Chinese construction along the Nepal-Tibet border puts strategic land at risk
Jan 13, 2019-
Kimathanka, an idyllic hamlet in the northeastern district of Sankhuwasabha, is one of the smallest—and most remote—settlements in the country. But this tiny village that sits on the Chinese border is a crucial strategic location for Nepal as the country strives to increase its connectivity with the northern neighbour.
Until recently, the Arun river, which originates in Tibet—where it is called Pum Qu—used to run through the valley below Kimathanaka. But soon, the river could pose a serious risk to the village—all because of the construction of an embankment, about one kilometre long, along the river on the Chinese side. Since the construction began, the river has started flowing through the settlement and local residents fear the entire hamlet could submerge during the rainy season.
“The settlement and land on our side are at serious risk,” Ganesh Adhikari, the Chief District Officer of Sankhuwasabha, who was part of a team that reached Kimathanka last month for an inspection, told the Post. “The Arun river has already changed its course. We will soon communicate the issue to the Chinese side.”
Local leaders say that the construction of the embankment, which is close to completion, may result in the inundation of nearly 200 ropanis (101,748 square metres) of land that is strategically important for Nepal.
The area is the only piece of flat land available on the Nepali side where Nepal plans to build some crucial infrastructure—customs office, immigration point, border outpost, quarantine and banking facilities, among others—which will be a must once the north-south corridor linking Kimathanka with Biratnagar via Khandbari is completed.
The 362-kilometre road section will be the shortest route linking India, Nepal and China in the eastern part of the country. Of the total length, construction of 200km Biratnagar-Khandbari section has already been completed. The 92km-long track has already been opened along the 162 km Khandbari-Kimathanka section.
Local officials hope the road project will increase cross-border trade between the two countries but fear that the Chinese embankment could hamper Nepal’s plans to build infrastructure on its side.
“To protect our land, we have to construct at least a one-kilometre-long embankment,” said Rajendra Gautam, a lawmaker from the federal Parliament, one of the members of the team that visited the area last month. “We have called the federal government for action to protect the strategic land in the bordering area. If no immediate measures are taken, we are going to see massive flooding here and we won’t be able to build any border infrastructure. The whole purpose of the north-south corridor will be defeated.”
The Nepali side, according to officials, has already prepared the structural designs of at least six offices—customs, dry port, border outpost, immigration, quarantine and banks—to be constructed in that particular area of Kimathanka.
The 27-member team including lawmakers and government officials from Sankhuwasabha had visited the border during the last week of December after local residents raised concerns about the Chinese embankment project.
The findings of the field visit have already been sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of the members of the inspection team told the Post on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
Tenchhebi Bhote, ward chairman of Bhotekhola Rural Municipality-1, said concerns raised by locals have so far been ignored by the Chinese. “After the Chinese started constructing the embankment, we had spoken with them but they refused to pay heed to our concern.”
Gautam, the lawmaker from the federal Parliament, said, “The Chinese told us they were building the embankment on their side and could not do anything [to stop that] at this point of time as construction is in the last stage,” he said.
The Post’s email to the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu on Wednesday seeking comments remained unaddressed till the time the paper went to press on Sunday.
Nepali officials say the Chinese first started building an embankment around five years ago but it was barely 150 metres long then. The 2015 earthquake, which killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, also caused massive damage on the Chinese side. Thereafter, China expedited construction of the embankment, started expanding local markets, and built shopping malls and other facilities in the lowland near the Nepal-Tibet border.
Residents of Kimathanka say they have not been able to raise the issue with the Chinese strongly because they fear losing access to the markets across the border, on which they depend for almost all basic amenities. “If we raise our concerns about the embankment and flooding impact, the Chinese tighten the border,” said Nurbu Bhote of Bhotekhol Rural Municipality. “When we took our concerns to Nepali authorities, ministers from central and provincial governments inspected the area from a helicopter and returned. We have not heard of any action initiated to address our concerns.”
Bhotekhola Rural Municipality has allocated Rs1.7 million for the construction of an embankment on the Nepali side, but residents say that’s too little, too late. “That’s hardly enough to protect the land,” said Temba Bhote, chairman of the rural municipality.
Many locals in Kimathanka have already stopped building any new concrete houses for the fear of possible flooding.
The Chinese are also extracting sand and boulders from the river on a massive scale, which is going to increase the water current when it gushes into the Nepali terrritory, especially during the rainy season, said Temba.
Local administration officials from Nepal and Chinese security personnel and officials have held several rounds of talks, but Nepali officials say the Chinese team has been reluctant to address Nepal’s concerns.
With the Chinese showing no signs of stopping its construction, Nepali officials told the Post they would take measures to tame the possible risk of flooding and protect the land.
The delegation that visited the border last month has sought Rs250 million from the Ministry of Irrigation for precautionary construction work.
When the Arun river started cutting land on the Nepal side last time, then Kimathanka Village Development Committee—now Bhotekhola Rural Municipality—had spent over Rs10 million to protect the land.
Sarita Thapa, a member of Province 1 Provincial Assembly, said failing to set up a strong foundation for river training would lead to the loss of land on the Nepal side. “It will have a negative impact on our trade with China,” she said. “Both central and provincial governments should take up the issue seriously.”