“Sustainable tourism” is the theme of ‘World Mountain Day’, observed around the globe on December 11.
The United Nations has chosen the theme for this year’s UN General Assembly meeting. It is very appropriate. It also highlights the limitations of understanding mountains in a larger context. Are mountains only for tourism purposes?
Although mountains are a popular destination for tourists around the world, it is wrong to view them as tourist hotspots for sustainable tourism. They are vast ecosystems, so important for our sustainability.
This is clearly evident in the Himalayas, India’s most prominent mountain range. These ecosystems are vital to the lives of millions of people. It is not enough that we focus on conserving them. Nature restoration is also important.
Why is the Himalayas so important?
HimalayasFive countries are covered: India, Nepal and China, as well as Pakistan. It runs approximately 2,500 km and runs west-northwest through east-southeast in an arch.
The Himalayan range is bordered to the northwest by Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Hindu Kush ranges. To the north, the Tibetan Plateau borders the Himalayan range, while the Indo-Gangetic Plain borders the south.
Near the Himalayas rise some of the world’s most important rivers, the Ganges and the Indus. 600 million people are able to live in their combined drainage basin; 53 million people reside in the Himalayas.
The mountain ranges of six countries, including the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakoram, span 2,400 kms and include 60,000 kmIce is capable of storing more water than any other place, except the Arctic and Antarctic.
Nearly 33%52% of the country’s hydropower and 67% of its thermal electricity are dependent on water from rivers that originate in the Himalayas. These rivers receive a substantial amount of their water through melting ice glaciers, making them an essential part of India’s energy security.
HimalayasThe monsoon plays a significant role in this. The Tibetan plateau heats up in summer, creating a low-pressure zone that leads to southwest monsoon wind coming to the Indian subcontinent.
It also alters how the winds travel. The winds in the east move along the mountains to the northeast, and then along the Brahmputra–Ganges plains, dispersing rain.
The Himalayan glaciers are vital for India’s water security and energy security.
This region also shows the effects of climate change. The melting glaciers and precipitation patterns are both affected. The Himalayan glaciers supply seven of the major rivers of Asia, Ganga, Indus (Brahmaputra), Salween Mekong, Yangtze, and Huang.
According to studies, rivers have shown 3-4% excess water due to a 10% rise in melting of the western Himalayan glaciers, and a 30% increase for the eastern Himalayan.
Glaciers in HimalayasAccording to studies, billions of tons worth of ice were lost between 2000 and 2016. This is twice the amount that was lost between 1975-2000 and 2000. Mountains are vital, and so is the need to rehabilitate them. Over the years we have seen how extreme weather conditions have caused massive landslides, and even flooding in mountains.
Mountains are often seen as tourist attractions, without realizing that they can drain resources beyond a point.
While sustainable tourism sounds great, we must revisit the mountain ecosystem’s sustainability.
When visiting India, particularly the Himalayas, and the hill towns built in British hands, a common argument is that the British kept the Himalayas safe and we, post-independence India have destroyed them. This is wrong. It is possible to understand the British engineering and how their technology and skills supported the mountains. The fact is that communities living in the mountains before the arrival of the British was unable to build structures or live on the ‘ridges and hillstops. With their engineering skills and great vision, the British built large hill communities like Shimla or Mussoorie or Dalhousie.
The British taught us how the mountains could be destroyed, but not in a sustainable way. For urban planners, Shimla is a fascinating town. It was once the capital of colonial India. The water supply to the town was initially provided by nearby water catchment areas such as Seog forests. Water was then piped in gravity form from the forestsprings to the town. As the population grew, a lift water system was added. The Gumma scheme was built at an elevation of almost 2,000 metres in order to pump water, which was then distributed throughout the town.
Because of their imperial wealth, the British were able to sustain such a system. It is still very difficult to manage such a system without paying such high operating and maintenance costs.
This is why the argument that the British built cities and made them sustainably viable is false.
Another example is Leh, which has seen a huge influx in tourists in the last few years. ShimlaThe city, which has a population just 200k, receives more tourists than 4.5 million. Likewise, LehWith a population of only 30,000, it had almost 10 times as many tourists. It is certain that it is a source of income for many people. However, it is important to study the changes in land-use and employment patterns. Why? Because Leh, a town that used to drink water from underground bores and glaciers, is no longer able to do so. The water is not safe for drinking and has been contaminated by tourists using wet flush toilets instead of dry toilets. These forms of tourism are not sustainable for long.
To ensure that mountains, especially the Himalayas, suffer minimal damage, there are some important lessons to be learned.
First, hydropower projects must be stopped without a second thought. The majestic Satluj river is being pushed through the mountains until it reaches Bhakra Dam, Bilaspur. These projects are either in the works or have been commissioned. Just to name a few, starting from Khab, it’s Khab Shaso, then Jangi ThopanPowari, then Shongthong Karcham and Wangtoo Karcham. Next is Nathpa Jhakri. Finally, there’s Shongthong Karcham and Wangtoo Karcham. Then comes Nathpa Jhakri. Behna, Kol Dam, and finally the Bhakra. Many other tributaries of Satluj, and other rivers, are being commissioned. This is the standard in nearly all mountain states. The result is a huge change in the ecology and environment. These damages can’t be reversed.
The second critical intervention to reduce damage to mountains is the nature and building typologies in urban areas. Mountain towns do not have a statutory masterplan. Mountain planners often use the same formula as the plains to design their towns and then try to implement it. You can see it in the excessive use of concrete and reinforced cement in the construction and the complete paranoia surrounding the use of timber under the pretense of saving forests. To reduce carbon footprint, houses built in mountains must be made with local materials, including wood. But, the opposite is true and large amounts of concrete and steel are used. This increases the vulnerability to the mountain’s load-bearing ability.
Mobility is another area of critical importance that must be incorporated with the mountains. Alternative modes of mobility should be considered in place of the ‘Char Dham” roads, massive four-lane widening, and massive four-lane widening. The vulnerability of the mountains increases with the widening of the four lanes. This is because more cutting is necessary to get those spaces. The carbon footprint is also increasing due to an increase in cars entering the mountains. Ropeways, tunnelling and internal railways are two other alternatives that don’t rely on fossil fuels. Urban towns should continue to promote vertical mobility and pedestrianization over motorized transport. These towns are experiencing massive congestion and a lack of parking spaces.
Fourth, sustainable tourism should focus on building more homestays, increasing the capacity of the people, and building these tourist homes in sustainable ways (solar, local earthen materials, water harvesting, waste treatment, etc.They should also be trained and ensure proper disposal of the waste. Many large groups from the hospitality industry have ventured into the area and are now attracting high-end tourists.
It is difficult to manage garbage in mountain towns. Because the temperatures remain low for six months, there is little to no composting. These towns are also very poor at waste collection, segregation, and treatment. The mountains have made the dumping sites a nuisance. Bomb Guard in Leh is one of the most dangerous waste dumping areas and needs immediate attention. Many hilly communities are also dealing with waste treatment. With the opening the Rohtang Tunnel, access to Lahaul or Spiti has been extended for a longer period of time each year due to a huge influx of tourists. The amount of waste generated has also increased. This must be addressed, or the clear rivers that flow across soon will be a sign of irreversible changes. The source of drinking water for Mumbai was once the Mithi river. Its sewer is now open.
This is why the “Sustainable Tourism” pledge will not be meaningful unless the mountains are preserved as an ecosystem. The slogan should be restitution and not restoration.
The writer is the former Shimla deputy mayor, Himachal Pradesh. These views are my own.