The Himalayas Face Multiple Assaults
These ranges are burdened and threatened by unbridled human activity
The Himalayas, the youngest and also the highest mountain ranges in the world are among the most sick of the global natural landscapes. These ranges are facing multiple assaults resulting from unbridled human activity.
As a result, the mountain ranges and the communities that live here are fighting to survive, even as they look for solutions. Over the years these mountains have been facing multiple natural disasters owing to their fragility and location in a high seismic zone. There have been a range of multiple earthquakes, and disasters like the one at Kedarnath in the recent past.
These have taken a huge toll on human life and property. Yet many people refuse to learn lessons even as there are efforts also being made by some to save the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas, and bring about sustainable development to the local communities.
The challenges are not confined to just one part of the mountain ranges. They are uniformly spread across its length and breadth. So if it is the Mountain Everest or the 3,000 glaciers that are reeling under tremendous threat in Nepal, the situation is no different in India.
Waste management has emerged as one of the most threatening challenges over the years to the Himalayan ecosystem. This includes wastes of all kinds ranging from plastics, tin, cans, bottles, e-waste to human excreta.
One keeps reading about the heaps of trash that have found their way right up to Mount Everest. There are consistent reports about the trash dotting the most picturesque destinations like Chopta in Uttarakhand or dumping of waste in Beas river in Himachal Pradesh. These are just some of the examples from the recent past.
The reports are harrowing. The pictures they present of even small towns like Rishikesh or Palampur from time to time are scary for anyone who is aware about the fragility of the hills and their ecosystem. There are new sets of challenges emerging in different forms.
At the same time there are also solutions being offered and demonstrated, but corporate concerns, money flow and red tape from the bureaucrats accompanied by petty political motives and mafias of different kinds continue to prove deterrents.
The Citizen tried to understand the challenges while looking at possible solutions as this reporter attended a conclave 'HIMSAMWAAD – Trans Himalayan Conference on Localised Solutions and Implementation Strategies' held at Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry at Nauni in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh.
Experts pointed out that poor waste management ranging from non-existing collection systems to ineffective disposal causes air pollution besides water and soil contamination. Open and unsanitary landfills contribute to the contamination of drinking water and can cause infection besides transmitting diseases.
Then there is also the challenge of dispersal of debris that pollutes ecosystems. The experts also pointed out that the unprecedented wastes are also changing the wildlife scenarios as extensive littering has altered the hunting abilities of the many critically endangered species.
A case in point was made by Roshan Pokheral of Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu in Nepal when he told this reporter, "Every year around 300 yaks are being killed by wolves and snow leopards in the areas around Everest. No one paid much attention to the young wolves that had accompanied the yaks when they came from Tibet, taking them to be a breed of dogs.
"But now these wolves consume around 80% of the yaks that are killed while the snow leopard is responsible for the rest of the killings. The government has to shell out a large sum as compensation for the yak owners.
"The disposal of the yak bones has become another challenge. A local group is now toying with the idea of making souvenirs from the bones and raw sheared yak wool."
It was pointed out that proper waste management is essential for building sustainable communities but it remains a challenge for most of the Himalayan region. Effective waste management is expensive and often takes away a large chunk of municipal budgets as operating essential municipal service requires integrated systems that are efficient, sustainable and socially supported.
The harsh climate, remoteness, limited land availability for waste treatment and disposal along with relatively weak infrastructure in the mountain landscape are some of the factors that make waste collection and safe disposal more challenging than in the urban lowlands.
Processes like composting, vermicomposting and anaerobic digestion to treat biodegradable wastes are inefficient due to the extreme cold conditions. But Shruti Sinai Borker, an expert from Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh who has been working on making human waste useful for agriculture, pointed, "Among the total waste generated in the Indian Himalayan region, a substantial percentage is biodegradable which can be redirected."
Pointing that human waste is a resource for micronutrients to the soil and results in soil amendment, she put forward a recent study on how the Himalayan dry toilet system prevalent in areas like Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal along with Ladakh remains an effective traditional practice of converting human faeces into a compost-like soil amendment that is reasonably high on fertility index.
