Lofty mountains .... present to every sense a multitude of objects to excite and delight the mind. They offer problems to our intellect; they amaze our souls. They remind us of the infinite variety of creation and offer an unequal field for the obsen'ation of the processes of nature.

Josias Simler, de alpibus
commentarius, 1574

BY AND LARGE, the climbing community has regarded the intrusions of scientists on an expedition as a nuisance, coming in the way of getting to the summit. Earlier, readings of the physiological effects of altitude among climbers were on invitation. Oxygen cylinders created a moral problem in the early days; they were then accepted; and in recent years we are back to oxygenless climbing as far as possible. Weather reports on the radio were always welcome. They helped to get to the summit and survive. Only since 1991 and the formation of the Himalayan Environment Trust (Kohli, Hillary, Messner et al) has the environmental aspect of mountains touched the conscience of some mountaineers. In 1995 we need to reflect on the quotation above of 1974!

Yet, in the last two centuries of mountaineering history, awareness of mountains - the spark which lit the hearts of mountaineers - began with poets (the Romantics, of whom the father was Wordsworth in the Lake District) and scientists (of whom the father was de Saussere, the geologist in the Swiss Alps). In these two centuries, say 1770 to 1970, we saw the scientific ground being broken in glaciology, beginning with de Saussere in the Alps to D. N. Wadia in the Himalaya; in botany, beginning with Dr. Joseph Hooker in Sikkim and Kingdon-Ward in the N. E. Himalaya with enthusiastic amateurs like Holdsworth on Kamet and Smythe's 'discovery' of the Valley of the Flowers. Much earlier, in the 19th century, there was the great adventure of the geodetic and topographical surveys of the Himalayan region by the Survey of India; with famous names like Everest, Sikdar, the pioneering Pandits who penetrated to Tibet and C. Asia; Capt. Godwin Austin and Montgomerie in the mapping of the K2 and Nanga Parbat area; later Shipton and Osmaston in the Karakoram and Schneider in the Everest region. Post-1970 Remote Sensing and Satellite Photo interpretation have introduced a new technology in mountain research, both surface and underground. Himalayan climatology has found a global dimension since the past El Nino researches in the factors influencing the monsoon. There are now about 10 global indices being studied between the Western Pacific and C. Asia in the behaviour of the monsoon, of which two are in the snowfall in the Himalaya and the temperatures in C. Asia. Earthquakes in the Himalayan region in this century (and now dam building there) has made seismotectonics a very important science too.

This is only by way of a background introduction to indicative landmarks in the surge of sciences against mountain regions, and, in particular, the Himalaya, the global "measuring rod" of Shiva, the climate maker of Asia, and the sources of its greatest rivers, on which civilisations have grown from the Indus to the Mekong to the Yangtze.

Between 1770 and 1970, mountain sciences were largely disciplinary. Since 1970, the larger inter-relationships of Nature and Man have compelled a more integrated inter-disciplinary approach too mountain region problems. Now that the days of geographical explorations of 'terra incognita' are over, science has begun the exploration of the fascinating inter-relationship ecological networks, which seem to be causing more changes of Nature and Man in the mountains in the last two generations than in past centuries. Mounting population pressures and penetrating communications and technologies are leading to economic over- exploitation in deforestation, grazing, agriculture, mining and now tourism; changes in cultures, and threats to what ecologists call the 'carrying capacities' of mountain eco-systems where, in the Himalayan region, life-sustaining arable land is only a fourth that of the Gangetic plains. The central issue now is survival with sustainability, and how.

Let me convey a brief overview, which is all an article can do, of this new impact of integrated science on inter-related problems of Nature and Man, especially in the Himalayan region, through the media of the Himalayan Journal. (I have gleaned these over the years from "Mountain Research & Development" of the International Mountain Society and the UN University. References are given at the end of the article). Hopefully, something of this may touch the scientific and historical imaginations of the climbing community, as it once did; when men went to the mountains to seek, not just to stand on summits and plant a flag.

