A Nepal-Bangladesh win-win

Just a decade ago, the roof racks of passenger buses arriving in any one of Nepal's cities and towns would be piled high with firewood. All through the tracts of jungle along the highways, stacks of firewood would be on sale. However, no firewood is entering the cities of Nepal today. What is it that has marginalised firewood?

The answer is cooking fuel. Earlier, the only fuel was firewood. Then there was the shift to kerosene three decades ago, and after that, the rapid spread of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) canisters. Now, the red coloured LPG cylinders have become so popular that they are even carried on porter-back and mule-back to remote mountain villages.

Today, the forests of the mountains and jungles of the plains are regenerating in large parts, as is evident not only along the highways but also along the Kathmandu Valley rim. While Nepal's successful implementation of community forestry has been given the credit for this sudden greening, the role of reduced firewood demand around the population centers must be acknowledged. In the absence of alternative fuel, the efforts of local forest user groups alone would not have been enough.

Even though scientifically un-proven and a matter of conjecture, there is a common perception that a lot of the monsoon flooding and siltation, including in Bangladesh, is caused by the loss of tree cover in the central Himalaya. With kerosene and LPG already making such a difference to Nepal's forests, one can visualise the situation if natural gas were to arrive from Bangladesh by pipeline. Available for much cheaper than today's LPG canisters, natural gas would accelerate the shift away from firewood, which would further reduce deforestation.

The gasline to feed Nepal would reach out from the north Bengal town of Bogra, cross 40 kilometers of India's Chicken's Neck and arrive at the Nepali border town of Chandragadhi across the Mechi River. Chandragadhi could be the main depot, from where, pending a pipeline to Kathmandu and elsewhere, tanker trucks could distribute natural gas around the country.

Indian and American multinationals have been pressurising the Dhaka to export natural gas from its Sylhet reserves to India-. The official reason cited for Dhaka's reluctance is its insecurity about the size of the national gas reserves. Because the volume of Nepali demand would be relatively low, Bangladesh should not be worried about excessive depletion of its reserves. Besides helping green the Nepali hillsides and – as the suggestion goes – help reduce flooding, Bangladesh would also be helping the population and economy of a fellow SAARC member.

The project could also be a harbinger to greater cooperation in the field of energy resources, with Nepal subsequently exporting its own hydropower to electricity-deficient Bangladesh. A gasline and electricity linkage between the two countries would also serve as an important element in the larger Southasian energy grid that Indian Energy Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, among others, is proposing.

The logic and benefit of a Nepal-Bangladesh link are obvious and if serious efforts are made by the two sides, sources say that India is unlikely to create obstacles in use of its territory for transit. The tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, Burma and India of January this year, approving, in principle, the export of Burmese gas to India via Bangladesh territory also augurs well for increased flexibility among all governments of the region when it comes to grids and pipelines. Additionally, if Bangladesh is unable to export its own gas to Nepal, it would now be possible for the latter to get access to the Burmese gas.

There will come a time when, with natural gas changing the energy scenario, Nepali villagers will stop entering the forests for firewood. The mountain forests will turn even more verdant. As Bangladesh exports gas to Nepal, Nepal will stop exporting silt to Bangladesh.

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Himal Southasian