Nepal: new transport corridors threaten Chitwan Park

A one-horned rhino in Chitwan National Park. Photo:
A one-horned rhino in Chitwan National Park. Photo:
A planned east-west railroad and highway network threaten the the conservation 'jewel in Nepal's crown' - the Chitwan National Park. Bhrikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey report from Chitwan.
There is no rationale for building a road or railway through one of the world's most outstanding and successfully operating national parks.

When Finance Minister Shankar Koirala presented the annual budget last July, he highlighted "projects of national pride" that he said would be the "lifeline for the economy".

These included two major transport projects, both of which threaten the Chitwan National Park, in the South of Nepal near the border with India: the East-West Electric Railway and the Tarai Hulaki Highway.

Proposed routes transect Chitwan

The proposed routes of the two projects both cut through the Park, threatening decades of conservation that have rescued the tiger and rhinoceros populations  from the brink of extinction.

Eco-tourism businesses and workers are also worried about the potential impact of a reduction of wildlife and drop in visitor numbers to Chitwan.

More than 150,000 people visited the National Park in 2013, bringing in revenue of over Rs 177 million in entry fees alone.

International concern is growing

Concerns about the project are now growing internationally. Chitwan is famous for its abundant wildlife, including a fifth of all one-horned rhinoceros alive today.

"It's like the Serengeti of Nepal", said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University and director of ALERT, a scientific organisation that is concerned about the proposed Chitwan projects.

"The park is a World Heritage site and sustains over 700 species of wildlife, including a number of endangered species. It's almost unthinkable to risk a globally crucial ecosystem like this."

An Avaaz petition has also just launched: 'Stop building railways inside Chitwan National Park: Follow the east west roadways instead!'

What will remain?

"What will remain of the National Park when we have trains passing across the protected areas in 10 years?" rues the Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park, Kamal Jung Kunwar.

A feasibility study prepared in 2010 for the East-West Railway first took the tracks along the foot of the Someswor Hills near the famous Tiger Tops Resort in Meghauli.

But that region is an important corridor for wildlife migration and the National Park objected to it.

Instead it proposed that the railway alignment follow a northern route along the existing Hetauda-Bharatpur East-West Highway, which skirts the north side of the Park along the East Rapti river, a trbutary of the Narayani.

"There is no rationale for building a road or railway through one of the world's most outstanding and successfully operating national parks", says Hemanta Mishra, Nepal's foremost tiger and rhino conservationist and architect of the Chitwan National Park in 1973.

There is no rationale for building a road or railway through one of the world's most outstanding and successfully operating national parks.

"A railway line and a road through the park without a comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment would undo 40 years of investment by the government, private sector, and the local community."

Leaked report: all routes cut through Chitwan

But a leaked detailed project report (DPR) prepared by the Department of Railways and obtained by Nepali Times shows that various routes have been proposed, all of which cut through the sanctuary.

One of the routes involves digging two tunnels 14 km and 11 km long, but has been abandoned because of cost.

The report most favours an alignment that will take the railway on a southern alingnment along the Madi to Jagatpur track, across the Narayani in Amarapuri, then south-west across the Chure Hills to Tribeni.

Follow the existing highway - the damage has already been done

Chief Warden Kunwar doesn't understand why the railway has to go through the Park at all when it could easily follow the northern route along the existing East-West Highway.

He says the impact of the road and railway would be what has been seen on the Tikauli jungle corridor where traffic has seriously disturbed wildlife:

"If we cut the national park into pieces with road and rail, it will discourage animals from breeding and reduce the number of tigers and rhinos."

But the Department of Railways doesn't want to follow the existing East-West Highway, because it would add about 30 km to the length of the route.

However a southern route, near Nepal's border with India, would not only cut across the western end of the Chitwan Park. It would also drive a wedge between Chitwan and India's Valmiki Wildlife Sanctuary, which currently form a huge area of continuous wildlife habitat.

'No decision has been made'

Director General of the Department of Railways Rajeswor Man Singh, however, insists that it's too early to say with certainty if the railway will go through the Park.

