THE SETTING for this paper may come from the opening paragraph in the writer's chapter on Himalayan Environment in the book The Himalaya : Aspects of Change. (Oxford University Press) for which immodesty he begs to be excused.

'The earth has cancer, and the cancer is man: this is one of the most telling sentences of our time. The cancer of 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 million in the mountains, and another 300 millions in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra valley systems. The ecological clock is ticking away. The deserts of Afghanistan are in the late evening; Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh may still be in the early morning; and the Central Himalaya is in the late afternoon of the Himalayan day. Wildlife is being fast exterminated, and both man and mountain are becoming poorer.'

The New Mongol

Till a generation ago Himalayan environments knew a traditional stability going back over centuries. When the new demographic impact became a mounting one — more visible in the Indian censuses of 1931 to 1971 — officially sponsored Tourism has come to appear like a new Mongol in what was an earlier Shangrila. With the double-edged sword of 'progress' in hand, it has accelerated the cutting down of vegetation cover, helped soil erosion, dried Up local water resources in peak seasons; and, in turn has become a voracious consumer of scarce land, energy and water resources in concentrated areas. And, like the Mongols of earlier centuries, in the process, it has taken away a disproportionate share of the booty by way of profits, with little or no economic benefit to the local people in most places. By and large, the bigger the investment the larger the outflow of profits, and the lower the benefits to natives of the region. Tourist luxury and local poverty do not make a happy or sustainable symbiosis. In the pursuit of booty, the Mongol has unwittingly done as much damage to traditional cultures and social structures as to the environment, though unwittingly.

But in this 'invasion', Tourism has not been alone, and may not be singled out for blame. It is linked with its first cousin, the growth — 'development' is not yet an environmentally appropriate word, — of road and air transport systems. It is only one manifestation of a seemingly irresistible 'progress' machine, also offering dams, hydropower, commercial forestry, mining and industry, all packaged as 'hill development', all calling for ecologically sound technologies. (Military, para-military, police units in the Himalaya since 1962 have also contributed their share of eco-stress with woodcutting and the destruction of wildlife.) In this context, it has not been the hillman who has suffered from simple-mindedness and ignorance, as much as the central politician, planner and engineer; whose distant promises of developmental progress seem flattering in terms of large expenditures and large engineering works. They have lacked an ecological knowledge of Nature's interdependent web, of the fragile life-support ecosystems in the mountains in which the three basic flows of nutrients, water and energy need to be safeguarded as far as possible. The realms of the economist and the engineer are limited. The ecologist needs to be the central figure in all Himalayan development planning, and non-ecologists need to have a basic knowledge of ecosystems and their ecology. Without that understanding, big expenditures and big engineering are the biggest threats to Himalayan life-support systems.

Tourism Impact

The impact of tourism has become increasingly visible with increasing numbers since 1970. Earlier the environmental impact was felt largely along pilgrim routes, especially in the Alaknanda valley to Badrinath and Kedarnath. Then it was felt in the earlier hill stations built for limited upper-class populations on holiday, like Mussoorie or Darjeeling, or on transfer to a summer capital like Nainital or Simla. Kathmandu has also grown tremendously as a Kingdom's capital, but it has the advantage of space in a wide valley, as compared with hill stations built on ridges with scarce land, water and fuel problems. Lastly, the impact is beginning to tell in concentrated trekking and climbing areas, the two notable ones being Sola Khumbu and the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, apart from many others.

Till 1970 the Buddhist societies of Ladakh and Bhutan, at either end of the range, knew fairly stable conditions, in which populations remained within eco-carrying capacities, and technology was simple and appropriate for earlier life-styles. Since then the lucrative gates of tourism have opened and Leh and Paro are beginning to feel its impact. Learning from other places in the Himalayan region, the Royal Bhutanese government has consciously followed a high-price, limited-numbers policy of controlled tourism. It has been influenced by environmentally-oriented architectural advice, which has pointed to the grace and strength and appropriateness of its own traditional architecture, the vessel of its traditional culture.

Nepal has found the lucrative gates of tourism overwhelming, especially as it has become a major source of precious foreign-exchange earnings for a land-locked Kingdom. Its tourist revenue is reported to have risen from near zero in 1961 to Ks. 2.2m in 1971, and steeply to 52m in 1981.1

