Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mainstreaming environment for economic growth and poverty reduction in Nepal

This blog post is adapted from Macroeconomic Update, August 2014, Vol.2, No.2. Here are earlier blog posts on real sector, fiscal sector, monetary sector, external sector, and FY2015 growth and inflation outlook.

Mainstreaming environment for economic growth and poverty reduction in Nepal[1]

I. Introduction

Nepal is endowed with rich natural resources (abundant water resources, forest and fertile lands, and unique landscape), a strategic geographical setting[2], and physical, biological, and cultural diversities. One of the major challenges for the government is to not only achieve high and inclusive economic growth, but also to ensure that it is environmentally sustainable, crucial for accelerating poverty reduction and sustaining the gains of the last. Economic activities without due consideration for environmental sustainability may start tapering off in the medium-term, undermining prosperity in the long run. Hence, high and sustainable economic growth becomes vital for sustained poverty reduction and creation of productive employment.

Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth pattern has so far has been minimally damaging to the environment as the industrial sector’s contribution to growth has been relatively low at one-tenth of the overall growth. The services sector's contribution has been the largest, but a majority of the goods are manufactured outside of Nepal and are imported for consumption, which is financed by remittance income. Agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP growth is dependent on the monsoon rains and the timely availability of agricultural inputs, most notably chemical fertilizers.

As investments are ramped up to generate increased electricity, develop infrastructure, and expand manufacturing activities in the short to medium term to achieve higher growth rate and create jobs, a key challenge would be to ensure that these activities are environment-friendly so that the resulting growth is not only high and inclusive, but also sustainable. Else, haphazard construction of infrastructure— including roads, water supply, irrigation, and hydro power plants— without the necessary due diligence for environmental sustainability may result in high socioeconomic costs to the country in the long run. In addition to these economic activities, the country's traditional agricultural practices also need to balance the need to boost land productivity and the optimal use of inputs.

II. State of the Environment: An Overview

As an indication of the overall low level of industrialization, Nepal’s per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emission has been generally low, registering an average growth of just 7% in the last decade. In fact, Nepal’s per capita CO2 emission (in metric tons) is just 2.7% of China’s and the lowest among the regional economies (Figure 41). This also reflects the fact that Nepal’s GDP growth is largely driven by rain-fed agriculture production and services underpinned by remittance-induced demand for imported goods. Together these two sectors contribute about 90% of the GDP growth[3]. Hence, at this initial stage of development and the still relatively low level of environmental risks, Nepal has an opportunity to pursue industrialization in an environmentally sustainable manner by adopting the latest green industrial technology. However, there is a growing and emerging threat from the rate of loss of forests, particularly for habitat, illegal timber trade, forest fire, overgrazing, and uncontrolled extraction of medicinal plants.

This trend also indicates that the existing pattern of environmental challenges has little to do with the pace of economic growth. It is more affected by factors such as poor engineering and safeguards in unplanned infrastructure development, deforestation, haphazard solid waste management, land degradation, unsustainable and indiscriminate use of pesticides and agrochemicals, and unplanned urbanization. Even though these do not directly and significantly impact economic growth in the short term, they have the potential to indirectly decelerate the pace of growth in the medium to long term. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation costs between 5% and 10% of GDP in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.[4]

The diversified biological resources, besides maintaining ecosystem equilibrium, provide ecological goods to local people and have great economic value to the rural population. Unfortunately, there is a steady degradation of forests over the last five decades. While the total forest area comprised 43.8% of total land in FY1965, it declined to 37.3% in FY2013 (Figure 42), with significant deforestation happening along the mid-hills and Terai belts. Forest areas have been encroached to expand farmland, settlement, infrastructure development and at times for timber trade. Nepal lost 2.7 million hectares of forest between 1965 and 2013, with an average annual de-vegetation of 56,710 hectares. Altogether 0.96 million hectares of total forest and shrub land is estimated to be lost to farming, urban, and infrastructural development over 1965-2013. The major causes of forest degradation are clearing trees for meeting household fuel wood demand, unstructured semi-processing of agriculture products, illegal in-country or trans-boundary timber sales, overgrazing, uncontrolled extraction of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) and non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and forest fire. Poaching and illegal hunting of wildlife and their declining habitat has adversely affected wildlife population and their biodiversity value.

