Wildfires single biggest threat to tens of thousands of hectare forest cover

April 30, 2019

Chandan Kumar Mandal, The Kathmandu Post, April 29, 2019

Community forestry programme in Nepal is hailed as one of the most sustainable forest management models in the world, which has helped the country’s forest cover expand to nearly 45 percent of the total geographical area from what was once a heavily deforested zone. But every year wildfires pose the single biggest threat to tens of thousands hectares of forest land.

The worst forest fire in recent times was recorded in 2009 when 49 people, including 13 Nepal Army personnel, died in Ramechhap district while fighting wildfire. Some 268,618 hectares of forest cover across the country were lost to forest fires during the months of January-May in 2016.

“The destruction caused by wildfire is of massive proportion,” says Sundar Prasad Sharma, an under-secretary at the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation.

“We lose vast areas of forest rich in biodiversity, and people’s lives and property are at risk.”

While Sharma warns that wildfire is not something the country can ignore, the department, however, maintains no records of lost forest areas or estimates and figures on the loss of lives, biodiversity and property.

Unofficial estimates, according to Sharma, who voluntarily compiles data on forest fires from across the country, show that the country has been losing some 200,000 hectares of forest area annually since 2005.

In 2016, Nepal lost nearly 1.3million hectares of forest and 15 people were reported dead in the forest blaze, according to Sharma’s data. While 2017 was a Zero Forest Fire Casualty Year, the threats of wildfire and the destruction they wreak remain.

Nepal’s total forest cover accounted for 45.4 percent in 1990, but it quickly declined to 39.6 percent by 2000, increasing landslide incidents and soil erosion risks. But in the years that followed, conservation efforts backed by policies introduced to intervene the massive scale of deforestation won accolades for the country as Nepal’s community forestry programme was hailed as one of the most sustainable models in the world.

Aside from being natural carbon sinks and habitat to diverse range of flora and fauna, forests also serve as watershed areas and stabilise soil fertility and contribute immensely to the economy. The country’s tourism sector depends largely on the forest cover or protected areas where 60 percent of the total foreign tourists visit every year.

According to the Economic Survey 2017/18, the contribution of the agricultural and forestry sectors to the Gross Domestic Product was estimated to be 27.6 percent in the current fiscal year 2017/18 which was 28.8 percent in the fiscal year 2016/17.

Nepal currently boasts 6.6 million hectares of forest area after decades of community and state-led afforestation efforts but the months from February to May are prone to forest fires, some of which can turn deadly and pose grave risks, according to officials.

“If we continue to neglect forest fires, our forest cover could shrink drastically within a decade,” warns Sharma. “And with it, our forest resources, wildlife and valuable herbs.”

But natural loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity are not the only risks from forest fires, which can also kill people when wildfires spread to human settlements.

Forest fires also contribute significantly to air pollution by generating haze and smog, which have a direct effect on human health.

In the lack of mitigation efforts, forest fires leave areas brazen and prone to landslides, soil erosion and flash floods but officials say there is no mechanism or a disaster preparedness plan to manage forest fires in the absence of which, the first responders are local villagers who risk their lives to protect the forests.

“Local communities are not trained to manage wildfires, which spread quickly. They also lack the equipment and safety gears but often put their lives at risk to protect the forests they have invested all their resources in,” says Sharma.

There are a total of 22,226 community forest user groups in the country, which bring together 297,871 families under the umbrella of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal. When fire occurs, it is often these communities that are the first line of defence.

“All kinds of forests are affected due to fires every year. Community forests have also witnessed large blazes in the past,” Bharati Kumari Pathak, the federation chairperson told the Post. “There is no insurance or a provision for compensation for those who risk their lives to douse the forest fires.”

Forests in the Tarai belt are more prone to fires. However, forests in the plains suffer crawling or surface fire whereas other parts are vulnerable to crown fires, which is similar to large wildfires in California and other parts of the world.

According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 90 percent of forest fires are man-made. A similar study conducted by Sharma shows that human activities are the major factor behind forest fires in the country.

“Almost all forest fires are human-induced,” he said.

The report concludes that burning for stimulation for new grass and smokers’ negligence alone account for nearly 45 percent of all the wildfires. About 60 percent of the total wildfires are caused by people intentionally while 32 percent of them are either due to carelessness or accidental.

As the country is in the peak season for forest fires which generally falls in the fourth week of April, there are concerns over possible threat to human lives, wildlife and vegetation. However, the government’s preparedness when it comes to fighting forest fires is negligible.

There is a lack of resources--technical, financial and manpower--at all levels and although the department is the focal agency to handle forest fires, there is no  division dedicated to forest fires, which claims 10 lives annually.   

“Institutional, policy and legal reforms at all levels are required to deal with forest fires,” said Sharma.

The government in 2010 introduced the Forest Fire Management Strategy, which envisages developing and strengthening necessary policy and institutions for curbing forest fires but both officials and locals lack the capacity and tools to contain forest fires.

“There is no dedicated institutional arrangement yet, and there is a significant lack of capacity-building for forestry and security staff, and community forest users’ groups,” said Sharma.

Community forest user groups say governments and communities should work together and not take wildfires for granted.

“The problem should be addressed through policies and allocating enough budget towards preventive measures,” said Pathak.

“The government will talk about forest fires for a few months but everything is forgotten once the season changes.”

Recently, the department, in collaboration with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, has developed the forest detection and monitoring system for Nepal, which will provide near ‘real time’ data on wildfire incidents in the country.

A Fire Control Room would also be set up to send alerts through SMS and emails to the government officials and locals working for wildfire management.

Sharma, who has been appointed the focal person to manage the monitoring system and the fire control room, said it would take some time before the new mechanism to manage forest fires comes into full operation.

“They have promised more human resource. We lack the resources--both budget and manpower--to tackle forest fires,” said Sharma.

The government still seems to be too slow to recognise wildfires as a major issue, as there is no mention of “forest fire” in the recently endorsed “Forest Policy” while the 2010 policy had at least five provisions which were directly related to the management of forest fires.

The recently endorsed National Disaster Risk Reduction Strategic Action Plan 2018-2030 also talks in detail about controlling and preventing forest fires but it remains far from implementation.

“There is meagre budget for forest fire management. Even if we propose a budget, it is sliced down. We need to launch intervention at various levels,” said Sharma. “Managing wildfires is an expensive and risky affair. Even developed countries struggle to control it completely. So our aim should be towards promoting prevention measures and raising awareness.”