Whilst the biggest single ecological threat to Nepal has undoubtedly been deforestation — it is reported to have lost half its forests in the decade ending 1975 — the impact of tourism has been most acutely felt on the Everest route and in Sola Khumbu. When Tilman first opened up the southern route to Everest in 1950, he felt a remorseful premonition of changes to come, 'reflecting on what damage we might have set in train for this innocent, backward country . . . knowing this was the end of something unique and wild, and the beginning of a period of great danger and immense change for this wonderful land.'2 By 1974 the Everest route had earned the unpleasant reputation of the 'garbage trail', when only 4000 visitors had been on it in that year. By then, too, the luxury Japanese hotel in Syangboche was the first dramatic lesson, when an external tourist unit came in conflict with the local people for scarce resources of water and wood fuel. They have since had to tip higher sources for water and fly in gas and oxygen, at higher cost to themselves, The moral: tourism can't win against the local people in the oontext of scarce local resources; there can be no enduring foundation for it. The irony of such ventures is that tourists flying into the Syangboche hotel at about 3500 m seem sicker than most climbers on Everest; and they cannot even walk around the flowered Alpine slopes around. And after such large and concentrated tourist investments, the economic benefit to local people is minimal and dubious. The hotel engages 27 women to carry 2700 litres of water per day from a mountain creek 2½ km away.

Hoteliers and tea-shop owners in Sola Khumbu seem to be making hay so far; but for how long and at what future ecological and social costs? Consider Pangboche alone, a village with a population Of 300. It is reported to have earned Rs. 12,00,000 (DM 3,00,000) in firewood from the remaining trees in the surrounding Sagarmatha Sanctuary. At such elevations the trees will take many generations to grow. In North Wales, Nature Conservancy has cordoned off bits of the mountainside, and found the grass has grown only knee-high in 20 years! With all the money earnings in Sola Khumbu — ind inflation rates of 50% p.a. — how long will the remaining trees last? And can the people switch to gas and electricity when the last trees are cut?

At the other end of the chain, in Gulmarg, Kashmir, India was seeking to put up its biggest tourist hill resort at a initial cost of Rs. 60 m. (DM 15 m.) By the mid seventies the chief architect himself had qualms of 'destroying Gulmarg before it is built as a new tourist resort', because by then all the trees would have been cut down in the construction stage!

Let us shift focus to the village of Dwing in Garhwal, the scene of the Chipko movement, when local women embraced the trees to save them from commercial forest contractors. In Dwing,

— no one has the purchasing power to buy wood, or any alternative energy;

— half the women have to carry wood loads of about 25 kg from distances 5 km away taking about 7 hours on it;

— and this has to be done between 250 and 300 days in the year.3

In such circumstances in such a region, Tourism, as an industry, has to give first thought to its energy and water impact and its contribution in these two basic needs as a social responsibility, besides making profits. Some suggestions will be offered later in this paper.

As Nainital is a classic case of an over-built Himalayan hill station being dragged into an environmentally blind tourist world by money-power — the source of most environmental problems — it is taken as a representative example of what is happening to hill stations in the region. Mutatis mutandis it could apply to a number of others between Gulmarg in the west, and Darjeeling in the east. Nainital was founded by the British in the mid nineteenth century in ironical circumstances. Whilst military engineers considered the geological situation too risky for military settlement — two such for Gurkhas and British were established outside — it became 'the summer seat of Government of the North-West Province'. The gazetteer records 'it became a great and populous settlement'. Houses, shops, schools and hotels had sprung up in all directions. But 50 years later this 'great populous settlement' housed between 5000 and 10,000 people only, depending on the season. In 1880 a great avalanche swept down Cheena Peak above Nainital, damaged much property, taking lives, and proving the early military engineers right about seismic instability. Later large protective works, with good drainage systems, were undertaken. These stood the test of time for many decades till the mid-twentieth century.4 Since then the flood of tourism has risen to about 80,000 per annum, with a corresponding growth of hotels, restaurants and private properties; but over-built on a century-old infrastructure of drainage and water systems, hillsides have become unstable, trees have been cut, and the lake has been subject to excessive silting, pollution and eutrophication. Authoritative studies by the Ecology Centre of the Kumaon Hill University and a UNESCO study have pronounced the lake water unfit for human consumption. The Nainital ecosystem has far exceeded its carrying capacity. But neither authority nor citizens have learnt the lessons of the early military engineers, or of the 1880 earthquake and avalanche, or that of the protective works and drainage of the post earthquake period. Sufficient unto the day is the tourist 'fast buck' for hoteliers, landlords, shop-keepers, municipality, and the poor boatmen and horsemen who are fringe beneficiaries. In the season, Nainital is an urban slum imposed on a once beautiful and healthy resort, which its founders would now gladly abandon.

All Himalayan hill stations are going the way of Nainital, with no thought of ecosystem-carrying capacities, nor of the flows of water and energy, or the geo-ecology of the area; apart from the neglect of aesthetic landscapes and architecture.

