There is a lot of talk of infrastructure in Nepal-China dealings, as was the case during President Xi Jinping’s recent Nepal trip. There is the trans-Himalayan railway, a much desired infrastructure project after India’s blockade on Nepal. There are hydropower projects of mega-scope, billions of dollars and thousands of megawatts, in the pipeline. China has always been a big builder of roads in Nepal, and with the BRI this is definitely in the equation. Investment in cement factories is also a big one.As we invest billions of dollars every year on roads that wash away each monsoon, the viability of roads in mountain areas has become even more questionable to me as the years progress. It is clear ropeways, which require much less invasive infrastructure and which can be quickly rebuilt in the case of a natural disaster, has been neglected and wiped off the Nepali policy map for decades.
We need to revive the idea of goods-carrying ropeways, which in the long run may be more sustainable and viable than a railway through extremely mountainous areas of Tibet and Nepal. The cost of maintaining a railway would be astronomical. Nepal will be stuck with a White Elephant which takes us more money to maintain than it brings in. There is no doubt the lines would erode over a few winter seasons and which may never repaired later, due to Nepal’s lack of trained technicians. A ropeway on the other hand would always be operational, and require minimal maintenance.
Our main goal is to bring and take goods, not people, from China. After I saw a Chinese man in a motorcycle with a Chinese number plate and army costume wandering in Dhulikhel, it occurred to me that bringing in people from the border areas might not be such a great idea. We should limit tourism to high end and middle class tourists who come by plane.
Hydropower projects, especially on the mega-scale that China is talking about, is contested for environmental reasons. Nepal has fragile mountains, whose ecology has to be carefully stewarded. Nepal is also a democratic country and it’s not easy to empty habited lands—the lands have to be bought, and with speculators rushing to the proposed sites and buying up land cheaply from villagers, the government is faced with a big gold-rush crowd waiting to cash in on their dividends when the hydropower projects commence. This means more costs for Nepal, and which is one of the issues which stall these projects. All of these have to be resolved before the projects can be put in operation.
With global climate change and rivers running dry, the other due diligence that Nepal should do is look at how viable these projects will be in 20 or 30 years, when we may have much less water due to climate change melting our glaciers and ending the spring melt which feeds the rivers.
A more viable policy issue to discuss with China in the day of climate change might be better management of Himalayan rivers, including ways to ensure their longevity. Also the two countries should discuss the possibilities that those rivers could one day dry up, leaving a lot of highland communities with very little water. How would they survive?
What are indigenous local methods of water conservation which could stall this possibility? How can China support those initiatives so that rivers are conserved on both sides of the border? These sustainable conservation issues should also be on the agenda, although they are not as glamorous as the prospect of a huge hydropower dam.
Nomadic communities on both sides of the border should be able to graze their sheep and yaks in the way they have done for centuries. These indigenous people are the stewards of the land, and they know how to keep the ecology in balance. They should be treated with respect and acknowledged for their knowledge of stewardship O
This is first of a three-part article on Nepal-China relations