Going up in smoke

The smoke blanketing Nepal this week is not just from forest fires but also burning wheat stalk after harvest

Sparks from burning stubble in one farm ignited a wheat field that was being prepared for harvest in Karahiyamai Municipality of Bara on Tuesday. Photos: DILSAD ALAM

The natural world does not respect manmade boundaries. We demarcate rivers as the frontiers between nation states, but they change their course in open defiance of cartographers and politicians.

Air pollution also travels across national boundaries with impunity. Industrial and vehicular emissions from the Gangetic plains are carried by prevailing winds to Nepal and the Himalaya. In November, north India and the Nepal Tarai is shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke from crop-residue burning on both sides of Punjab and other Indian states.

These past weeks, the sky over Nepal has been thick with haze from wildfires fanned by winds, burning out of control on mountain slopes and along the East-West Highway. But travelling along that highway this week, we saw another source of smoke, acres upon acres of wheat stalks set on fire after harvest in the fields.

Those fires we photographed in Simraungad on Monday correspond to red dots at that exact spot in the NASA infrared satellite image taken from space that very morning. There is another very large patch of red in Uttar Pradesh across the border in India.

Wildfires in Nepal
FLAME THROWERS: Groundview of stubble burning in Simraungad near Birganj on Tuesday. Photo: CHANDRA KISHORE

Nepal is vulnerable to climate breakdown, and a part of the reason for the wildfires is the long winter drought and deficient rainfall this month that failed to moisten the soil enough. No major rainfall is forecast for the coming week, and the temperature in the Tarai is reaching the upper 30s Celsius.

With an average per capita carbon footprint of 0.03 tons per year, whatever energy Nepalis use will not reduce the global impact of the climate crisis. However, there are some things governments on both sides of the border can act on — air pollution.

It poisons the air we breathe and affects everyone: rich and poor, with the elderly and young most at risk. In the past three weeks, the AQI that measures the concentration of hazardous suspended particles in the air in the Nepal Tarai has remained above 200 µg/m3. The WHO’s threshold for air safe to breathe is 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

All across the fertile Tarai plains of Nepal, farmers have just finished harvesting the winter wheat crop. Many farms are now mechanised with threshers, but while reducing the drudgery for farmers these machines have created another problem.

The stalks of the wheat that emerge from the threshers remain in the fields. Because most young men have migrated, farmers find it easier to just burn the stubble. This is a widespread practice in northern India, and now stubble burning has become common on the Nepal side as well. 

Instead of feeding the straw to livestock or burning it to cook, farmers set fire to their fields because the population of livestock has also decreased with the rise in migration. 

Wildfires in Nepal
A NASA FIRMS infrared satellite image of Nepal and adjoining parts of India on 16 April. Each red dot is a wildfire, or farms burning stubble after wheat harvest.
Wildfires in Nepal
The whole of Nepal was covered in thick smoke on 16 April up to an elevation of 2,500m.

Another reason Nepal’s farmers started burning the stubble is because of stricter border controls which has made it difficult for Indian traders to come over to buy straw from Nepali farmers, who now have no other option but to burn what is left in the fields hoping the ash fertilises the soil for the paddy season.

“We are no longer burning straw and dung for domestic fuel, we have fewer livestock, so we do not really need the straw and that is why the farmers are burning them in the fields,” explains Rameswar Mehta of Simraungad Municpality. 

Contrary to some who think the ash is a fertiliser, farmers say the fires actually blacken and destroy the soil by killing nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, reducing harvests. A Facebook post this week shows a wheatfield ready of harvest on fire after sparks from nearby stubble burning ignited the field.

It is obvious that unless farmers see alternative uses for their crop residue, like in industrial-scale composting or biogas generation, they will keep burning stubble. 

Manual harvesting used to leave only a few inches of stubble off the ground which the cattle fed on, now with the threshers there is just stubble lying around, which is too much trouble to pick. 

Madhes Province government has no record of the area of wheat fields that are being put to the torch. It must come up with a strategy to make farmers aware of the impact from crop residue burning on public health through pollution and the fall in productivity due to decline in fertility of the soil.

There needs to be more intense public debate about the harmful effects of stubble burning and its trans-boundary impact.

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based commentator who writes this monthly column Borderlines for Nepali Times.

Chandra Kishore