QUIET CRISIS IN THE HIMALAYA
A. D. MODDIE
"Harmony (wa) is the highest"
-from Shotoku Taishi's First Article
THE earth has cancer, and the cancer is man". This is one of the most telling sentences of our time. The cancer of multiplying man's pollution and poverty is fast extending itself over the face of the earth. It has been steadily creeping over the Himalaya, unspectacularly but relentlessly. Once beautiful, forested hills are becoming bare, ugly landscapes. Ecological degradation is setting in across the whole range. "The Himalayan arc", says Eric Eckholm "forms an ecological Gibraltar whose fate looms over the well-being of hundreds of millions"; about 50 m. in the mountains, and about another 300 m. in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra valleys. The ecological clock is ticking away. The deserts of Afghanistan are in the late evening; Bhutan and NEFA may be still in the early morning; and the central Himalaya is in the late afternoon of the Himalayan day. Wild life is being fast exterminated, and both man and mountain are becoming poorer. In bygone ages the Himalaya seemed eternal; man's onslaught has rendered them among the most fragile ecosystems of the earth.
Most people still have the hang-over of the past attitudes to the Himalaya. They treat the Himalaya as some kind of Shangrila, or as the abode of Gods; of little economic use to man and with limited geophysical implications for the lands and peoples around it. True, the Himalaya being the highest and most majestic mountain range of the world, has an aesthetic and spiritual quality which calls to the spirit of man, and makes it almost a symbol of the Super conscious; but it is more than the earth's altar for worship, the arena for human sublimation by yogi or mountaineer. It is the weather-maker of Asia. The inter-action of the annual monsoon and the eternal Himalaya makes the weather for the whole of south Asia, and it also influences the continental climate of the whole of central Asia. Without the Himalaya there would be major climatic changes in most Asian countries. They are also the sources of rivers-and of hydro-electric power, actual and potential,-of the Indian subcontinent; watering Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The whole range is like Bhagiratha's bent bow which strikes arrows at glacier and snow slope, and releases hundreds of streams of water down to the sub-continent below. The hydroelectric potential is incalculable and only partially tapped. One small indication is that the potential of a single valley-the Kar- nali valley in Nepal-is expected to be the same as the entire installed capacity of India. There is fabulous hydro-electric potential in the fifty-mile Brahmaputra bend, in which its waters come crashing down 10,000 ft. in so short a distance. One report had it that 25% of the world's hydro-power could come from just this one source. The Himalaya could also be the source of much wealth in the shape of timber, forest produce, minerals, and the source of horticulture and wool. But all this calls for environgent-oriented planning, not blind exploitation.
The tragedy is that they have not been looked upon as reservoirs of resources, but as remote retreats, barren, wild, and resourceless. The people of the sub-continent have turned theix backs on the Himalaya for centuries, except for spiritual purposes. They have turned to them in times of pilgrimage. People in other parts of the world have responded to them as challenges to adventure upon the world's highest mountains; and names like Everest, Annapurna, Kanchenjunga, Nanda Devi, and Nanga Parbat have beckoned heroic hearts from every continent.
Then the 'dorje' or the thunderbolt struck. On a March night in 1959 the Dalai Lama prayed for the last time in his chapel in the Potala, and then fled over the Kameng ranges into India. In the 1962 border conflict between Himalaya and China, the rest of the world suddenly awr
oke to the fact, that the Himalaya was one of the most sensitive political and strategic frontiers of Asia. Shangrila vanished like a cloud. The Himalaya become a regon for 'real politik'. It was a frontier which not only saw7
the Himalayan up thrust of the two major Asian powers; but also harboured the problems of small but attractive States like Nepal and Bhutan; apart from Afghanistan and Pakistan suspended in strained relations from the Hindu Kush in the far north-west. This was once the area where three empires met. History was repeating itself.