Let me begin with a Russian scientific study of the effects of natural and anthropogenic (human) changes on heat and water budgets in the central Caucasus.1 Interestingly, it deals with changes between the 19th and 20th centuries, a longer range observation of changes than in the Himalaya or Andes. It has been found that in this 100 to 140 years, climatic warming has caused a reduction of the area covered by permanent ice and snow and changes in vegetation at lower altitudes. Changes in heat and water budgets of the nival-glacier belt (2100-3500 m) have occurred independent of human influences. In the 19th century, glaciers were 200-500 m lower in relatively dry areas, 200-300 m lower along the main ridge, and 100-150 m lower on the southern slopes. This was partly due to higher temperatures (0.6-0.8°C) and partly to higher precipitation (10-12%) than in the glacier belt, and in the low altitudes (5-10%) than now. After deforestation, evaporation decreased by 12% per unit area and run-off by 43%. The runoff coefficients have shown a greater reduction in forest areas (coniferous and beech) than in alpine and sub-alpine meadows.

The major conclusion is the water budgets in the highest altitudes in the. Caucasus has changed in accordance with global climatic change, while at lower altitudes the major impacts area of anthropogenic (human) origin. It is probable the same is likely to be true in the Himalaya and Andes too. The phenomenon of warming of the Himalaya, especially in the Trisuli and Langtang valleys (Nepal) withbiotic changes of vegetation, has been confirmed by Franz Kobmansperger.2

Let us consider the much discussed area of soil erosion, landslides, and the general speculation of the relationships of precipitation, deforestation, bad land use, and plains flooding.

A Kumaon University study of the small Gaula catchment came to the following conclusions:3

1. Landslides are most frequent in volcanic rock and quartzites, followed by granite and sandstone. 56.7% of landslides were between 800 and 1400 m, and with the highest frequencies. Erosion in a tectonic region such as this is naturally high. Second, the main causes of erosion were deforestation, road-building and encroachment of agriculture in forest areas. Forests of oak and rhododendron suffer the least erosion. Third, the zones of faulting and thrusting especially the faults between the Siwalik and middle Himalaya show the most erosion. Fourth, interestingly, the average rate of erosion in 1985 and 1986 was 1.7 mm/yr., significantly higher than that for the Brahmaputra (0.7-1.4 mm/yr.) and the Saptakori in Nepal (1.0 mm/yr.), though these were reckoned more than two decades ago in 1963.

Thomas Hoper of University of Berne has conducted a wider study of Himalayan deforestation, river discharge and possible impact on floods in the Satluj, Jhelum, Beas and Chenab areas in W. Himalaya.4 He found the climatological data available, but the hydrological "restricted". His conclusions are given below:

  1. There is high variability of precipitation and discharge, and because the winter precipitation is in snow mainly, it does not effect discharge significantly, though there is melting in April to June before the monsoon. Snow precipitation is on average about 20% of the annual.
  2. Glacier and snow melt are very important elements in the hydrology of river systems.
  3. No large scale deforestation was identified in recent decades (as in Khumbu).
  4. He was unable to answer the question whether the correlation of Himalayan deforestation, soil erosion, and river discharge and plains flooding was myth or reality.

The next few studies are useful indicators for NGO's like the Himalayan Environment Trust. In a study of C. Nepal, Shanta Pandey and Gautama Yasudeva of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio found a remarkable voluntary response, with no forest guards for social/community forestry, a sharing equally among all households in a society with no wide economic differences (though of a number of castes), and no literate women in any of the 4 villages.5 This is in the context of many developing country governments in Asia and Africa, where the govermnent owns forest land and truism to manage it. Nepal learnt that lesson in 20 years between the Private Forests Nationalisation Act, 1957 and the Decentralisation Act of 1982. India has yet to learn.

