Road To Disaster

NOV 16 – Building roads has become so much of a consensus in Nepali politics and society that the recent inauguration of the construction of a fast-track road linking Kathmandu with the Tarai was exclusively celebratory. Minister Gachhedar’s photos together with other ministers and the Nepal Army’s Commander-in-Chief digging the zero-mile point of the road made the headlines in Kathmandu’s media. And let’s not forget this fast-track solution was also taken up by the erstwhile Maoist government.

We may grant that this road is to be built with good intentions; but looking back after many years from now, the excessive focus on fossil-fuel based road transportation to link Kathmandu with the southern plains will look like yet another aberration in our national priorities. Nothing new about misguided national priorities in a country in which until now state resources have remained nothing more than private fiefdoms of the ruling elite, but things that need pointing out persistently. This is also ironic given the fact that alternatives exist that are saner, and that lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

It might have been a mere coincidence that not long ago, Nepal’s government had announced holding the cabinet meeting at Everest base camp to highlight the melting glaciers due to global warming. If the current trend continues, we might witness the transformation of the white snow-clad mountains into dark rocky monuments of global disaster in the not so distant future. The beauty of the Himalaya is not the only thing at stake, however. A large part of the Tibetan plateau and much of the plains both in Nepal and northern India depend directly and indirectly on the glacier-fed Himalayan rivers for much of their freshwater needs and agricultural production. We are not yet sure what changes are likely in the monsoon system itself given the massive transformation of the sea currents and glacier systems underway all over the world. But what is certain is that the only saner options left for any society is to move away from burning fast-declining fossil fuels in every field of our social and economic lives.

Of course, Nepal did not contribute much to global warming with its meagre amounts of greenhouse gas emissions compared to its two big neighbours and other industrial economies. But this high-profile inauguration of the road symbolises how out of tune our political leadership is towards the impending crisis in the not so distant future. Besides the issues of greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of fossil fuels in the world available for use is on a serious decline. Speculators at the New York Stock Exchange might want us to believe that there is enough fuel to keep the industrial economy going, but reliable estimates suggest that the production of oil has either already peaked or is going to peak in the not so distant future. On Nov. 9 this year, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper ran a story: "Key Oil Figures Were Distorted by U.S. Pressures, Says Whilstelblower." A former employee of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, the main body that keeps track of energy trends in the world, said recently that they were pressured by the U.S. government to keep the estimate of the availability of oil high to check a market panic.

On a geological time scale, it might be a renewable source of energy, but on a human time scale, oil does not last long unless used judiciously and sparingly. And it is already too late for that. It took around 180 million years of geological processes to produce oil from the carbon buried inside the earth, but that oil is being depleted in less than 200 years. Peaking of oil production means the cost of fossil fuels is going to go up in the coming days. We have already witnessed the phenomenal price rise across the board last year when oil prices shot up. There will be further world pressure to cut down on the production and use of the remaining oil due to global warming. In this context, Nepal cannot afford to expand any infrastructure that leads to increased dependence on energy that is absent in the country and that will become scarcer and more expensive in the coming days.

It is true that the current road system in Nepal has become very inadequate to meet the needs of transporting both people and goods between Kathmandu and the plains. In fact, better road transportation might go a long way in addressing the plight of a large section of the people in the hills and the plains. Given the highly centralised governing structure, it will be some years before the dependence of outside people on Kathmandu will be lessened.

But there are better options available. In the long run, building of a federal governing structure and more egalitarian inter-regional investments will go a long way in ameliorating the burden on the existing transportation system that is near exclusively geared towards connecting the hinterlands with the capital. At the local levels, we have to go massively for promoting bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit as primary modes of mobility. In fact, in Nepal where a large chunk of trucking is involved in transporting fossil fuels to Kathmandu, promoting pedestrianisation, bike paths and mass transit systems could also reduce the trucking need itself.

Engineer Shankar Nath Rimal and his groups have proposed an electric railway link for much less cost with a lot less negative environmental impact in its construction. Besides lessening our dependence on fossil fuels, electric railways also contribute towards equalising social relations. The multi-lane fast track might look enticing to Nepal’s growing number of middle-class private vehicle owners, but increasing private vehicles will further erode social cohesion.

One unexplored but highly effective mode of transportation is ropeway. Nepal’s only long-distance ropeway lies in a decrepit condition, but some estimates suggest that ropeways could reduce trucking needs by as much as 50 percent. By opting for a road-based transportation system, we are committing huge amounts of national resources on projects that are going to increase our dependence on fossil fuels. And warnings have come regularly in the form of hikes in gasoline prices and shortages due to Nepal bandas. Early this week, Nepal Oil Corporation has again issued a warning that not enough gasoline is going to be available due to the degraded roads that gasoline-carrying tankers use!

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