By Navin Singh Khadka
BBC Nepali Service
At least four protected areas were on fire for an unusually long time until just a few days ago.
Nasa’s satellite imagery showed most of the big fires were in and around the national parks along the country’s northern areas bordering
Active fires were recorded in renowned conservation success stories like the
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
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
Some of the national parks in the plains bordering
“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
“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
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.
High and dry
So, why were the fires so different this time?
“The most obvious reason was the unusually long dry spell this year,” says Mr Gurung, just back in Kathmandu from
“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
Experts at the department said the severity of dryness fits in the pattern of increasing extreme weather
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 Mr 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.”
Gaps in the record
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
This is the reason why the region has been dubbed as a “white spot” by experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Limited studies have shown that temperature in the
The meltdown has been rapidly filling up many glacial lakes that could break their moraines and burst out, sweeping away everything downstream.
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”.