The rate of loss of forests is alarming, which has affected natural habitat, biodiversity and ecosystem. This has happened despite there being twenty protected areas, comprising of 10 national parks covering 1.08 million hectares, 3 wildlife reserves of 0.1 million hectares, 1 hunting reserve of 0.13 million hectare, and 6 conservation areas of 1.54 million hectares. These collectively cover 19.4% of the total area. Furthermore, approximately 1.23 million hectares of forest is managed by 17,685 community forest user groups. In addition, there are 9 Ramsar sites covering a total area of 34,445 hectares of land.

Land degradation is also an issue in all geographical areas of Nepal, affecting land productivity. Land degradation is primarily caused by water induced erosion, landslide, surface exposure, top soil erosion, riverbank cutting, floods, silt deposition, water logging, deforestation, and wind erosion. About 45.4% (6.7 million hectares) of the country’s total land area is affected by water induced erosion and about 4.0% (0.6 million hectares) by wind erosion. The area affected by flood is estimated to be about 8,987 sq. km and by waterlogging about 7,297 sq. km. The vulnerability to inundation and water logging in Tarai plains bordering India has increased due to the embankment of along the East-West highway dykes and barrages both within and across the border. Overall, about 2.2% of total land area (0.6 million hectares) is uncultivable due to flooding or soil erosion, up from 1.2% of total land in 2001 (0.3 million hectares). The Tarai belt and Far-western development region bear thet burnt of flooding or soil erosion leading to uncultivable land (Figure 43). Of the total uncultivable land, soil erosion, chemical degradation, and physical degradation contributed 65.6%, 3.4% and 31%, respectively in 2011 (Figure 44).



Meanwhile, higher stocking rates, uncontrolled grazing and haphazard lopping of fodder trees have reduced average productivity of grazing area in subtropical and temperate zones. The subalpine grasslands, mainly used for seasonal pasturage, are losing their productivity due to high stocking rates and overgrazing, lack of good management practices, and the invasion of non-herbage shrub and other non-edible species that are gradually replacing palatable grass species.

Nepal is second richest country for water availability in the world, possessing about 2.3% of the world water resources. Nepal possesses 12 BCM of groundwater, of which 5.8 BCM can be extracted annually, both in shallow and deep aquifers, without any adverse effects. Altogether 38 rivers have been dammed till early 2014 with an installed capacity of 700 MW. The Government of Nepal and the private sector installed, until 2012, micro hydropower plants (22 MW installed capacity; potential 100 MW), solar photovoltaic home system (300,000 no. equivalent to 6.78 MW; potential 4.5 kWh/m2/day), biogas plants (280,000; potential 1.9 million), improved cooking stoves (663,000; 2.5 million), improved water mills (7,600; potential 30,000), and wind power plants (10 kW; potential 3,000 MW). There is potential of producing 1.1 million ton biofuel (Jatropha curcas) in the country. The rivers in lower Siwaliks and rivulets in Middle Mountain and High Mountain regions have been partially dammed for surface irrigation with total command area of 0.96 million ha in the wet season.

Despite these potentials, there is acute water shortage in the urban centers because of unplanned urbanization, encroachment of water sources, and degradation of land as well as forests. For instance, static water level (SWL) and pumping water level (PWL) have depleted in Kathmandu Valley as a result of overuse, lack of water conservation practices, and haphazard construction. While SWL and PWL were 48.1 meters and 67.6 meters in 1976, respectively, in Bansbari of Kathmandu, it went up to 80.6 meters and 136.1 meters, respectively, in 1999.[5] This most likely has increased further in the last one-and-a-half decade given the rapid urbanization and increase in settlement areas in Kathmandu Valley.

The unplanned urbanization along with large-scale rural to urban migration has strained resources in major urban centers, resulting in rise in pollution and waste. It is further compounded by the misuse of pesticides and agrochemical, thus endangering the public’s health. For instance, the continued migration to Kathmandu Valley, unplanned urbanization and the resulting noise level has led to average recorded noise level higher than the on recommended by World Health Organization (WHO). In Kathmandu Valley, major centers such as Kupandole, Putalisadak, Thamel, Kalanki, Balaju industrial area, Maitighar, and Suryabinayak have day time noise level above the one prescribed by the WHO (Figure 45).

