In the first week of November, Ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia visited Rara Lake in Mugu district, traveling through Talcha Airport. The trio visited Rara Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Nepal, to learn about the impacts of climate change in Nepal.
Although on a different note, I had a chance to visit Rara in October as well, together with members of Parliamentary Agriculture, Cooperative and Natural Resource Committee (ACNRC), to learn about the conservation policy issues and identify probable way-forwards.
As awed the ambassadors were during their visit to Rara, I must admit, our visit also was more than a lifetime experience.
Rara lies in the high Himalayas at an altitude of 2,990 meters above sea level. Encompassing a total area of 10.6 km2, it is the largest lake in Nepal. Its freshwater ecosystem diversity beholds three endemic fish species and more than 49 species of migratory birds and was inscribed as Ramsar Site in 2007.
Rara is home to some of the endangered wildlife species including Musk Deer, Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, and Snow Trout. The area is regarded collectively by nature and conservation enthusiasts to have the world’s highest ecologically important flora and fauna, intricately blended with rich Mugali culture.
Rara Lake regulates downstream flooding, stores water, and supports groundwater recharge in the lower areas. Wetland ecosystems such as Rara are essential for climate change mitigation as they cut off atmospheric carbon, providing global benefits.
Tourism, Covid-19 and unplanned infrastructure
Rara has already become a major eco-tourist destination. Breathtaking trekking routes, unique Mugali culture play supplementary roles to attract tourists. The number of foreign tourists is increasing slowly and gradually. Rara has seen the number jump from about 100 foreign visitors in 2009 to over 460 in 2019, directly providing ecotourism options to local communities.
However, the trend saw a setback due to COVID–19 as the number of international tourists dropped from 460 in 2019 to 266 in 2020. Similarly, the number of domestic tourists also dropped significantly from about 11,700 in 2019 to about 9,800 in 2020. The Park’s revenue also dropped from NRS 3.6 million in 2019 to NRS 3.4 million in 2020.
This has resulted in loss of income of the park, directly impacting its potential to achieve conservation goals and address development needs of indigenous and poor communities.
While the beauty of the landscape is jaw-dropping, unplanned construction of infrastructures, mainly rural roads and buildings has been rampant around Rara National Park and its buffer zone. Dusty and bumpy roads that pass through steep slopes are prone to landslides and often pose bodily risks to travelers. None of the rural roads in the buffer zone were constructed upon carrying out Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and Environmental Impact Assessment. Whether be during the construction of view towers or toilets, very little coordination has been maintained among concerned authorities during the constructions. Even Talcha Airport along with adjacent settlements has been found prone to landslides and flood disasters. Locals openly recall that landslide frequency and magnitude has increased over the last 15 years in buffer zones and adjoining settlements. Several reports indicate that if the trend of unplanned infrastructure development activities goes unchecked, the potential of the lake being brushed away by the next 50 years is very high.
If the trend of unplanned infrastructure development activities goes unchecked, the potential of the lake being brushed away by the next 50 years is very high.
As rightly pointed out by the Ambassadors, one cannot imagine the struggle in lives of people living around Rara and adjoining areas if the climate change induced landslide and floods add pressure on the already fragile mountain ecosystem.
Almost all the people living in the buffer zone of the park, including communities living in nearby Gamgadhi, the headquarters of Mugu district, rely on firewood and timber for household chores. In absence of proper promotion of energy efficient improved cooking stoves, renewable energy together with awareness campaigns, harvesting of forest resources for firewood has been widespread. Coupled with the dearth of active management of buffer zone community forests, Rara is the only resource to address the need of local communities for firewood, timber and non-timber forest products including medicinal herbs.
Ways to save Rara
Despite the challenges, all hope is not lost in Rara. It’s actually quite the contrary. Biodiversity conservation has emerged as the prime factor to benefit livelihoods of local people, especially, poor, women and indigenous communities who are disproportionately impacted from negative consequences of habitat loss due to anthropogenic and climatic factors such as drying out of water sources, loss of agricultural productivity and loss of crop products to wild animals mainly in forest-fringed settlements.
Constructing alternative eco-friendly trekking routes from adjoining districts could pave way for the promotion of tourism.
Under the leadership of local governments in coordination with the park, implementation of integrated community development and conservation awareness packages are vehemently required to help support the immediate livelihood needs of local people. Such packages can include promotion of community-based inclusive ecotourism, renewable energy programs, and environment awareness campaigns. Moreover, as identified in the Rara National Park and Buffer Zone Management Plan (2076/77), activities such as preparing and implementing Local Adaptation Plan of Action for the adjacent municipality and rural municipalities and scaling up clean energy technology will be very helpful to address climate change issues.
Furthermore, provisions prohibiting the construction of physical infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of the lake as well as hefty fines for poaching and illegal logging of trees must be made and implemented with zero tolerance. Constructing alternative eco-friendly trekking routes from adjoining districts could pave way for the promotion of tourism. This can be supplemented with training locals about the facets of ecotourism, adding feathers to livelihood support to poor, vulnerable, and indigenous communities ultimately helping to safeguard the immense biodiversity and livelihood values of Rara.
Ekraj Sigdel is the Head of Policy and Governance at WWF Nepal. He tweets at @Dhorelimitra