The face of rural Nepal is changing, and one of the major drivers in this process has been the growing number of roads. The government led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli claims to have been constructing black-topped roads at a rate of 5.7 km per day for the past two years. In recent years, both the government and people’s representatives have shown greater interest in transport infrastructure development.
The government is mainly guided by our new constitution, which emphasizes the decentralization of power and economy and includes a mandate that roads be built to remote settlements. Likewise, political actors are guided by the notion that promising roads to rural households can win them elections. Consequently, the roads are being promised and built everywhere—in the hills, along the mountains, across the rivers, and through the jungles.
Poorly built roads and excessive road digging along the mountain slopes have triggered a higher risk of flood, landslides and other natural disasters not only in the hilly region but also in the Tarai. As Nepal is going to see some of the heaviest rainfall across the nation this monsoon, daily landslides and flash floods will make our rural communities more vulnerable, even as the risk of the coronavirus pandemic is upon us. Poor farmers in food-deficit rural areas were already struggling. Disastrous floods resulting from poor road construction will be a straight punch in their gut, adding injury to their insult.
Connectivity is key for lifting the economic status of people and can have a direct impact on global effort to fight poverty by opening rural access. But the severe biophysical effects of the road boom cannot be neglected. The road construction spree in Nepal, with poor planning, incapable contractors, excessive corruption, and fragile geography can mean more vulnerability for rural families and cause more devastation. Unplanned and improper roads will result in more accidents and obstructed transport instead of enabling better connectivity.
Despite being among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, Nepal is still a model for biodiversity conservation. Nepal’s success is largely attributed to an approach that combines community support and stable government policies. But in recent years, policymakers seem to have been neglecting the environmental aspect.
According to a report of the World Health Organization (WHO), the maximum level of particulate matter in the urban areas of Nepal is 10 times the desirable standard value. The ancient city of temples has now become one of the most polluted in Asia. Unmanaged road extensions in Kathmandu Valley pose a severe threat to the health of its inhabitants as air pollution escalates to alarming levels. In a worsening scenario, the annual premature death, by poor outdoor quality in Nepal is expected to reach 24,000 by 2030.
Road and highway construction and transport infrastructure have enormous impact on our ecosystems. The expanding network of roads can quickly change the landscape and affect wildlife in several ways. Stretching highways through forest areas will impose a threat to the animal populations, not only by vehicular obstruction, noise and habitat fragmentation, but also by exposing them to human settlements and allowing easier access to poachers.
The roads have high economic values and are crucial in bringing the desired social change. The newly opened roads will ease transport and develop the nation’s economy– no doubt. For a landlocked country like Nepal, the proposed road projects will be the key to facilitate domestic as well as international trade, helping Nepal continue with its current economic progress.
Recent studies have shown that improving rural road access will aid local farming, increase average income, boost regional gross domestic product, and help with food security. Right rural roads will allow farmers to export their products to markets faster, fresher, and at much-reduced costs. It will also enable local cropland expansion, lower the farm input prices, and improve farming technologies.
Better rural access will enhance education in the rural areas as kids will not have to walk for hours to get to their schools. Better roads will also mean swift health service for the remote communities that are still hours of walk away from a basic health check-up facility. Roads and transport will thereby promote social engagement and social inclusiveness. Building safe, affordable, and reliable roads will also help us achieve our sustainable development goals by tackling poverty, facilitating economic growth, and building sustainable cities and communities.
Build for the future
Nepal needs better road connectivity to support its own socio-economic goals—improvements in access to economic centers and social services for the people. But development shouldn't come at the cost of nature. Moreover, for a developing country like Nepal, which is vulnerable to natural hazards, physical structures should be built to withstand the future climate and seismic vulnerabilities.
The local units should carry out environmental impact assessment surveys before finalizing road construction projects. The road planners should carefully examine road-environment issues at both the project planning level and the execution level.
Road-building decisions should come along with the decisions about forest and wildlife conservation, community design, public transport, and other modern planning features such as disability access, and walking and cycling space for people. In the program stage of construction, it is important to study whether a road should be built in the first place on a particular route. In the development stage, the effects of the road project on the local environment, local communities and individuals should be evaluated. After completion of the project, the local units should closely monitor the effects of older transport decisions and take corrective measures whenever required. We must ensure every project component fits with technical and scientific goals of sustainability.
The author is pursuing a B.S. degree in Construction Management/ Risk Management and Insurance at the University of Louisiana Monroe