Crisis in the Himalayas

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    In News

    • Recently, Uttarakhand’s hill town Joshimath experienced rapid subsidence (or ground sinking).

    More about the news

    • Significance of the town:
      • Joshimath serves as a gateway to popular pilgrimage sites like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib as well as the popular international skiing resort of Auli.
    • Issue:
      • Despite a population of only about 23,000, it has been heavily built-on, with hotels, resorts, and a bustling market that caters mainly to tourists, pilgrims, trekkers and personnel of the army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
      • After the incident of rapid subsidence, the town is likely to become uninhabitable and demonstrates the outcomes of ignoring the key metric of the carrying capacity of the fragile Himalayan ecology.
    • Other Himalayan towns:
      • It has been reported that subsidence of the kind we have seen at Joshimath is also evident in several other Himalayan towns.

    Ecological threats of Himalayan Region

    • Ecology under stress:
      • Due to population growth, industrial and commercial activity, the fragile ecology is under a great stress. 
      • The common threats are deforestation, soil erosion and pressure on restricted land.
    • Climate Change:
      • Climate change is impacting people and threatening wildlife in the Himalayas. 
      • Many glaciers are melting and forming lakes prone to bursting and downstream flooding
      • Traditional water springs have dried up, limiting the water supply.
    • Unplanned Urbanisation:
      • The unplanned and unauthorised construction has led to the blocking of the natural flow of water, which eventually results in frequent landslides.
      • Himalayan slopes have become extremely unstable in the last few decades due to increased construction, hydroelectric projects, and the widening of the National Highway.
    • Habitat Loss:
      • The conversion of forests for agriculture and exploitation for timber, fodder and fuelwood threaten the biodiversity in this region.
    • Construction of Dams:
      • The creation of numerous dams without due environmental impact assessment could lead to the submergence of arable lands and biodiversity hotspots. 
      • Not only would valley habitats be inundated by the creation of reservoirs, but villagers would be displaced. 
      • The effect of dams on fisheries and fish ecology is also a matter of concern.

    Recommendations

    • Planning town’s growth:
      • The unplanned growth of new settlements should be discouraged.
      • It would be better to consolidate scattered settlements into semi-urban clusters, selected on the basis of stable terrain features, availability of water and accessibility. 
      • Facilities:
        • These should be provided with education and health services and waste management facilities. 
      • Tourism:
        • Tourism must take the form of homestead tourism, rather than the building of luxury eco-lodges. 
        • Local aesthetics and harmony with nature should be respected. 
          • In Joshimath, all these norms were violated. 
    •  Pilgrimage:
      • A state-wide inventory of pilgrim sites in the Himalayan zone should be undertaken and for each site, a scientific estimation should be made of its carrying or load-bearing capacity in terms of numbers of pilgrims each site may be able to handle daily and yearly. 
        • The dividing line between tourism and pilgrimage should be clearly drawn. 
      • Constructions:
        • It was recommended that construction of roads should be prohibited beyond 10 kilometres from the protected pilgrim sites, creating an ecological and spiritual buffer zone, where there would be minimal human interference. 
          • Within this buffer zone, no construction should be allowed. 
    • Green road constructions:
      • The concept of green road construction was introduced with several key guidelines
        • No road construction plan would be approved without including the provision of disposal of debris from construction sites. 
      • This was particularly necessary to avoid blocking natural drainage in the construction zone. 
      • The rampant neglect of this rule has led to water-logging in upstream areas and water scarcity in downstream areas in many parts of the Himalayan region
    • Hydropower projects:
      • It was recognised that the development of hydropower could transform the economy of the Himalayan states and bring prosperity to communities residing there. 
        • It was also proposed that in the Himalayan zone, hydro projects should generally be of the run-of-the-river variety since large scale water storage reservoirs can greatly disturb a terrain that is seismically unstable and still shifting. There have been a number of major disasters already. 
      • The risk and benefit analysis argues against undertaking such projects in such a sensitive and seismically unstable zone.
    • Defence constructions:
      • Regarding defence constructions, it is important to bear in mind that improved access in the short term should not come at the cost of seriously disrupted communications in the longer term due to disasters brought on by a neglect of strict environmental norms.

    Way ahead

    • Denying development to populations living in remote mountain areas would be grave injustice, but the real issue has always been about pursuing development in keeping with environmental sustainability.
    • There is an urgent need to undertake a detailed survey of such settlements by multidisciplinary expert teams.

    National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem 

    • About:
      • National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem is among the eight national missions in India’s first ever National Action Plan on Climate Change.
    • Ecological significance of Himalayas, as stated in the mission document:
      • Himalayan ecosystem is vital to the ecological security of the Indian landmass, which includes 
        • Preservation of rich biodiversity, 
        • Providing water security as the world’s third ice pole after the Arctic and the Antarctica and 
        • Influencing weather patterns throughout the sub-continent.
    • The mission attempts to address some important issues concerning:
      • Himalayan Glaciers and the associated hydrological consequences,
      • Biodiversity conservation and protection,
      • Wild life conservation and protection,
      • Traditional knowledge societies and their livelihood and
      • Planning for sustaining of the Himalayan Ecosystem.
    • Regulation of tourist inflows:
      • The mission proposed measures to “regulate tourist inflows into mountain regions to ensure that these remain within the carrying capacity of the mountain ecology.”

     

    Mains Practice Question 

    [Q] What are the major ecological threats faced by the Himalayan Region? Suggest ways of environmentally sustainable town planning in the Himalayan Region to avoid such incidents in the future.