She explained that experiments on pea cultivation showed that the germination index was above 85% and the compost efficiency along with the yield being satisfactory. She disclosed that the focus now is on improving the structure of the dry toilets to separate urine that can be separately used as a bio-fertiliser.
Shruti further pointed out that currently around 250 kg of bio-waste is being treated at two places in Baijnath in Himachal and a location in Sikkim. Around 400 beneficiaries are selling the compost as well. On the menace of solid waste being dumped along the slopes of the mountains mainly by trekkers, mountaineers and others, Roshan Pokharel pointed that the solution has come at the local level.
Talking in context of Mount Everest, he said that since the 1990s when democracy arrived in the mountain kingdom of Nepal there has been a manifold increase in expeditions and tourism accompanied by more waste penetration. "There have been organisations like Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) that have been collecting waste in the area that is then segregated and flown to Kathmandu from Khumbu. But this is a very expensive initiative.
"The Nepalese Army too has stepped in to tackle the menace since 2019 collecting 14 tonnes of waste in the first year itself. A local group has been trying to make prayer flags from the tin trash in the area that can be sold as souvenirs," he explained.
When asked whether there has been any effort in curtailing the number of mountaineers and tourists to the area to decrease the pressure, he said, "This is not possible as it is a major source of revenue and whom do you desist?
"There are countries from which the volume is high and then there are others from where the volume might be low but they are willing to pay a higher amount. Above all no one wants the footfall to decrease drastically."
But he along with some others pointed that the need definitely is to promote other lesser known destinations that can decentralise the load. This is something that holds for the prominent destinations in India too like Shimla, Manali, and Nainital etc.
Meanwhile, Pankaj Tanwar, an expert from the technical side gave the example of an efficient waste management system put in place in Solapur in Maharashtra and pointed that similar decentralised systems of smaller capacity can be put up in Himalayan towns as well. "We have been processing 300 tonnes of waste in Solapur. It goes on to create energy from the solid waste. Smaller set ups can be established that can treat 500 kg, 1 ton or 5 tonnes." He said that besides obtaining bio-compressed natural gas, compost can also be sold to fertiliser companies.
Taking the debate further Amit Kulshreshtha of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) underlined the need to address the concerns around plastic and agro waste. One needs to realise the problem caused in the northern states due to stubble burning after the paddy season or the forest fires that lead to massive loss on account of the pine needles in the hills.
"These can account for up to 10 % substitution in power plants," he said while pointing that pellets made from agro waste are being used as combustion material in 15 NTPC plants.
The immediate question that raises its head at this point is that when there are solutions available on these issues what stops their implementation on a large scale. Some of the experts pointed out that first the scale of waste generation is very high.
Second, the bureaucrats and red tape cause inordinate delays in implementation leading to large scale frustrations. Third, politicians at local levels have their own axes to grind in terms of favouring certain persons and thereby resisting change. Then there are also mafias at work.
"While it is mandated by law that two separate vehicles will go for collection of dry and wet waste, this hardly happens as the contractor collecting the waste makes do with only one vehicle while taking payments for both," said an expert.
Another major challenge faced by the Himalayas pertains to the disasters emanating from climate change. Things have come to a point that it has been acknowledged that disasters cannot be stopped but suitable measures and planning can mitigate the risk to some extent.
There are several measures that need to be taken immediately. One of the most pertinent issues that concerns Himachal Pradesh and neighbouring Uttarakhand to a large scale was underlined by Professor A. K Mahajan from the Central University of Himachal Pradesh when he called for a check and stop on the unscientific widening of roads.
He said that such constructions needed to be 'stopped to mitigate disaster before occurrence'. He focused on developing earthquake resistance buildings and suggested a minimum gap of three to five metres between houses besides the construction of multistory buildings on only heavy rocks.
A case in point here are several buildings in Himachal Pradesh that have come up on debris and rubble, while experts have been pointing towards the need for having foundations of buildings on solid rock strata. The state had witnessed a building collapse on Nahan-Kumharhatti road in 2019 where 14 people lost their lives.