Farida Hewitt has written a factual and fascinating account of the roles of men and women in five villages around Hoper, Gilgit, Karakoram Himalaya.6 The men are mainly herders and the women grow crops for food, though there may be overlapping of roles. As elsewhere in the range, collecting firewood and fodder is woman's responsibility. Men do work requiring strength, e.g. ploughing, terracing, irrigation and some skills like weaving. They are also the hunters. Only menmilkyak and goats, cows (considered 'impure') are left to women. Both men and women harvest and thresh cereals, potatoes, beans and peas together. All tools and artefacts are made by men. Time is referred to when "barley was sown" or when "walnuts will ripen". They are not encumbered by calendars. Space or country for them is the village and the valley. They know time and space and change in the rhythm of the seasons. The social and political organisation is around the "wartukis" or the co-opertive of men, and the "jirga" or Council of Elders. They are Shia Muslims. Individual consciences do not dictate; it is "what they will say", the views of the family or group, as in most traditional societies. Women are losing their earlier roles with the introduction of new cash crops, with out-migration of men; and then the work and responsibilities of women become increasingly heavy with added pasturing, with the repair of irrigation channels, and with the need for more money for things like chemical fertilisers instead of organic farmyard manure. Old balances are changing. New incomes, especially from migrant workers go in the new luxuries, rather than better food, better health, and a better quality of life. The Aga Khan Foundation is aiming at new household technologies for the women, and farm technologies for the men. Women lead their lives in dependent states, as daughters, sisters, wives. They are 'invisible' to visiting administrators. The next generation here and elsewhere will see changing roles and circumstances. In the Makalu-Barun National Park, Nepal, female game scouts and rangers are hired. The integration of women's roles as custodians of the environment is an interesting new prospect. The Karakoram Highway is opening up new worlds and broadening horizons beyond the local valley.

The next study is unique, both in human and scientific terms. It is a study of the drying up and dying of hill springs in the Kumaon Himalaya, specifically the Gaula catchment in Nainital district.7 The scientific authors kindly acknowledge "the impetus provided for pursuing the daunting task" to the writer of this article, when he was the Chairman, Central Himalayan Eco-Development Association of scientists and professionals.

First, the human side, which provided the impetus for the scientific work. In the mid-'70s there were widespread reports of hill springs drying up. They provided 90% of the perennial water supplies in earlier generations. There was acute anxiety and suffering. Women, already loaded with the task of carrying fuel, wood, and fodder over several hours of the day, were now laden with the additional toil of fetching water too from more distant places. An initial survey of the Kumaon Hill university under Dr. K. S. Valdiya's guidance confirmed that 40% to 60% of the springs were actually drying up. And yet this has been ignored totally in hill development plans, despite the common knowledge no water, no life. Years ago, on one of my treks in Garhwal, I witnessed a forester take his family to a spring at Dassera to do puja and to pray. I tapped sources abroad in USA and Switzerland for knowledge of the geo- hydrology of mountain springs, and drew a blank; then Drs. K. S. Valdiya and S. K. Bartaya very kindly undertook this pioneering scientific, "Hydro-geological study of springs in the catchment area of the Gaula River, Kumaon lesser Himalaya".

The brief findings of the study of 883 springs in the catchment revealed a threatening prospect.

  1. 40% of the villages of the catchment area were affected.
  2. Whilst the average rainfall in 1985-6 was 2090 mm, but over the last 25-30 years, the rainfall had shown a decline in various places ranging from 25% to 76%.
  3. Forest cover dropped 13%, due to forest deterioration, forest fires, over-grazing, road and canal work, and the felling and lopping of trees. Cacti, lantana and pines took over from oak and rhododendron.
  4. The waterbalance, as a result, was seriously affected. Infiltration was only 24%, and water run-off as high as 76%.
  5. The base flow (permanent ground-water flow) related to fractures and joints was reduced to 18-41% of discharge of base-flow, in colluvian related springs 47-57%, in alluvial springs 45-62%, and others from 25-37%. 2% of the springs were dead.

This is the most serious threat to the water resources of the hill people, and its human effect has yet to touch the hearts and minds of government bureaucracy or local politicians.

