The road to disaster: Dozer use causing landslides

Dozer road building usually comes along with a near-total absence of proper drainage, haphazard destruction of wide swathes of vegetation, and reckless downhill soil dumping. This is a human and environmental disaster underway

Across Nepal, floods destroy lives, homes and livelihoods every year. But there’s another disaster unfolding in plain sight. This disaster is far more widespread and is one of the root causes of flood disaster. But it remains almost entirely unrecognised. This disaster is road building.

Road building is now ubiquitous across Nepal, from Kathmandu to the most remote corners of the country. Every Nepali deserves access to a road and the vital services that come with it: education, medicine, access to new markets, and easy transport to urban centres. Road building and maintenance bring paid work, especially needed in remote communities. Nobody would argue against the importance of these outcomes.

But roads aren’t the development cure-all that many pretend they are. Just as ubiquitous as road building in Nepal is the

destruction that accompanies it: if you’re travelling in the hills and want to find a road, just look for the landslides. The vast majority of Nepal’s local road network is cut haphazardly into steep hillsides with little or no planning, triggering landslides and washing massive amounts of soil into rivers.

Dozer road construction is a quick and easy practice that mostly benefits contractors and government officials. But it damages communities, landscapes and ecosystems across Nepal and beyond. A recent exposé in the Nepali Times detailed the staggering percentage of contractors elected to mayoral posts across the nation, many of whom have proceeded to give contracts to their own firms. In another Nepali Times report, road building caused the destruction of more than 283 out of 440 recent irrigation projects in Bajhang district. This is not ‘the cost of development.’ It’s the cost that corrupt politicians and contractors have decided to pay to enrich themselves at huge cost to the Nepali public. It’s unnecessary destruction for political gain.

Strategies for sustainable road building exist. Building “Green Roads,” for example, is an established practice that reduces the environmental impacts of road building by using local materials and bioengineering. These roads also use local manual labour and distribute paid work among community members. Examples like the Jiri road, while not perfect, demonstrate that large road projects can minimise environmental impacts while supporting local communities.

Dozer roads are known to contribute to or directly cause landslides. Remote communities relying on already precarious access to infrastructure are further isolated and endangered. Dozer road building doesn’t just damage the landscape in the short-term, it makes those who rely on it in the long-term more vulnerable.

From 1998 to 2016, the length of Nepal’s road network multiplied by a factor of 11. A dozer road building boom is currently underway in the wake of federalism, and many anticipate that another surge will occur along several new major road corridors being built by foreign development actors. Along these corridors, such as the under-construction Rasuwa highway, improper construction magnifies the vulnerabilities of communities and the environment.

Dozer road building usually comes along with a near-total absence of proper drainage, haphazard destruction of wide swathes of vegetation, and reckless downhill soil dumping. This is a human and environmental disaster underway in plain sight. The current upward trend in dozer road building across the country indicates the steady, if not exponential, growth of this disaster.

Communities feel the negative effects of road building locally. But its most significant effects spread downstream across mountains, hills and plains. Vast amounts of exposed soil created by dozer road building wash into rivers and are carried downstream to the Tarai. There, this soil raises riverbed levels and causes more devastating flood disasters. Combined with the construction of embankments, which force larger amounts of sediment to settle in smaller rivers, flood disasters that the nation already struggles to cope with are made even worse.

A large body of recent scholarship and planning in Nepal places the lion’s share of the blame for increasing sedimentation in Tarai riverbeds on deforestation in the Chure hills. More specifically, blame is usually placed on individual people practising poor resource management. There is undoubtedly some truth to this. But these arguments don’t place responsibility where it belongs: on governments, corruption and the dozer road building they allow.

The ‘People’s Embankment Programme’ is a perfect example: despite the vast sums of rupees that will be spent on building the embankment, supposedly for the good of the people, government efforts to actually address the root causes of Tarai flood disasters - such as dozer road building in the hills - are seemingly non-existent.

The rush to build new roads causes increasingly severe flooding in the Tarai and significant destruction of forest cover, ecosystems and productive land across the country. Roads and the services they provide are needed. But the current trajectory of road building trades short-term benefits for widespread long-term problems. And, like many disasters, these will be driven by the actions of the wealthy and powerful few to the detriment of the many.

Carlson is a landscape designer and researcher