Environment Assessment of Nepal: Emerging Issues and Challenges by the Asian Development Bank. Kathmandu, Nepal: Asian Development Bank and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, 2006. xii + 224 pp. Free download at http://books.icimod.org. ISBN 92-9115-004-5.
Who knows best what to do about the environment in Nepal? This is a question that is not put by the publication under review here, because it tells you what is to be done: make information consistent, bring data sets from different environmental sectors into coherent dialogue, provide training and infrastructure where it is lacking, and align standards of quality on environmental governance with benchmarks that are internationally applicable.
Environmental problems become pragmatically manageable through synoptic clarity of all the factors contributing to them: poverty, lack of education, birth rates, stagnant agricultural production, deforestation, endangered species, renewable technology. This book ploughs through tables and charts of evidence in all these conventionally environmental domains, with modern-day add-ons to the environmental frame also considered, including gender, citizenship, conflict, and social exclusion. In this attempt at bringing all the facts into few, it is cross-cutting issues that emerge as recalcitrant obstacles to measuring predictability.
There is an unacknowledged dilemma in the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) catalogue of spheres of activity and instruments of surveillance for monitoring change and impact. This consists of the fact that, although this publication calls for better knowledge, it is stuck in a tunnel vision of what needs to be assessed about the environment in Nepal. In the book's block-by-block assemblage of sectoral assessments, it fails to mention the relevant and intense debates over Nepal's environment that have moved the agendas for research in the last decades. It is as if years of world-class data gathering, analytical reflection and policy argument have entirely missed the radar for this report. Anyone familiar with the exceptional contributions made by this very journal in the last 3 decades will be disappointed in the extreme. Many of the two-dimensional, hard/soft fact-divisive category errors are routinely repeated. The bibliography has not a single mention of the landmark Ives and Messerli (1989) Himalayan Dilemma, the articles by Mahat et al (1986) published in Mountain Research and Development, Stevens' (1993) exceptional Claiming the High Ground, or even more recent outstanding contributions with time depth, analytical rigor, and interpretive sophistication (eg Smadja 2003). For all the complaints made in this book about the quality of data deriving from different organs of the state and their track record of environmental policy implementation, there is no awareness of scarcity with regard to competing analytical approaches to environmental change, and the social and political implications of different kinds of analysis being applied to the environment.
The environment is simply “out there” to be surveyed dispassionately. For myself as an anthropologist, this kind of influential perspective on the environment is a marker of certain culturally specific attitudes which have been historically very powerful. They displace other modes of relating with environments, of which Nepal has interestingly many examples from its own unique ecocultural mixings. The privileged expert view represented by the ADB has consequences on how some people, rather than others, can be seen to hold a legitimate view or interest on the environment out there.
Calls for technical control systems and information coordination proliferate in the chapters of this book, but where are the citizens, the journalists, the aggrieved and environmentally dispossessed? The chapter on pollution and climate change concludes that “scientific information remains the basis for any pollution-control efforts” but avoids the need to challenge the power of polluters, or encourage citizens to protest, and instead calls for managing institutional pluralism as the social mechanism for translating scientific knowledge into action. Only in the urban chapter halfway through the book is there a picture of a traffic protest, suggesting that more than experts care for the environment. The description of the women's organization of Kupandole in Lalitpur turning waste into resources brings an occasional vignette of intelligent and organized people breaking up the book's juggernautical outpouring of data. However, the section on rivers has no element of the citizens' movement that has recovered the sense of a sacred river network in the Kathmandu Valley, which could be capable of transformation from the open sewer it became with development. As for the data on municipal waste, the latest information is admitted to be only up to 1998, missing the enormous impact of urban building as the wealthy came to the capital since the onset of the People's War.
It is welcome that there should be a chapter on conflict, and there are some genuine moments of insight here, such as the recognition that conflicts are rarely to do only with environments and scarcity, and that solutions involve more than simply environmental factors. The chapter does not discuss the indigenous groups' claims to ethnic territories, nor does it connect to the following chapter on trade. To imagine that Nepal's civil conflict can be explained by rural land and forest scarcities, but not global labor and capital markets, is not convincing. The chapter on trade has a different and more “racy” writing style, but its categorical disapproval of anything that could be seen as protectionism is not justified by a considered view of the risks that the penetration of market values into the Himalayan environment entail. Bioprospecting, for instance, is not even mentioned.
What we are presented with is a particular vision of what the environment consists of, what can be known about it, whether it is measurably improving or degrading. It is an environment that is “out there,” amenable to control, and something towards which different kinds of people can be sensitized. What this report misses is the contribution that can be made by the people and environment of Nepal to global understandings of environmental change, beyond talk of capacity-building. The sensitizing that the ADB mentions actually requires a desensitizing in the form of a detachment of responsibility from day-to-day interaction.
The solutions proposed by the ADB involve the production of GIS information, assumed to be easily intelligible by policy-makers and the public, in a pyramidal flow of data down from scientists. There is no countercurrent or iterative flow here. People's own knowledge systems, information-sharing and existing familiarity with pluralism of viewpoints are not thought important in this view.
This is conventional development that pretends to a green complexion; it does not see that the environmental threat requires an overturning of the measures and kinds of knowledge that have prevailed until recently. Environmental justice needs new forms of adjudication and rights recognition. The judiciary is naively portrayed as a tool for sustainability, but also described as not responsive to public opinion. The unproblematized use of the level of consumption of energy as a benchmark for the standard of living (p 65) seems to be a singularly inappropriate measure for sustainable development.
In explaining why policies have not improved the environment, the failure of institutions, “poor performance,” incoherent and involuntary data supply from institutions are identified. On the upside, renewables are given an upbeat heralding. The combined potential of hydro, biomass, solar and wind energy could provide for demand in the foreseeable future, and Nepal would be a prime location to develop a hydrogen economy.
The copy of the book in my possession has already fallen apart with just one reading from cover to cover. In contrast to the women of Kupandole mentioned above, is this not turning a resource into a waste? Is this an institutional failure and mark of lack of quality control in managed dissemination of the movement of data from experts to policy-makers to the public?