Much of the western Himalayan region from Afghanistan through Ladak to Lahul and Spiti has been mountain desert for centuries: but the cancer is spreading eastward fast, and the carrier is man, both Himalayan and non-Himalayan man. Mounting populations in the inhabited hill regions up to 10,000 ft. have in many cases multiplied as fast than the population of either the Gangetic plain or the coastal plain of India. In the last fifty years since 1921, the populations of districts below 10,000 ft. elevation in the Himalaya have risen a 170%, whilst those of selected districts in the Gangetic plain have risen 127%, and those in the coastal plain only 99%. These mounting populations of poor hill peasants are pushing up the valleys to the last rocky slopes which can be tilled for the most meagre subsistence farming. Before the plough and the axe fine forests have fallen over thousands of square miles in the last thirty years. The denudation of vital forest cover, which should be 60% of the land area in hill regions for ecological stability, has led to disastrous consequences in the shape of hill erosion, the siltation of dams, and the scourge of annual floods. The hiIIman has very limited arable land, and on an average he can barely produce 50% of his food. With erosion fast removing the thin irreplaceable top soil and its nutrients, his descendants must face diminishing food production per capita. A widespread example of this lies in the central Himalaya, in Garhwal, Kumaon and Nepal, the next stage of the extension of the western mountain desert, unless immediate and massive remedial steps are taken. Nepal provides the most dramatic example of the speed of this desertification of thermost beautiful part of the range, the central Himalaya, which Frank Smythe described only thirty years ago as its "cream". In a flash of time, in one decade ending 1971, Nepal has lost 50% of its forest cover. Two-thirds of its people live in the hills, and they cannot feed themselves on spreading aridity. Its people have, therefore, had to flow down with the silt and the water, and spread themselves over the entire terai belt, extending into the hills of Garhwal, Kumaon, Darjeeling Sikkim and Bhutan; and into the plains of India. This disastrous phenomenon is not in the central Himalaya alone. Everywhere the treeline is receding and the hills are browning. The brown disease is spreading fast within one generation.
But it grows not only with the growth in the numbers of the hill peasant, anthropomorphic man from the plains equipped with higher technology and larger resources, is fast invading these highlands of the prayer-wheel and the temple. Perceptions of eternity are giving way to sad scenes of Himalayan fragility. And it is the lot of the ecologist to witness this in quiet suffering. In their lot pursuits for the glittering summits, mountaineers need to pause, and ask themselves how well-founded their love of mountains may be; how long those beautiful environments below the snow-line will remain beautiful; and whether the pristine is now lost for ever.
The dam builders have built huge dams in India, Nepal and Pakistan at enormous cost, averaging Rs. 1,000 m. to Rs. 2,000 m. each, with a life expectancy between a hundred and two hundred years. Within ten years of the construction of these dams, the life expectations have shrunk to between half and a tenth caused by incalculable siltation in the treeless watershed areas behnnd the dams. This has led to an enormous waste of resources. The mere erection of concrete wr
alls in narrow defiles cannot produce irrigation water and hydro-electric power for long, if the cancer behind the dam is ignored.
Road building has led to similar results, less dramatic but more widespread. In 1947, Karponam, ten miles up the track from Gangtok to the Nathula on the Tibet border was dense with one of the world's finest rhodendron forests, dripping with 200 inches of rainfall. It was a shock to discover ten years later that not one tree stood there. The old Sikkim Darbar and its contractors were the carriers of this cancer. Even in economic terms, the recurring maintenance cost of the new road in an eroded landscape would cost more than the capital cost of the construction of the road; apart from the biospheric and aesthetic loss to Sikkim of such a treasure as a rich rhodendron forest.
Then there are the new nomads, the tourists, trekkers and mountaineers. Even the first phase of this new nomadism in the last fifteen years has shown its destructive potential for both landscape and culture. New tourist resorts have been built without any serious thought to alternative sources of energy; and trees, the only source of local energy, have been cut down thoughtlessly. This goes on from Gulmarg to Kulu to Sola Khumbu. Tourism is fowling its own nest. The classic example is that of Sola Khumbu, the land of the Sherpas. Ironically, the attraction of the Everest region is proving to be Sola Khumbu's ecological undoing, and perhaps cultural too. And that with an influx of trekkers and climbers which have risen from only 20 to 3400 a year in the ten years ending 1974. The destructive potential of environmentally unplanned tourism of even these limited numbers is apparent. The Nanda Devi sanctuary, with only a single entrance through the Rishi gorge, is threatened too. Once vegetation above 10,000 ft. is cut down, regeneration is a very long process. The Singalila ridge dividing Darjeeling district and Sikkim from Nepal has been laid bare of its forest cover long ago. In Kulu, the tree-line has been visibly receding up the slopes from the valley floor in the last thirty years, and it is now near the ridges. The Alaknanda valley dividing Garhwal and Kumaon is in an advanced state of ecological degradation. These are only a few illustrative examples of the blight creeping over the Himalaya. Climbers and trekkers need to acquire a new ecological ethic of respect for their natural environments, without which they despoil the mountains for their pleasure. As a contribution to this problem, the Himalayan Club has formed an Environment Committee to enhance awareness of the problem, to bring violations of Himalayan environment to the attention of trekkers, climbers and the authorities; and to promote the conservation of one of the earth's last and grandest regions.