The pressures of mounting trekkers and climbers on Himalayan ecosystems is also cause of concern; especially as their impact is in high regions above 3000 m, where nature's endowment is low, plant generation is very slow, wind and water erosion are high on the steepest and most fragile mountain slopes. The case of Sola Khumbu has already been given. The vulnerable and precious Nanda Devi Sanctuary, on which no human feet had trod till 1934, has lately become a prize mountaineering area. Access is through one entrance only, the steep Rishi Gorge, through which there have been plans to build a jeepable road; happily frustrated so far. The sanctuary has been one of Earth's geographical wonders, with flora and fauna subsisting in a natural state since time immemorial at a base elevation of 4000 m, and with protective mountain walls on all sides rising over 6500 m. Since mountaineers opened the way, they have been followed by a horde of shepherds and poachers with arms. Wildlife is under serious threat; and so is high-altitude vegetation. One recent expedition from East Europe celebrated its ascent of Nanda Devi with alcohol and fire. A large area of this precious landscape was left burning and charred by besotted mountaineers, with no sensitivity for the thing which they profess to love.

'Are mountaineers selfishly self-centred?' asked Chris Bonington in his book, Everest the Hard Way Up. He could not escape the fact that many were. The vanity and ambition of those many has been insensitive to the damage expeditious have inflicted on fragile ecosystems above 3000 m in their quest for summits. Too few share an aesthetic sense for mountains, or at least enough to care for ecosystems below the snow-line; their battleground being above it. Instead of being in the forefront on this far more important battle to save Himalayan environments — and Hans Reiger has reminded us there is 'only one Himalaya to lose' — many mountaineers tend to take refuge in their relatively small numbers compared to other more numerous impacters on Himalayan environments. But the number of expeditions, climbers, trekkers and their baggage trains has been steadily growing since 1960. At that time the Indian Himalaya may have had about 10 expeditions a year. By 1980 there were about 120.5 Nepal and the Hindu Kush have known a similar growth, if not more. Apart from the mounting impact of numbers, the special responsibilities of high-altitude trekkers and climbers is that they are impacting on the most fragile parts of the Himalaya, at the very frontiers of natural life below the snow-line, where, as they should know, nature's life-support systems are harsh and hard. And they may also remember that their pre-monsoon impact is at a time when the mountains are reviving life in their short spring for a life span of only six months, before a long winter's dormancy.

For over 50 years there has been scientific evidence of retreating glaciers, on the one hand, and the warming and drying of valleys on the other. Are these unrelated phenomena? Probably not. And they are significant for anyone who has a sense of ecological time, that profound changes are taking place in the Himalayan region, one of the Earth's grandest heritages, beyond the nose of the good-time trekker, or the mountaineer whose only goal is a high-summit of a season.


Let us turn to some positive responses to the problem from the point of view of tourism, trekking and climbing. All these need new eco-orientations, and without delay. The ecological clock is ticking fast, in places beyond a point of no return.

Dispersal Planning

  1. Tourist centres in the Himalayan region have been concentrated in a few hill stations inherited from the British, and planned a century earlier. Concentration, with the pressure of mounting numbers, leads to the Nainital type of situation. The first answer must be the planning of more dispersed tourist centres and trekking routes to many more places. Dispersal will help absorb growing impact with less damage. For example, the concentration in ten major hill stations in the India Himalaya from Gulmarg to Kalimpong needs to be dispersed to fifty to a hundred smaller tourist resorts.
  2. Eco-Planning. Tourist centres, existing and new, should receive eco-planning, especially in fragile geological areas. This means:
  1. A study of ecosystem-carrying capacities, taking into account the three basic flows of nutrient, water and energy; the likely demands upon them; the likely technology and consumption patterns of the future. And this may be borne in mind in both construction and post-construction phases. Recall Gulmarg!
  2. Geo-ecological studies, drainage and conservancy problems need early attention. Recall Nainital.
  3. Special attention needs to be given to the planning of water and energy systems, specially alternative energy systems to wood; so as not to cause adverse effects in the local population. Recall Syangboche. Geo-hydrological studies need to be undertaken into the preservation and a quieter recharge of hill springs. The Kumaon Hill University researches of 1977-79 show that 40% to 60% of hill springs have ceased to be perennial; a major threat to all life support in the area. The non-fuel, and proven technology of the hydrant should be used to pump water. Solar and wind energy potentials in the Himalayan region seem very promising; yet large efforts remain to be made in this direction, even at a cost which may seem higher than electricity. The social and ecological cost of felling the last trees would justify a subsidy of solar and wind systems. For the same reason there is no justification for Indian electricity rates to be higher in the hills than in the plains. In the past it was double! Tourist investments should include fuel plantations and the technologies for biomass sources, at least to replace what is taken out of the life-support system of local people. In this connection small tea-shops, restaurants, and private dwellings, which knew no fuel other than wood, will find, the Indo-German Dhauladhar project 'chula' or stove an admirable adaptation of a traditional technology, but with a 50% saving in wood fuel; also more heat-conserving and smokeless.
Camel caravan over the Aghil pass in Kun Lun mountains on their way to K2.