With just 0.6% of total area, Kathmandu Valley accounted for 9.5% of total population in 2011 and had a population density of 2,800 person per In 2001, Kathmandu Valley accounted for 7.1% of total population and had a population density of 1,830 persons per The lack of adequate measures to address air and water pollution affects economic growth as it negatively impacts public health, thus reducing productivity and escalating health costs. As a result of the air pollution in Kathmandu Valley, a disproportionate number of patients suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular ailments are admitted to hospitals each day.[6]

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2014 ranks 139 out of 178 countries. Specifically, even when compared to countries with similar per capita income, on air quality[7], Nepal ranks 177 out of 178 countries (Figure 46). Furthermore, air quality in Kathmandu fails to meet WHO guidelines for safe levels. Air quality is represented by annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 10 microns of diameter (PM10) [ug/m3] and of less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) in cities.[8] Mechanical processes such as construction activities, road dust re-suspension and wind produce PM10 and combustion sources (wood and biomass fuels) mostly produce PM2.5. Kathmandu’s annual average air quality levels stood at 50 μg/m3 and 114 μg/m3 for PM2.5 and PM10, respectively. These are far higher than the WHO guidelines of 10 μg/m3 and 20 μg/m3 for PM2.5 and PM10, respectively. While most of the regional cities in South Asia as well as other major cities in Asia fail to meet the WHO guidelines, the levels in Kathmandu is particularly high relative to these cities as well (Figure 47).


Furthermore, chemical fertilizer use has increased drastically since FY2010. After ending chemical fertilizers subsidy due to high fiscal costs and heavy leakages, the government again introduced such subsidies in FY2008. Over time, this led to the ‘crowding-out’ of private sector even though the government’s subsidy covered just 25% of total fertilizer demand. A large portion of the fertilizer demand is met through informal supply (estimated to be about two-thirds of total use and often sub-standard ones) from bordering Indian cities, where fertilizer is subsidized by the Indian government as well.[9] With no official private sector suppliers, the government supplied 185,000 metric tons of chemical fertilizers (urea, DAP and potash) in FY2013 (Figure 48) and provided partial subsidy equivalent to NRs 6 billion. The chemical fertilizer usage was 57 kg per hectare in FY2013, up from 47 kg per hectare in FY2012.[10]

III. Key Challenges

The key environmental issues faced by the country are: (i) unharmonious, outdated and ineffective environment related policies and guidelines; (ii) seemingly irreversible degradation as a result of the increasing human pressure on land, water and forests; (iii) poorly engineered or totally non-engineered rural roads and infrastructure causing watershed degradation, landslides and soil loss; (iv) increasing desertification in the Trans-Himalayan region due to deforestation; (v) climate change induced drying up of water sources; (vi) lack of national digitized hazard maps for disaster risk management planning; (vii) extensive clearing of forest and uncontrolled extraction of river bed materials from Siwalik; (viii) risk of land subsidence due to over extraction of groundwater, particularly in Kathmandu Valley; (ix) increasing level of air and water pollution, solid waste management, and sanitation and health hazards in rapidly growing urban areas; (x) lack of institutional capacity and technical knowhow within the department of environment; and (xi) weak coordination among disaster management related agencies, low level of preparedness, rudimentary early warning system, and lack of post disaster rehabilitation programs.

The major key challenges directly related to boosting economic activities are as follows:

Environmentally weak infrastructure development: The growth of the rural as well as semi-urban road networks, often either with poor or no engineering at all, has helped in the establishment of new towns, and linked with or opened up new market centers. However, these kinds of road construction have also come at a cost, particularly the non-engineered rural roads in the hills and mountains, which have been noted to have accelerated landslides, gully erosion, and loss of forest resources and natural habitats. Investment in hydropower is growing with both public and private sector investment. Even in hydropower projects, especially the small size ones developed particularly by the private sector, environmental sustainability of the infrastructure in terms of cumulative impacts through strategic and realistic environmental assessment is seldom conducted. Furthermore, large leakages in electricity distribution reduce net supply, forcing households to opt for pollution-intensive sources of energy.

Unplanned urbanization: The improved connectivity and the decade-long conflict caused large-scale migration from rural to urban areas, increasing urban population to about 17.1% in 2011 from 13.9% in 2001. Subsequently, urban and semi-urban towns have emerged rapidly and without much planning. The erratic, unplanned, and haphazard expansion of such town has led to undersupply of urban amenities, putting tremendous pressures on the available resources. Furthermore, the lack of public awareness on the benefits of planned urbanization and poor municipal management has compounded the problem, leading to intensified soil, air and water pollution, degraded land and vegetation, and unsanitary waste disposal. The annual population growth rate in Kathmandu Valley alone was 4.3%, much higher than 1.4% average for the entire country over 2001-2011. In 2011, Kathmandu Valley had a population of 2.5 million (Figure 49) and population density of 2,800 persons per Urban amenities and municipal management have not grown proportionally to the growth in urban population and the pressure on the available resources.

