A bridge under construction across the Karnali River near the village of Tumkot, Nepal in October 2018.

A bridge under construction across the Karnali River near the village of Tumkot, Nepal in October 2018. Nabin Baral/NRCT

Nepal’s Road-Building Spree Pushes into the Heart of the Himalayas

The Nepali government is seeking to build roads to every village in the mountainous nation. But some warn the road boom could have high costs for communities and the environment, especially in areas where traditional livelihoods and trek tourism rely on unspoiled nature.

The Manaslu Conservation Area in the Himalayan Mountains of north-central Nepal is a 642-square-mile protected area that has yet to be connected by road to the outside world. The route for trekkers, opened more than two decades ago, follows a deep river gorge, ascends through hardwood and conifer forests, weaves through villages, and emerges into alpine pasturelands north of Mount Manaslu, which, at 26,781 feet, is the world’s eighth-highest peak. The glacier-flanked trail then crosses a 17,000-foot pass before descending into the region of the Annapurna massif, with peaks climbing to 26,000 feet. The views on the Manaslu trek are among the most breathtaking in Nepal.

Manaslu’s local Nubri people trace their lineage to neighboring Tibet, and for centuries have herded yak and tended fields in what they view as a sacred landscape. But despite protected area status and growing dependence on trek tourism income, three road projects are converging simultaneously on this narrow, long-isolated valley.

“The lakes here are pristine, the wildlife is abundant, and our ancient culture is alive,” says local ward chairman and trekking lodge owner Pema Döndrup. “We need to preserve this area.” The valley’s old-growth forests contain trees that have escaped cutting, villagers say, because they are too large to safely fell by hand. But the new road projects will bring trucks, diesel-hydraulic excavators, and chainsaws to the region, the latter a major threat in view of the powerful hunger for lumber in Nepal’s lowland cities and in near-treeless Tibet.

The roads being built to the Manaslu region are part of an ambitious new effort in Nepal to construct paved, gravel, or dirt roads to every town and sizeable settlement in the country. As this frenzy of road construction gnaws into even the most remote valleys of the Himalayas, subsistence farmers and traders — long neglected by Nepal’s government — are hoping the roads will bring jobs, lower trade and transportation costs, and improved education and health care to the country’s far-flung corners. New roads already have expanded access and economic opportunity in populated lowland areas. But in remote areas of the Himalayas where traditional livelihoods (and trek tourism incomes) rely on unspoiled natural resources, some local officials and residents fear that the socio-economic and environmental costs of this road-building spree will be high.

With little public discussion, roads are even being built into national parks and protected areas.

These critics note that most mountain roads are being crudely dug along riverbanks, through alpine wetland ecosystems, and across slopes that are prone to landslides and pummeling monsoon rains. With little official or public discussion, roads are even surging into national parks and protected areas, such as Manaslu. Some Nepalis fear an increase in damage to sacred sites, an expansion of timber cutting in heretofore-inaccessible woodlands, and a growing trade in endangered and threatened species, particularly with China, Nepal’s neighbor to the north.

In recent decades, Nepal has gone from having few drivable roads to more than 7,000 miles of paved roads, as of 2015. Yet over the last several years, the pace of road building has quickened dramatically, driven by the country’s new constitution, enacted in 2015, which emphasizes decentralized economic growth and includes a directive that roads be constructed to remote settlements. According to the Department of Roads, Nepal built an additional 7,500 miles of new paved, gravel, or dirt roads in 2017 and 2018.

The road-building boom is being funded by international development agencies, the Nepalese government, and countries such as China. The contours of China’s involvement in the road projects are evolving, but China is keen to include transit through Nepal in its global, trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative. With China’s financial help, Nepal’s Strategic Road Network is simultaneously pushing northward from the sub-tropical lowlands and south from the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. In a visit in October to Kathmandu, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of a desire to forge a “strategic partnership” with Nepal that would include extension of rail and road infrastructure to Nepal’s southern border with India.

Nepal’s road-building initiative is also being driven by internal cronyism and corruption, according to some experts.

Work on a new road inside the boundary of the Manaslu Conservation Area in November 2019.

Work on a new road inside the boundary of the Manaslu Conservation Area in November 2019. Dhawa Gyanjen Lama

“We’re seeing what’s referred to as ‘bulldozer terrorism,’” says Dipak Gyawali, former Minister of Water Resources. “A very high percentage of newly empowered local and regional politicians also own bulldozers or excavators. They secure the funding, then award themselves the construction contracts.”

Landowners near the proposed routes also are benefitting, with property values predictably increasing, sometimes substantially, along road routes. The growing pace of road construction can be seen in some recent economic and industrial statistics. In 2017, the Indian heavy equipment manufacturing giant JCB sold 2,140 pieces of equipment to Nepal — the highest number of backhoe loaders and excavators sold in any country of South Asia. The Nepali Times reported last year that 83,000 diesel-hydraulic earth movers were operating in the country.

Underlying the concern about Nepal’s runaway road construction is the impact of opening up large, relatively unspoiled regions of the Himalayan nation to development. Pasang Sherpa, a former member of Parliament from far northeastern Nepal, has catalyzed a political consensus to delay road construction into the fragile high valleys of the Mewa River drainage area, in the shadows of Mount Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet) and Mount Makalu (27,766 feet). This biodiverse landscape features an abundance of alpine meadows and lakes, snow leopard, blue sheep, and wolves. The area is the source of rich origin myths for the local Limbu and Dhokpya Sherpa ethnic groups. They harvest sizable quantities of dwarf rhododendron and dwarf juniper, and transport it by yak train for regional sale as incense. Road access would expedite this exploitation.