"We still haven't prepared a final report and we will recommend the contractor to take all precautions to make sure the national park is not disturbed."

But 5 km of railtrack haves been commissioned westward from Simara, to the southeast of the Park - effectively commencing construction along a southern alignment. The Department is also requisitioning land along the proposed route, and five border links to Indian railways.

Some conservationists now think a railway cutting through Chitwan is inevitable and are proposing underpasses for wildlife and fencing to reduce disturbances.

Says former Chief Warden Jhamak Karki: "There are examples from around the world of roads and trains cutting through protected areas and there are ways to ease friction between conservation and development."

The balancing act

Jhamak Karki, former chief warden of Chitwan National Park, was labelled "anti-development" when he protested the construction of the bridge connecting Ghailaghari and Kasara in 2001.

Two years later, the Rapti River flooded the bordering Jagatpur VDC killing nine and destroying 10km of canal, 180 metres embankment transmission line, and 10km of National Park fencing.

"If it wasn't for the short-sightedness of the planners, people wouldn't have lost their lives. The bridge should have been built five kilometres downstream", explains Karki.

"The state cannot afford to neglect the well-being of local communities and the environment when building infrastructure."

The current chief warden of the park, Kamal Jung Kunwar, now worries that bridges being built for roads and railways might overlook social costs in the name of reducing construction costs and there might be a repeat of the Ghailaghari tragedy.

And then the network of feeder roads ...

It is not just the prospect of trains roaring through the Chitwan National Park that is giving conservationists nightmares.

There's also the construction of the Tarai Hulaki Highway - also known as the 'Postal Road' on the southern boundary of the Chitwan Park, and the feeder roads that will soon criss-cross the Sanctuary in eight locations.

The road is to be built by an Indian construction company, GR Gravar Joint Venture. Amost two thirds of the cost is to be paid by the Indian Government.

The Ministry of Infrastructure Development awarded a contract for a bridge across the Narayani River inside the reserve for the road, but after the park objected, the bridge was shifted further upstream.

"Upgrading the feeder roads around Chitwan and Narayani River will cut through the National Park", says Chief Warden Kamal Jung Kunwar.

"The government is trying to circumvent the Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environment Assessment despite our constant reminders."

1,450 km of new roads across the Tarai

The Hulaki Road network is an Indian-assisted project launched in 2006 and entails upgrading old postal and feeder roads, totalling over 1,450 km across the Tarai.

The Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) is involved in the Rs 11 billion project that is designed to improve connectivity in the Tarai.

Project chief Bijendra Bade Shrestha insists that the proposed route of the feeder roads in Chitwan National Park can be changed based on an Environment Impact Assessment.

Shrestha claims that his office has asked the Park to conduct the study. But Kunwar says he has received no such request. 

It all looks like a case of 'build now, argue about it later, once the damage has already been done.'

Amid the confusion ...

The environmental logic of the case is absolutely clear. Any major new transport infrastructure should be directed towards existing corridors where damage has already been done, and additional damage will therefore have a small impact. That means the northern route.

The southern route - preferred by the Department of Railways due to its shorter alignment and lower cost - carries huge environmental costs.

There is no southern alignment that does not cut through the Chitwan Park. And the largely contiguous wildlife habitat that extends from Chitwan over the international border into India's Valmiki Wildlife Sanctuary will be seriously fragmented.

The effect will be all the more serious in combination with the Hulaki Highway and its planned network of feeder roads. Taken together the two threaten to open a new 'development corridor' in the heart of one of Asia's richest wildlife refuges.

Nepal's government must reconsider its plans, and conduct a full environmental and social impact evaluation of the combined transport projects affecting Chitwan - before any hasty, irreversible and destructive decisions are made.



Sign the Avaaz petition: 'Stop building railways inside Chitwan National Park: Follow the east west roadways instead!'

This article was originally published by the Nepali Times under the title Trespassing into nature. It has been edited for an international audience and is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors.

Bhrikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey are reporters with the Nepali Times.