Misuse and indiscriminate use of pesticides and agrochemicals: The use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, various growth hormones and other agrochemicals has considerably increased in commercial agriculture and animal husbandry. However, their improper application has caused environmental and health hazards such as respiratory and skin diseases, and demise of critically endangered birds and mammals after scavenging dead livestock or insects treated with chemicals. Furthermore, it has also caused environmental problems following the seepage of pesticides to and contamination of water bodies. A total of 1,098 pesticides were registered in Nepal in 2013, up from 651 in 2010. Recently, there have been growing instances of inedible fresh vegetables and food products due to the overuse of pesticides and agrochemicals. A strict market monitoring mechanism and public awareness on the optimal usage of such production as agricultural inputs are required to lower the risks of health hazard. Furthermore, proactive promotion organic farming would also be useful.

Improper solid waste management (SWM): A huge amount of solid water is generated in the municipalities, most notably 457 metric tons per day in FY2012, up from just 29.9 metric tons per day in FY2007, by Kathmandu. Unfortunately, only 6 municipalities dispose of waste in sanitary landfill sites, which also not properly managed. Municipalities spent an average of 10% of their total budget on SWM, of which 60-70% is used for street sweeping, 20-30% for transport, and rest for final disposal. The lack resources and proper planning have been constraining municipalities’ capability to manage the increasing waste. In the absence of proper landfill sites, most of the municipalities directly dump the collected waste in rivers, forest or agriculture fields, increasing not only health hazards but also productivity of land. Furthermore, no separate arrangement exists to manage hazardous and medical wastes. Interventions including policy formulation, adoption of 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle) principle, capacity building of local bodies, public participation and public-private partnership are few interventions that may be helpful in developing an effective SWM program.

IV. Government’s Strategy

The concept of environmental protection and conservation has been embedded in the periodic national development plans since 1962. Till the 6th periodic plan (1980-85), the government prioritized forest conservation and watershed management, wildlife conservation, water and sanitation, and urban management. Since 1985, major environmental mainstreaming initiatives were undertaken, environment-friendly policies were introduced, and environment management strategies were integrated into the sector plans. Thus far, Nepal is a signatory to 21 environment related international conventions.

Currently, the environmental priorities of the government include: (i) forest conservation and management through community participation; (ii) wildlife and biodiversity conservation through establishing protected areas; (iii) reducing vulnerability to the impacts of climate change; (iv) disaster relief and risk management; (vi) environmental sustainability in development projects; (vii) achieving the Millennium Development Goals; (viii) improving air quality and waste management in urban areas; (ix) use of alternate renewable energy and energy efficient technology in rural areas; (ix) watershed management –ecological restoration in fragile Siwalik range; and (x) improved drinking water and sanitation.

Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1997 and Environment Protection Rule (EPR), 1997 (amended in 2007) are the two major legal provisions aimed at minimizing the adverse environmental impact due to development activities, and integrating environmental sustainability into development projects. These legislations have made either Initial Environment Examination (IEE) or Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory for government and private sector projects, safeguarding environmental and social issues in all development projects. However, the weak government capacity for effective implementation and monitoring of IEE/EIA recommended mitigation measures has been a long running issue in Nepal. There is also a need for updating the one-and-a-half decade old EPA and EPR in the context of emerging environmental and climate change issues.

Progress on effective environment protection and management is hampered by weak governance, political instability, and slack implementation of environment related Acts and Rules. Deforestation, degradation in Siwalik Range and lower hills, over harvesting of medicinal plants and non-timber forest products, use of explosives and chemicals for fishing in rivers, excessive groundwater abstraction, unwarranted mining in riverbed and on fragile area, environmental degradation in urban areas (air and water pollution, solid wastes), conversion of fertile arable land into built-up areas are the results of weak enforcement of the existing legislation.