Trade in endangered species in Nepal could significantly worsen as roads reach more remote areas.

“We’re saying, ‘yes,’ bring the roads as far as the lower villages of those valleys — but not above and beyond them,” Sherpa says. “When people along the roadway below my village found themselves working as day laborers for wealthy outside businesspeople, and saw their houses coated in dust, they began to raise questions. I describe to them the area below Mount Everest, which is thriving economically without a road.”

Along with local members of a social welfare committee and an NGO called KTK-BELT, Sherpa is proposing designating these upper drainages as the Alpine Dhokpya Ramsar Wetlands Conservation Area, which would, in principal, exclude road excavation. Elected officials, including at the ministerial level, are beginning to embrace the concept.

Shant Raj Jnawali oversees the U.S. AID-supported WWF-Hariyo Ban (“Green Forest”) Program, which is working to protect a relatively unspoiled corridor in west Nepal. “No one cares about environmental safeguards,” he says flatly. “Road EIAs [environmental impact assessments] go uncommissioned, or at best are disregarded.” He acknowledges the desire among Nepalis for higher standards of living, but as the local environments and resources that villagers depend upon are increasingly exploited, he sees diminishing benefits from growth.

Hikers climb to the Thorung Pass on the Annapurna Circuit, considered one of the most diverse trekking trails in the world.

Hikers climb to the Thorung Pass on the Annapurna Circuit, considered one of the most diverse trekking trails in the world. Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many of these villagers are leaving anyway to seek jobs and education in cities and abroad, and are being replaced by new arrivals and temporary workers who have little interest in long-term stewardship. As a result, objection to environmental and cultural impacts is muted. “The conservation value of one’s personal attachment to their homeland can’t be overstated,” says Jnawali, “and this goes missing as people move away.”

One important environmental concern is that the trade in endangered species in Nepal could significantly worsen as roads are carved into evermore remote areas. Nepal has long been known as a transit country for tiger skin, musk deer pods, and other endangered animal parts, typically carried from India on foot over Himalayan passes to pharmaceutical markets in China and Vietnam. Villagers, in the habit of questioning outsiders passing through their valleys, have acted as unofficial monitors of this trade. But the bellies of trucks and jeeps offer cover for shipments that can pass undetected (or with collusion of authorities) around villages and through jurisdictional checkpoints.

The sheer danger that roads present is also a major cause of concern. A study conducted by mountain hazard scientist Dave Petley, a professor of geography at the University of Sheffield, showed an increase in landslides, often fatal, coinciding with ad hoc road construction in Nepal. Road maintenance funds are seldom provided in budgets. A 2013 World Bank report estimated that as many as 18,000 miles of Nepal’s roads have little hope of being properly maintained over the long term.

In many cases, hastily trained bulldozer drivers are acting as impromptu engineers, deciding on the spot where to build roads. They use dizzying switchbacks to negotiate steep terrain, and road rights-of-way can consume and destabilize entire hillsides. Vertical road cuts as high as 50 feet sever traditional foot trails, rendering them impassable for pedestrians and pack animals.

“What do we mean by ‘development’? And on whose terms are we going to transition into the future?” asks a local critic of the road-building approach.

“Significant environmental damage is mistakenly viewed as a necessary cost of rural development,” says Karen Bennett, a watershed scientist working with the Nepal River Conservation Trust. She stresses that robust, durable roads can be constructed in the mountains. “Careful alignment, drainage that can handle monsoon rains, a grade of less than 10 percent, and management of massive debris fans – these can all be designed and planned for.”

Bennett singles out the habit of “side casting” – dumping the cut material directly onto the slope below – as a major contributor to slope instability. End hauling, or transporting the material to a low-angle, stable location, is one of many “green” road building techniques that could be applied.

This could well save lives. Bus plunges and other vehicle accidents occur routinely in Nepal. In a recent three and a half month period, 538 deaths were recorded on Nepal’s roads, an average of five per day. At that rate, 18,000 people would perish on roads in the next 10 years – more than the number killed in conflict during the brutal Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006.

Alternatives exist. “Ropeways,” or electricity-powered aerial cable cars, offer a lower-impact (and often cheaper) transport option that nicely dovetails with Nepal’s growing hydropower capacity. An 11-mile cargo-only ropeway is now being planned just south of Mount Everest, on the trek route to the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. This should reduce the need for the near-endless mule trains that currently supply the park’s 60,000 annual foreign visitors and rapidly growing numbers of Nepali trekkers.

Villagers work to clear terrain for a new road along the Karnali River below the Nepalese village of Tamcha in September 2018.

Villagers work to clear terrain for a new road along the Karnali River below the Nepalese village of Tamcha in September 2018. Nabin Baral/NRCT

Road construction presents a rural development conundrum: for decades, foreign aid programs have strived to include local villagers’ labor, skills, and decision-making at the forefront of their assistance. “But when heavy equipment is introduced on the scene, that becomes a useless development model,” notes Sonam Lama, an architect and filmmaker from the valley of Tsum, located within the Manaslu Conservation Area. “The villagers are told to stand aside while the dozers and excavators do all the work. It’s a one-way process, with no transfer of knowledge or training, and no employment for the local people. Then it’s left to us to repair the incidental damage, and maintain it all.”

This winter, Lama is convening a road awareness workshop for rural politicians, villagers, and religious leaders. They are up against Nepal’s well-funded imperative of infrastructure expansion. As the country hurtles forward, Lama is one of few people tapping the brakes. “We need to ask some very basic questions,” he says. “What do we mean by ‘development’? For whom? Who is making the decisions? And on whose terms are we going to transition into the future?”