Environmentalists in Nepal are bracing themselves as the unstoppable force of Chinese economic development looks set to collide with the world’s highest mountain range.

China has long-term ambitions to build a new rail line through Nepal, potentially one day providing an overland trade route into India.

The Himalayan railway would start from the Tibetan city of Xigaze, and run to Gyirong, a land port on the Chinese border, before extending through Nepal and eventually into India, according to a report in state-owned China Daily earlier this month.

"The construction of a railway crossing the Himalayan mountains is now economically and technologically feasible,” the report quotes Zong Gang, deputy director of the Science and Technology Department at Beijing University of Technology, as saying.

Yak man with his yaks, Everest area, Tibet

已越來越難在雪巴人的家裡看到氂牛的身影。Photo Credit: corbis/達志影像

26 Feb 2002, Tibet: Yak man ascending to the Advanced Base Camp, Rongbuk Glacier, Mount Everest, Himalayas, Tibet --- Image by © Robert Boesch/Corbis

It is understood that the rail line up to Gyirong is scheduled to be completed by 2020, while the Nepalese sections remain subject to government approval. In June, China Railway Construction Corp Limited (CRCC) applied to Kathmandu to conduct a feasibility study for the proposed Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway. At this stage, it appears this has not yet been approved by Nepalese officials.

“There are enough environmental consequences of this new construction, starting from hydrology to biodiversity,” World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal spokesperson Simrika Sharma Marasini told The News Lens International. "However, the economics and national need of connecting to the north is so big that they outweigh several considerations.”

“We have to work in the middle of these extremes," she says.

The Himalayas face numerous environmental challenges, from deforestation and wildlife poaching to the impacts of climate change. The WWF classifies more than 160 species in the Eastern Himalayas as “threatened,” including the greater one-horned rhino, the Asian elephant, the red panda and the snow leopard.

Nepal, with a population of 27.8 million people, is one of the world’s poorest countries and in 2015 was hit by devastating earthquakes which killed thousands. A recent World Bank report on how Nepal can increase trade integration and boost its economy via greater foreign-direct investment suggested that the country “is in dire need of an economic transformation.”

青藏高原 The Himalayan range is seen in this aerial view in Nepal

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

The Himalayan range is seen in this aerial view taken from a passenger aircraft flying over Nepal at a height of 9,144 meters (30,000 feet), November 9, 2008. In background is the Tibetan Plateau. Picture taken November 9, 2008. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan (NEPAL) - RTXAG2T

China meanwhile, is eyeing a longer-term play across the Himalayas and into India.

“It is to be seen on the basis of regional geopolitics whether or not Nepal could play the role of land connectivity between the two large Asian markets,” Marasini says.

The China Daily notes, “China hopes the rail link will boost economic, cultural and religious communication with Nepal as part of the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping [習近平].”

Edited by: J. Michael Cole