Political uncertainty can take serious toll on development: A look into Nepal

The word 'resilience' has several meanings and used in multiple context. In context of ecology, resilience is capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Anthropogenic activity induced climate change is increasingly causing regime shift in ecosystems and climate patterns. Unpredictable climate patterns such as increasing rainfall intensities, extreme heat and cold seem to be the order of the day. The capacity to build resilience in society against unpredictable climate patterns depends on economic condition, preparedness of a society to respond to the need, political will and awareness of a society to respond.

I was recently in Kathmandu to understand the urban and rural ecosystem and to develop an agenda around resilience to climate change. Endowed with rich biodiversity and nestled in the Himalayas, one expects a responsible urbanization in the city. Urban chaos is one word that represents present day Kathmandu. With over 12 hours of scheduled power cut every day, open storm water and sewer systems, choked roads and increasing pollution levels, one wonders what went wrong? A victim of rapid political change during last two decades, the country has witnessed degradation of its urban and rural ecosystem. A peep into the policy framework and urban policies demonstrate that there has been minimal priority given to urban planning and to basic minimum services such as shelter, sanitation and provision for energy. It is pitch dark on the roads after sundown that also takes toll on local businesses as there is no electricity in the shops. It is no different in housing developments and residents have to adjust the lifestyle accordingly. The developers have thus started provisioning for solar lighting and water heating systems to provide for external lighting and hot water demand for residents of upcoming housing developments.

The spectacular landscape and diverse exotic culture of Nepal represents considerable potential for tourism, but growth in this sector is slow due to political instability and poor infrastructure. Declining income levels and crumbling infrastructure, make daily subsistence a challenge for a citizen of the country that can boast of being seat of varying cultural heritage, rich biodiversity and a melting pot of diverse religious discourses.

Nepal is largely energy deprived though there is a large potential to generate hydroelectric power. Nepal has been able to exploit only 1.5% of this potential and with no known oil, gas or coal deposit, it is not surprising that the country is energy deprived. The electrification rate is about 90% in urban areas and 5% in rural areas. Power cut of upto 22 hours is common during peak demand period of winters. Thus 'resilience' is need of the hour. Being resilient to climatic variations, extreme temperature dips and rise is a necessity arising out of need to live on a day to day basis rather than preparing for future. During course my several meetings with Government departments, builders, developers, architects it was apparent that concepts of sustainability and resilience are not implicit with in any policy or development agenda. Noticeable presence of solar systems (both photovoltaic systems and solar hot water system) on several roof tops is in response to meet daily basic needs that can be fulfilled through availability of energy. Business suffers due to non-availability of power after dusk. Shops and establishments have resorted to energy efficient lighting to respond to livelihood need. Rainwater harvesting is followed by developers, as availability of potable water is reducing due to extensive urbanization. However, there is one most significant consideration in building design. Nepal is in seismic zone V, making it very prone to one of the most dreaded disasters, i.e. earthquakes. The national building code thus has very stringent conditions to build as per seismic zone V. Cost of construction is very high in order to meet the requirements of earthquake resistance. Nepal imports materials of construction such as cement and steel from India. Thus, cost of construction is very high (almost double as that in India). High rise construction is mostly avoided by developers due to increased cost. All Government buildings are walk-up 4 storied buildings with no provision for elevators!

There is necessity to redefine the urban development agenda, in order to achieve resilient and sustainable development and to achieve desired economic development goals. With the new government taking charge recently, there is hope that there would be rethinking on development issues and there would be concerted effort to improve living conditions in cities and villages. The Ministry of Environment has come up with a framework on measuring environmental parameters objectively and there is a plan to implement it nationwide. There is a pro poor housing programme that is running for quite some time in rural areas and there is hope that it shall be upscaled. Nepal is prone to several climate risks. Heat stress, flooding, landslides, Glacial lake outburst floods are some of the imminent risks in addition to earthquakes. There is a common belief in Nepal that an earthquake in Richter scale 7 and above strikes Nepal every 75 years and if estimates are to believed, about 75% of urban housing shall be impacted if such a disaster strikes.

Nepal needs a strong urban and rural development policy framework that has a focus on environment in addition to overall economic development framework. Environmentally responsive urban development, sustainable transport policy, a strong resilience agenda, energy and resource efficiency codes for upcoming and existing buildings and infrastructure and a strong renewable energy policy is the need of the day. There needs to be a goal oriented policy framework that is measurable, implementable and can be monitored. We strongly hope that lessons on responsible and resilient urbanization can be taken from the neighbouring country, India, that is representative of fast urbanization and deals with the pressures through a series of innovative policies and programs , such as Rajiv Awas Yojana, JNNURM, National Mission on Sustainable Habitats, National Solar Mission, and many more.