An expert in geomorphology had told this reporter at that time that the substratum of the site along with the slope needs to be properly evaluated before the construction is undertaken. He had pointed out that the buildings made by the British with their foundations in solid rock stratum still stand while structures elsewhere like Fingask Estate in Shimla stand high on vulnerability.
Prof. Ravindra S. Gavali of Centre for Natural Resources Management, Climate Change and Disaster Mitigation, Hyderabad said that climate change in the future will lead to the probability of a decrease in groundwater, landslides and flood risk.
He underlined that drinking water services, agriculture, health, people with disabilities; sanitation and hygiene are vulnerable sectors. Afforestation and ecosystem-based allocations can go a long way in tackling this problem.
Experts pointed out that the Himalayas are inherently vulnerable to heavy rains, flash floods, landslides etc. on account of their being the newest, youngest and tallest fold mountain system. In the Himalayan region, the climate varies from the valleys to the highly elevated perpetual snow clad mountain peaks and extreme weather conditions are the norm.
In the recent past, global warming has destabilised the delicately balanced Himalayan ecosystem. An analysis of disasters impacting the Himalayan region in the last decade states that there is a rise in climate induced disasters in the region.
Experts further state that in disaster management, the risk is about exposure to external hazards over which people have limited control whereas vulnerability is a measure of capacity to manage such hazards without suffering a long term, potentially irreversible loss of well being.
Hence climate change threats illustrate the distinction between risk and vulnerability. It has been observed that the impact of natural disasters is felt more severely by people who are socio-economically weak because their habitats are located in vulnerable areas.
The people living in Himalayan areas are more vulnerable to climate induced disasters like avalanches, debris flow, flash floods, landslides etc as human induced activities like construction of roads, hydropower projects, mining and other 'developmental' activities further enhance the vulnerability of the region.
Dr. Shobha Shrestha from Tribhuvan University feels that there is a need to focus on the local and ground level and put a plan in place for the near and long term to adapt to climate-related hazards. She suggested that as there are varied income levels, therefore a vulnerability test should be done with the help of different cost-effective measures for different places with localised disaster management techniques.
Abhishek Kumar from Sewa International highlighted the need for community development through community-based lead institutions and community-based livelihood.
Some interesting observations came from Anup Mudgal, former Ambassador to Mauritius, who joined the discussions at Nauni virtually. Expressing his views on sustainable development in Himalayas and climate change, he said that the people in the villages as well as in cities want a good and better life where good life means how much one consumes: in terms of education, luxuries and all the facilities, etc.
He emphasised on growth and wealth creation as it increases the living standards. "The reason we cannot grow in the field of sustainability is that earth's carrying capacity is over-utilised. Today's technology has produced human power and given solutions to the problems but has exploited natural resources and their capacity. Therefore, we need to pay attention to sustainable development and should optimally utilise resources," said Mudgal.
He urged to scan the capacity of the ecosystem and rearrange it for the Himalayan sustainable development. He also spoke about the demand for organic and natural products and suggested that the Himalayan region can be a wonderful source of production. Mudgal said the diaspora will be a good source of influence and explained the importance of the Himalayan ecosystem and called for involving communities by focusing on traditional knowledge instead of totally relying on scientific knowledge.
Meanwhile Nihar Ranjan, a researcher, pointed out that the key issue of the Himalayan region is migration due to lack of facilities, infrastructure, education, and economic opportunities which can be solved if people don't migrate from their places. Ranjan called on the diaspora to come back and maintain the heritage and mobilise resources for sustainability.
Experts at the Nauni conclave called for studies for establishing the frequency of the disasters and for a check on non-scientific infrastructures such as dams, bridges, hydropower, and non-farm activities that may have an impact on the base of the Himalayas for economic gain.
There was a consensus on the need to protect the Himalayas, and hence cooperation with other organisations is the need of the hour. Additionally, the Himalayan region needs to start special programmes and address some economic issues because, despite Bhutan and Nepal's efforts to do so, their small size prevented them from having a significant impact.