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Ecosystem Conservation Gives Hope to a Vulnerable Community

Thakurseva Gurung of Bhadaure Tamagi village harvests broom grass. The grass helps her prevent soil erosion while also providing cattle fodder and a steady income. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

KASKI, Nepal, Apr 25 2016 (IPS) - 42 year-old Saraswati Subedi still remembers the night she almost died in a flash flood. “I heard the cries of my neighbours and ran out of the room with my two children. There was water all around and I thought we were going to die, so I started to pray,” says the mother of the three in Karki Tahara – a village by the river Harpan Khola in Nepal’s Kaski district.

Subedi was lucky that night: she managed to waddle through the muddy water and reach a hill at the back of her village. But, at least 30 of her neighbors were either washed away or buried under the mud brought by the flooded river.

Ecosystem based adaptation

Eight months later, Subedi and her fellow villagers are donating labour and pooling in funds to make their village safer by building a stone embankment and planting bamboo along the river shore. They are being led by Eco-system Based Adaptation (EBA) – a project co-implemented by Nepal government and several other agencies including the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “So far, we have donated labour for 7 days and collected 80,000 rupees,” says Subedi.

The flash flood on Harpan Khola came three months after an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude devastated Nepal in April 25, 2015. According to Shiv Shankar Shah, a site engineer supervising the embankment project, the earthquake caused major disturbances in the surrounding ecosystem, especially its mountains and forests. Dozens of trees were uprooted in the landslide and washed down the river, blocking a sluice gate near the village and flooding the villages on both sides.

“This danger of disasters, especially landslides, is very high here. To make the locals safer, we need to build a siltation dam and a 2 km long embankment that runs from the hills to the bridge. We are using bioengineering techniques, using natural materials,” says Shah.

Like Karki Tahara, landslides have been a constant threat to several other villages in the region, including the Panchase Protected Forest which is a mountain park rich in biodiversity and spread over three districts, Kaski, Parbat and Syangja. The forests are home to the indigenous Gurung community that lives on the higher slopes, which makes them especially vulnerable to disasters such as landslides, flash floods and forest fire. Project EBA has been working with the Gurungs, training them in conserving the forest including its diverse flora and fauna, reducing soil erosion and the natural water sources.

Mozaharul Alam, regional climate change coordinator at UNEP Asia Pacific, explains “This is a project that works closely with the community. It trains them and partners with them in conserving the entire mountain ecosystem through a series of practices that are not only sustainable, but also beneficial to the community.”

Preventing Soil Erosion

50 year-old Thakurseva Gurung lives in Bhadaure Tamagi – a village on the mountain slope along the Pokhara- Kaski highway. Her 1.5-acre farm produces food only for a couple of months, but for over a year now, Gurung has been earning over 60,000 rupees by growing broom grass (Thysanolaena maxima)- a plant that prevents soil erosion. Every two months, she harvests the flowering stalks of the grass, ties them in a bundle and sells to broom traders. The net-like roots of the grass spread easily, tightening the soil, while the leaves make good fodder for her two buffalos. “Growing this grass doesn’t need any water or manure and a single broom sells for 30-40 rupees. Many of my neighbors are also planting it,’ she says.

Dilbahadur Bhattarai, a local environmentalist with the EBA project, says that the broom grass has been introduced to at least 45 villages. “In the beginning, we gave free stalks to farmers here and convinced them to plant the grass. But now, the production has increased, so the farmers are selling us the stalks to distribute among others.”

Clean energy and organic manure

Traditionally a herder community, almost every Gurung family owns a cow or a buffalo. This has helped the EBA project promote use of biogas and biomanure in the community. Pushpa Gurung, a 48 year-old woman in Damdame village owns 11 buffalos. But the dung used to go waste as she had very little land to use it. Today, a biogas system is not only helping her utilise the dung, but also become less dependent on government-supplied liquefied natural gas (cooking gas) which became hard to access after the earthquake.

“I no longer have to worry about an empty (cooking gas) cylinder or go to the forest to cut firewood. All I need is to pour some dung into that hole,” says Gurung, pointing at the tank behind her house.

Achham Gurung, another villager says that she now uses cattle urine as manure in her field. “This is very helpful especially in this dry season when there is very little water for irrigation. The cattle urine keeps the field moist and adds nutrients,” she explains.

Preserving water sources

Since the earthquake, mountain communities across Nepal have been witnessing the slow drying and disappearance of streams. To prevent a possible water crisis, villagers in Panchase mountain area have begun to build small storages to collect the trickling water. From the storage, the water is then brought to the villages with a pipeline. They have also banned the use of bulldozers which send the flow of water further below the surface, informs Gopal Gurung, a community leader from Arthar village.

There, however, are some challenges, including the demand for rapid development. Says Gurung: “There is constant pressure on the village development committee to allow more motorable roads. We tell them that such roads need bulldozers will further disturb the already fragile ecosystem. If we want to avert another huge disaster, we must adopt a sustainable development model. “

(This story was written after visiting multiple villages in the Panchase protected forest mountain area of Nepal in Kaski district)

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