TOPICS : Deforestation and Tarai inundation

Except for a few places higher up, almost all areas of Tarai lie submerged from recurrent floods. Scores of people have died and over 15 million have been affected. Rainfalls are down as compared to even a decade ago. However, the magnitude and frequency of floods have only increased. Why?

There are two main factors. The first is obstruction to natural flow of water by embankments, especially in border areas. Laxmanpur Dam and Russiawal Khurdlotan Dam are examples of such hindrances. Backwater has submerged Gaur municipality, parts of Nepalgunj, southern part of Nawalparasi and Rupandehi. Gross violation by Indian authorities of the international rules and regulations and lack of courage on the part of our politicians to raise such matters with Indian officials has brought misery to these areas.

Yet the most important factor causing large-scale floods is deforestation in Tarai and Siwalik regions. Large-scale deforestation of northern Tarai and Chure range has aggravated flood problems in Tarai. Forest and vegetation obstruct the flow of water and reduces flow speed. Water is absorbed underground, resulting in less runoff and fewer floods. Also, forestland upstream provides a natural buffer for Tarai thus providing more response time. Deforestation has thus left the Tarai people with less reaction time, frequent and intense flooding, filling of agricultural lands with sand, diminishing ground water and high concentration of soluble minerals such as arsenic in tube well water.

Deforestation has continued since the time of King Mahendra. It was he who paved the east-west highway in the middle of Char Koshe Jhadi. Surely, while much shorter routes might have been chosen at a lesser cost, the decision to trespass Char Koshe Jhadi

must have been inspired by other vested interests. But we have not learned our lessons. Otherwise, why would the Maoist cantonments have been built in forest areas?

Recently, our finance minister announced during his budget speech that the government was allocating money for an international airport at Nijgadh. I would like to ask him: Where is the space at Nijgadh to construct such a big airport? Nobody asks such questions because everybody knows the answer. Of course, the jungle adjoining Nijgadh will be cleared for the project. The consequence: Next flood season, Kalaiya that lies downstream will be submerged.

The issue of construction of such vital infrastructure has to be discussed in detail. If the idea is of an international airport near Birgunj, why not simply expand the existing Simara airport? Even travel time and oil expenditure in travelling from the airport to the commercial centers of Birgunj, Hetauda and Kathmandu will be reduced. Or instead of Nijgadh (which is neither a large city, a historic place or a religious site), why not construct an international airport

at Janakpur? After all it is a place of historic and religious significance and Indian tourists flock to the place. The policymakers have got their basics wrong.