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Wildfires are raging in Nepal — climate change isn’t the only culprit

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Nepal’s wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity, but it’s not just climate change to blame. Forest scientists say that Nepalis’ changing relationship with forests is also escalating the incidence of forest fire, but that better fire prediction and preparedness could minimize harm.

This year alone, Nepal has already witnessed nearly 5,000 wildfires — the second worst since records began in 2002 and second only to its 2021 fire season, when the country recorded more than 6,300 outbreaks. More than 100 people have died from wildfires in the past 12 months. Kathmandu was engulfed in hazardous wildfire smog for days on end.

Climate models suggest that Nepal will face more-frequent drought conditions into the future and that this will probably make wildfires worse. However, mismanagement of forests is more likely to be behind the recent blazes, say researchers.

Nepal’s rural population grew rapidly in the early 1970s and the country’s heavy reliance on agriculture took its toll on the nation’s forests. In the hills, villagers cleared vast swathes of trees for firewood, fodder and timber. A 1979 World Bank report concluded that “the spectre of ecological disaster” was near, urging the country to undertake a large-scale tree-planting programme. The government took heed and decided to decentralize the management of its forests, granting locals control over nearly 1.8 million hectares of wooded land across the country. As a result, Nepal’s forest cover almost doubled in three decades, reaching 45% in 2016.

Over this period, Nepal also went through major socio-political upheaval. Following the abolition of the monarchy in late 2008, the country transitioned into a federal system in 2015. “But this new political atmosphere didn’t prioritize the management of community forests like before,” says Uttam Babu Shrestha, an environmental scientist at the Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Kathmandu. Many community forests across the country are also still bound by rules that date to the 1990s, which prohibit the cutting of timber.

The changes were further escalated by migration of people away from rural areas. In 2022, Sarada Tiwari, then a researcher for ForestAction Nepal in Patan, found that, in the previous year, more than 33% of locals that relied on the forests had left the country and that 63% of rural households had at least one member leave the village.

Local peoples’ financial dependence on the forests dwindled. “With no clear benefits coming out of forests, the locals don’t feel the same ownership,” Shrestha says. They didn’t gather firewood or clear forest litter, which fuelled later forest fires. Shrestha says that even when the community-managed forests catch fire, locals don’t feel obliged to take action.

In 2021, when Tiwari first visited the community forests in Bhumlu rural municipality, central Nepal, she was awestruck looking at the lush green regenerated pine forests. However, upon revisiting Bhumlu the following year, she couldn’t grasp how drastically the landscape had changed. “The forest had been completely transformed into an awful, blackened ash-covered terrain,” Tiwari says.

Fire prediction

In 2021, when the country experienced its worst wildfires, Binod Pokhrel, a climate scientist at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, decided to study factors that might have contributed to them. He analysed trends of temperature, humidity and wind speed to calculate a drought index. As expected, a high drought index was often associated with a high number of wildfires in following weeks1.

He found that the spread of wildfires is climate dependent, however “their origin, at least in Nepal, is mainly anthropogenic”, says Pokhrel. He suggests that informing community forest groups about the risk of forest fires ahead of time could drastically curb forest fires. There are more than 282 weather stations across Nepal. “By using weather station data, we could precisely forecast drought index up to a local ward level,” Pokhrel says.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental research institute based in Lalitpur, already uses a similar framework to update its wildfire-monitoring portal. “We have added features that provide a two-day forest fire outlook, indicating which areas face high chances of forest fires based on weather data,” says Sudip Pradhan, a geospatial scientist at ICIMOD. Because people in most villages have access to the Internet and smartphones, Pradhan’s team is preparing to deploy mobile applications with real-time monitoring of forest fires.

Pokhrel says that a smartphone-based forecast would reduce the chance of fires getting out of control and reaching the levels they did in 2021 and 2024. He and his team also surveyed locals and found that they would be better prepared to control local fires if they were informed at least a month in advance and were provided with tools such as fire trucks.

Pokhrel says that although the work of organizations such as ICIMOD is useful, the Nepalese government also needs to be more involved in fire management. Pokhrel says the government could harness the existing community forest stewardship model and improved forecasting to help with fire preparedness. Without such measures, signs are clear that “the lack of management of increasing forest cover can easily lead to another disaster”, he says.


Source: Ecology - nature.com

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