On a wider scale Jayantha Bandhopadhyay and Dipak Gywali have made a wider contribution on "Himalayan Waters: Economic and Political Aspects of Management".8I summarise their findings below:

  1. "Whilst the major rivers sourcing from the Himalayan region, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze are the life-blood of one of the greatest concentrations of population on earth", they also inflict serious floods every monsoon. The authors add: "Much of the sacredness associated with the Himalaya in the mythology of societies in the plains is probably rooted in this stark dependence on its water resources."
  2. There has been some controversy as to whether the floods have been caused by the behaviour of hill people in deforestation and grazing. This has been a bit of a red herring produced by the Mohawk Conference by the Colorado school of mountain scientists about "simplification" and "mystification" when it is widely known that there are multiple causes, from the instability of glacier regions (sometimes damming Himalayan rivers upstream and releasing them after years in a devastating flood) to deforestation, erosion and landslides in the middle Himalaya to the silt-laden shallow beds when these rivers debauch into the plains, to bad embankment, road and rail works. The problems are both long term and short term, and there is widespread shortage of data for anyone to presume precise answers. Scientists should be the last to raise red herrings. Now dams, especially in seismic regions, e.g. Tehri, are a threat. The heart of these problems have lain with plains planners of mountain regions.
  3. Vast potential resources of water and energy in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan await more scientific use. The future here offers the world's largest trade in hydro power, and also the largest potential conflicts over water in this region.
  4. Both at macro and micro levels, the authors rightly emphasise the importance of sound institutional frameworks for future management of this colossal and complex problem, and in the face of scarce resources. At the macro level it will call for regional statesmanship, e.g. Indus Valley Treaty, with the help of the World Bank. At micro levels it will be imperative to seek the participation of local people in hills and plains to avoid the aloof and excessive technocratisation of the past. There may be a variety of specialists, but there are no universal pandits in the Abrahamic tradition with scientific commandments on technical tablets.

The beginning and end of all mountain systems studies had to do with what ecologists call "carrying capacities", with surpluses or deficits of nutrients, energy and water. Pioneering work is reported in micro computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by Hans Schreiver, P. B. Shah, and G. Kennedy in Kabhre district in Nepal.9 This showed deficits of food, feed and fuel wood, as are likely to be found in most Himalayan districts and eco-systems. This GIS technique has been extended in a Land Research Mapping Project (LRMP) with current population date in Nepal. These studies throw up answers about the order of increase in land productivity and population changes to arrive at food, fuel and fodder sufficiency levels. GIS facilitates production of micro climatic and soil maps of watersheds also.

So this brief overview hopefully indicates the advances made in co-ordinated mountain sciences in the last two decades, in what may be called the second phase of mountain science after the individual researches of the pioneers, 1770 to 1970. The next 25 years is likely to offer a god's eye view of physical mountain problems from space mapping to computer modelling. There will be no such god's eye view of the anthropological problems of the varied human situation, and its development in the world's uplands.

And that will be at the crux of planning and implementation, especially with the politicisation of mountain peoples no longer living in the back of beyond.


  1. ' The Effects of Natural and Authoropogenic Changes on Heat and Water Budgets in the Central Caucasus', U.S.S.R. by A.N. Krenke, G. M. Nikolaeva, and A. B. Shmokin, Institute of Geography, U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, Staromonetry 29, Moscow.
  2. 'Man-Made Landscape Changes in the Himalaya and Change in Micro-Climates and Biotopes,' by Fraaz Kollmansperger, GT2, 1977.
  3. Landslides and Erosion in the Catchment of the Ganla River, Kumaon, Lesser Himalaya, India,' by S. K. Bartarya and K. S. Valdiya.
  4. ' Himalayan Deforestation, Changing River Discharge, and Increasing Floods: Myth or Reality?' by Thomas Hofer, Dept. of Geography, LTniversity of Birne, Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1993.
  5. Conditions for Local Level Community Forestry Action, A Theoretical Explanation,' by Shanta Pande and Gautam N. Yadoma, Care Western Reserve LTniversity, Ohi. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1990.
  6. 'Wawan's Work, Wawan's Place: The Gendered Life - World of a High Mountain Community in Northern Pakistan', by Farida Hewitt. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1989.
  7. Hydrological Studies of Springs in Catchment of Ganla River, Kumaon, Lesser Himalaya' by K. S. Valdiya and S. K. Bartaya, Dept. of Geology, Kumanon LTniversity.
  8. Himalayan Water Resources: Economic and Political Aspects of Management', by Jayant Bandhopadhyay and Dipak Gywali. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1994.
  9. Evaluation Mountain Watersheds in Nepal Using Micro GIS', by Hans Schreier, P. B. Shah, and G. Kennedy. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2. 1990.



Reflections on mountains and sciences in present times.


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