“As required by the Cabinet decision last year on the Air Quality Action Plan, the government should have declared an emergency after the AQI crossed 300,” says environmental activist Bhushan Tuladhar. “This would mean closing schools and factories, reducing traffic and strict controls on open burning.”
However, except for a statement by the Ministry of Health warning citizens about high air pollution levels that left it up to them to take care of their own health, a government consumed by political infighting has not been bothered by a crisis that adds to the threat of a Covid-19 surge.
Most environmentalists agree that this year’s fire has been unprecedented. Previous wildfires in 2008 and 2012 in Rasuwa and Nuwakot had also turned the sky dark over Kathmandu, but only briefly. What worries them is the extended nature of the current spate of fires that has now lasted five months, and continues to get worse.
They say the main reason for this year’s disaster is the extended winter drought, with precipitation over Central Nepal at only 10% of normal, and the dry spell continuing into spring. Scientists are reluctant to make a direct correlation between climate crisis and individual weather events, but studies have shown that climate-related droughts did contribute to last year’s devastating fires in California and Australia.
“Spring rainfall varies year to year. Last year we had a relatively wet spring. This year is exceptionally dry with forest fires already in January,” says Arnico Panday, an atmospheric scientist and senior research fellow at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS). “While it is difficult to immediately connect specific events to climate change, which considers average change over decades, there is an expectation that climate change will bring more extreme dry and wet events even if total precipitation stays the same.”
There could be other factors at play like accumulated brush in the undergrowth because of the movement restrictions last year that added flammable material to the forest floor. Spring is a season when many farmers deliberately light fires to encourage new shoots for their livestock to graze on, or before maize planting. These practices could have allowed fires to spread faster this year because the underbrush was already tinder dry.
Depopulation of Nepal’s hinterland due to out-migration also means there are fewer people to make and maintain firebreaks in community forests, and also to extinguish local fires when they ignite. Forest management has historically also tended to be less responsive during periods of instability, especially when there is uncertainty over control over natural resources at the local level.