1. Camel caravan over the Aghil pass in Kun Lun mountains on their way to K2. Article 3 Photo: Julie Tullis

Difficult river crossing on camels in Shaksgam valley.

2. Difficult river crossing on camels in Shaksgam valley. Article 3 Photo: Kurt Diemberger

Difficult river crossing on camels in Shaksgam valley.

3. Camp on the K2 north spur (6600 m). K2 glacier in the background and Shaksgam glacier on the left. Article 3 Photo: Julie Tullis

  1. The eco-stake of local people in Tourism planning. Just as there is a limited future for departmental/commercial forestry in the Himalayan region with the growing demands of local populations for wood, grazing and agriculture; so also there will be a limited future for Himalayan tourism if the local people do not have an economic stake in it. For that to happen Himalayan tourism has to think small, not big; small will be relevant for local people not big; employment rather than capital intensity will be desirable. The small lodge or camp, rather than the 3- to 5-star approach.

(a) To do this, first and foremost, additional local supplies of food will need to be encouraged. After 50 years as a small tourist centre, Manali in Himachal Pradesh, for example, has had to import nearly all tourist food needs. Around such dispersed centres, milk, fruit, vegetables, poultry, eggs, meat, mushrooms etc. should be produced to meet local tourist demand. At a later stage, agriprocessed products could be introduced. This will require a concentrated and combined development effort between the local tourist industry and local development authorities, with bank and co-operative credits. One without the other is not likely to work.

(b) Nature tourism could develop

— a local interest in the preservation of the environment;

— employment for local guides and wildlife personnel;

— a greater interest in the natural sciences in local educational and research institutions;

— the promotion of a more controlled and scientific collection of herbs and medicinal plants;

— the preservation of natural gene pools;

— local tourist constructions which are small, dispersed, and designed with aesthetic simplicity and local materials to blend with the environment. This, in turn, would encourage local artisans, plumbers, electricians to find an economic stake also.

In these ways Nature tourism could visibly, economically and environmentally demonstrate that Small really is Beautiful. And in such ways, rather than in conflict, a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit and a mutual stake can be built up between Himalayan tourism and Himalayan people.

Mountaineers' Eco-Ethic

Lastly the trekking and climbing community needs to develop a new Eco-ethic and a stake in Himalayan environment, beyond the pleasures and triumphs of a few climbing seasons. No victory vandalism with fire! No 'garbage trails'! And the word 'conquest' should be banned from the mountaineer's dictionary.

(a) The first thing the climbing community should do is to follow the principle of dispersal and a reduction of numbers. They should go together to reduce environmental impact. The range is large enough for dispersal, if the 8000 m ambitions are restrained. Porters and baggage trains should be kept to the minimum, and Alpine-style climbing should be promoted fast. To facilitate this, alpine huts and equipment stores will need to be maintained in forward areas under suitable supervision.

(b) Next, all parties of six or more people should provide themselves with fuel alternatives to wood. Something of the development and investment which has gone into sophisticated climbing equipment should also go into the non-wood energy needs of the climbing community. Why not wind and solar power at base camp sites? And kerosene oil and portable solar cookers on the march? Those who can spend a few days in mountain villages on route could also help local hill families to introduce the Dhauladhar type of 'chula' at elevations up to 8000 ft, or the Lahul type ones at higher elevations; for reduced wood consumption and higher heat conservation. There is need for a few more Hillarys in the hill energy field, as Hillary has performed with schools and hospitals in Sola Khumbu. His example needs to be followed by others in the climbing community, among whom there are scientists ;and engineers.

(c) If the climbing community has a genuine stake in Himalayan -environments, it could, in collaboration with appropriate local institutions, help to monitor environmental impact on major Himalayan routes and camp sites to base camps. Relevant organizations in the region like the Himalayan Club, the Indain Mountaineering Foundation; and corresponding bodies in Nepal and Pakistan, may be interested to initiate and promote environmental impact studies, especially the impact on trees, grasslands, water and slope stability by expeditions and trekkers. The Indian Himalaya alone has 13 Hill Universities and many research units in various fields. Nepal has its own. What is needed is the kind of joint organized effort of an expedition, only more sustained, and in each region of the vast range.


  1. The Statesman, Calcutta, 14.10.1982.
  2. High Mountains and Cold Seas by J. R. L. Anderson.
  3. (a) 'The Chipko Experience*, edited by Shishupal Singh Kanwar, Chapter on ‘A Study of Energy-Use Patterns in two vilages of Garhwal Himalaya’, by Madhura Swaminathan.
    (b) 'High Season: Consequences & Potential of Tourism in the Everest Region', a paper by Rob Coppock, Berlin.
  4. As in 3(a) above.
  5. District Gazetteer of the United Provinces, Vol. XXXIV, Nainital (H. R. Neville, 1904).
  6. Source: Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi.


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