareness on local level and strengthens and develops their capabilities.”
But technology has come to the rescue as well.

Bajracharya, the senior GIS specialist, explained that it is through satellite images and the global information system that Bajracharya and ICIMOD compile the data in national context to identify forest fires. This helps in pointing out the district where the fire is, the nearest settlement and road points so that necessary steps can be taken.

Though they generate and provide information, Bajracharya said that there should be a coordinated effort. He further stated that satellite images should be used for detailed studies and burnt area assessments, which hasn’t been done.

“Also, two-way communication is important,” he said as he commented on the system ICIMOD is developing that will come into effect next year, which will send text message alerts and information on fires to the people and authorities concerned.

But apart from coordination, a proper collaboration is also needed, Sharma said. He pointed that there is lack of proper damage assessment and the number of human fatalities and property loss is often underreported, which hinders knowledge of the scale and intensity of the problem.

News reports in 2009 after the raging forest fire in the country also claimed that more than 100 yaks were killed surrounding the Kanchanjunga National Park.

Other conservation areas, home to many rare species of plants and animals threatened by the fire that year included the Langtang, Makalu Barun National Park as well as the Annapurna Conservation Area.

On the other hand, the fumes from the raging forest in Nepal could have a serious implication in the mountain eco-system, right from the glacier dynamics to climate-induced disaster vulnerabilities, the downstream population and also health hazards in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

The region is home to the one of the world’s largest water basin, the Himalaya and rich biodiversity.The problem, however, isn’t only of Nepal alone.
“It’s a global problem, not only Nepal’s,” Sharma said, adding, “We aren’t prepared yet in the South Asia region.”

GFMC note: Corrections made by Sundar Sharma, coordinator of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network.

1. In para 2, line 1: the figure should not be 25.4% but 39.6%.
2. para 7, line 1: fatality should not be 58 but 49.
3. para 18 line 1: the Global Fire Monitoring System (GMFS) should be read as ‘The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC).

4. Para 19 line 1: GFMS should be read as ‘GFMC’.

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