Two interesting models of conservation and development of mountain regions present themselves in the European alps and the Japan mountains. It was surprising to learn that in central Europe in places like Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria, similar conditions prevailed there a hundred and fifty years ago as in the Himalaya today; poor peasants, deforestation, soil erosion, floods, and a poor economy. In the early phase of the industrial revolution, central Europe lost its forqsts; fortunately coal, the alternative energy came to its rescue. In the subsequent century and a /half, three factors have mainly accounted for the present state of conservation and development. The first was land-use planning, with the help of land tenure systems which, in some eases, went back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The second was the development of hydro-electric power as a major alternative source of local energy for development, without the destruction of forest cover. The third was the development of planned tourism. Between these three, there seem to be a happy blend of conservation and development. And this provides something of a useful model to other mountain regions of the world.
In Japan there is the remarkable phenomenon of only 2% of the large population of over 100 m. living in the mountains, which covers 75% of the land area. This has been achieved partly by a policy of conserving the mountain regions as reser- voirs of resources of forestry, hydro-electric power and tourism; and, partly, by the draw of economic development in the plains in the last thirty years especially. Admittedly, a price has been paid for this in the congestion and pollution of the remaining 25% of the land area in the plains. Perhaps the Japanese model has swung too far in one direction; but again the basic principle of treating mountains as reservoirs of natural resources with the same combination of factors seems to apply here as in central Europe. They are useful models for the Himalaya too.
Since Stockholm, 1972 and the spread of environmental consciousness, an awareness has been dawning that the mountain ranges of the world, the Himalaya and Andes in particular, are in a state of jeopardy, and that their biospheric problems begin with the impact of man on the mountain. UNESCO-sponsored conferences have been held in the European alps, then in the Andes, and recently for the Himalaya-Hindukush area at Kath- mandu in September, 1975. Earlier, in December 1975, a conference of over forty scientists and mountain experts from many countries assembled in Munich to take stock of this problem. At the end of the conference, they issued the following statement of concern:
Statement of Concern
Mountains and the Human Future
"1. Man has been the maker of deserts in past ages, even with his bare hands, and often in the name of progress. Now that he is multiplying fast, and has more powerful technology, his capacity to endanger the balance between Man and Nature (Only One Earth") has been enhanced many times.
- About a third of the earth's land surface, the mountain regions, seemingly permanent, are among the most fragile once deforestation and soil erosion begin. Yet their potential for human wrell-being, for agriculture, forestry, water and power systems, and recreation, can affect half the human race, for better or for worse. In many places the misuse of mountain laid causes economic losses far in excess for any gains from development endeavours.
- Eco-stress in the mountain has widening destructive impact in the plains with floods, the siltation of dams, reservoirs and ports; the loss of agricultural produce, and of home- steads; leading to irreplaceable human and economic losses.
- The combined eco-stress on mountain and plains affects the world's two major problems, food and energy, especially in the developing world. Eco-stress undermines national and international efforts in economic development.
- Yet, there is hope, and there is vast potential for human benefit, given awareness of the problem; and if conservation-oriented development techniques are explored. Many are already known. They need implementation. In the developed mountain countries there are many useful examples of timely economic and ecological development to serve as a guide to prevent an avalanche of disastrous consequences.
6. Eco-clevelopment also needs new levers for resource and employment generation, especially in poor developing mountain lands, which are in both an ecological and a resource trap. In many areas important possibilities exist especially where recreational, potential and hydrological resources exist but are unavailed of.
- New sources of energy for mountain peoples are the key to the problem of saving and spreading forest cover, the shield of agriculture in both mountains and plains. There is promising potential for such new sources of energy from hydro-power, fuel forestry, and even solar energy.
- Urbanization and population increase are driving millions of plainsmen to seek recreation and peace in the hills. This is a mounting environment threat, but one which can be turned into potential benefit if ecologically planned tourism, which can respect landscapes and cultures, could provide alternative employment for populations whose subsistence technology is rapidly depleting their resources of land and forest.
- We who are concerned with the implications of ecological degradation of mountain environments, believe that the dimensions of this problem call for an immediate transnational, multi-disciplinary response including the joint use of all available scientific, technical, economic and political possibilities.
- The time for such a response is now, in word and in action. The hour is already late."