April 1, 2009

Conservationists Blame Climate Change For Nepal Wildfires

Conservationists are concerned whether climate change might have played a role in the forest fires in many of Nepal's national parks and conserved areas this dry season, BBC News reported.

Until just a few days ago, at least four protected areas were on fire for an unusually long time and NASA's satellite imagery showed most of the big fires located around the national parks along the country's northern areas bordering Tibet.

The extent of the loss of flora and fauna is not yet known for the active fires that were recorded in conservation areas including the Annapurna, Kanchanjunga, Langtang and Makalu Barun national parks.

Over 100 yaks were reported dead by fires in the surrounding areas of the Kanjanchanga National Park in eastern Nepal.

Numerous rare species including snow leopards, red pandas and several endangered birds make their homes in the Trans-Himalayan parks.

Ghanashyam Gurung, a director at WWF's Nepal office, said the carbon dioxide emitted by the fires was a greater matter of concern than the loss of plants and animals.

Laxmi Manandhar, a spokesman for Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, said fires in the protected areas in the plain lands could be controlled easily with logistics and manpower.

"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," he added.

Forest fires are common during the dry season between October and January in Nepal's jungles and protected areas, where a majority of the fires come about as a consequence of the "slash and burn" practice that farmers employ for better vegetation and agricultural yields.

However, the fires remained out of control even in the national parks in the Himalayan region where the slash and burn practice is uncommon and many are wondering why these blazes were so different.

Gurung suggests the most obvious reason was the unusually long dry spell this year.

Meteorologists said no precipitation had fallen across most of the country for nearly six months "” the longest dry spell in recent history.

Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari said this winter was exceptionally dry.

"We have seen winter becoming drier and drier in the last three or four years, but this year has set the record," he said.

Since most of Nepal's electricity comes from hydropower and rivers in the area are running at their lowest, the country has been suffering power cuts of up to 20 hours a day.

The severity of dryness fits in the pattern of increasing extreme weather Nepal has witnessed in recent years, experts at the department said.

Conservationists believe some of the national parks would still be on fire had it not been for recent drizzles.

"Are we waiting for a bigger disaster to admit that it is climate change?" asked Anil Manandhar, head of WWF Nepal.

He said the recent changes in weather patterns suggest there are certain impacts of climate change at work.

But many experts remain cautious about drawing such conclusions, like climate change expert Arun Bhakta Shrestha of the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

He suggests that 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," he added.

The entire Hindu Kush Himalayas have been dubbed as a "white spot" by experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who say there has been no proper study of the impacts of climate change on the region.

So-called "glacial lake outburst floods" and monsoon-related floods resulting from erratic rainfalls are currently the most talked-about disasters in the context of climate change around Nepal and neighboring countries, where glaciers are melting and retreating faster than ever.

Yet forest fires could also be seen as one of the climate impacts, if conservationists' and meteorologists' latest fears mean anything.

A new international effort known as Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) in the wake of the 2007 United Nations climate change conference in Bali is likely to have Nepal as its latest member.

However, if forest fires like those seen this year became a regular phenomenon, the country will instead be emitting increased carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


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