V. Recommendations

Some of the major recommendations to stimulate environment-friendly inclusive economic growth are as follows:

  • Strengthen the country safeguards system
  • Promote environment friendly infrastructure development
  • Promote planned and regulated urban growth
  • Encourage environment-friendly and climate resilient agriculture
  • Stop land degradation and desertification
  • Protect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem and biodiversity
  • Mainstream climate change risks
  • Scale up renewable energy
  • Effective disaster risk management (DRM)

VI. Conclusion

Currently, one of the major challenges faced by the country is to ensure not only a high and inclusive economic growth, but also to make it environment-friendly. Economic activities without due consideration for environmental sustainability may start tapering off in the medium-term, and then possibly retard prosperity in the long term. Thus far, since growth is largely driven by exogenous factors such as monsoon-fed agriculture production and remittances-induced services sector growth, economic activities have been at best minimally damaging to the environment. This is also reflected in the declining share of industrial sector in GDP. However, as a major push for electricity generation, infrastructure development and stimulation of manufacturing activities takes place in the short to medium term to achieve a high growth rate and to create productive employment opportunities, the challenge would be to ensure that these activities are made environment-friendly so that the resulting growth is not only high and inclusive, but also sustainable.

The low per capita carbon dioxide emission compared to other regional economies and the shrinking of industrial sector means that the existing pattern of environmental challenges has little to do with the pace of economic growth. It is affected more by other factors such as poor engineering and safeguards embedded in infrastructural undertakings, deforestation, haphazard solid waste management, land degradation, unsustainable and indiscriminate use of pesticides and agrochemicals, and unplanned urbanization. In effect, these point to the lack of implementation of existing safeguards, obsolete legal frameworks, and institutional slackness as well as weakness. The existing pattern of environmental challenges has to potential to decelerate the pace of growth in the medium to long term.

Overall, Nepal’s forest area is depleting, land degrading, groundwater is drying up, pollution is increasing in major urban areas, and the use of pesticides and agrochemicals is increasing. This poses a number of challenges directly affecting economic activities: (i) environmentally weak infrastructure development; (ii) unplanned urbanization; (iii) misuse and indiscriminate use of pesticides and agrochemicals; and (iv) improper solid waste management. Though the government introduced a number of key legislations, which may need updating to reflect the present context, and embedded environment protection and conservation in its periodic plans, the implementation aspect has been rather disappointing— resulting in delays in the implementation of development projects.

The government could take a number of measures to stimulate environment-friendly inclusive economic growth such as: (i) strengthen the country safeguards system; (ii) promote environment-friendly infrastructure development; (iii) promote planned and regulated urban growth; (iv) encourage environment-friendly and climate resilient agriculture; (v) cease land degradation and desertification; (vi) protect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem and biodiversity; (vii) mainstream climate change risks; (ix) scale up renewable energy; and (x) prepare effective disaster risk management. 

[1] This section was written in collaboration with Deepak Bahadur Singh, Senior Environment Officer at NRM. It draws in supporting information from a forthcoming report titled Country Environment Note Nepal 2014.

[2] Although Nepal lies near the northern limit of the tropics, because of rugged topography, there is a wide range of climates experienced from the summer tropical heat and humidity of the lowlands to the colder dry continental and alpine winter through the middle and northern mountainous region. The remarkable differences in climatic conditions are due to the enormous range of altitude within a short north-south distance. Nepal possesses eight ecological zones: lower tropical zone, upper tropical, subtropical, temperate, subalpine, alpine, Trans-Himalayan and Nival (Tundra and Arctic). The tropical and subtropical zones occupy 58%, temperate zone 12%, subalpine 9%, alpine 8%, Trans-Himalayan 8% and Nival 5% of the country’s land area.

[3] ADB. 2013. Macroeconomic Update Nepal August 2013. Vol1. No.2. Kathmandu.


[5] CBS. 2014. Environment Statistics of Nepal 2013. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics.

[6] A. Lodge. 21 March 2014. Has Air Pollution Made Kathmandu Unlivable?. The Guardian.

[7] It is a composite of three indicators: (i) air pollution- average exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter); (ii) PM2.5 exceedance; and (iii) household air quality – indoor solid fuel usage.

[8] WHO. 2005. Air Quality Guidelines for Particulate Matter, Ozone, Nitrogen dioxide, and Sulfur dioxide - Global Update 2005. Geneva: World Health Organization.

[9] The Agriculture Sector Performance Review estimates that about two-thirds of total fertilizer demand in Nepal met by supplies through informal sources. Total chemical fertilizer demand is estimated to be about 0.6 metric tons.

[10] MOF.2014. Economic Survey 2012/13. Kathmandu: Ministry of Finance.