Wednesday, 11 January 2017

State of the Himalayas and Outlook

State of the Himalayas and Outlook 

                                                             Soumya Dutta

The Himalayas are called the water towers of Asia, but are much more in reality.  
·         The South-Asian Monsoon, the lifeline of agriculture in the sub-continent, depends on the Himalayas, including the trans-Himalayas. 
·         Over a billion (100 crores) people depend largely on the rivers that emanate out of these mountain ranges.  
·         This - along with the Tibetan Plateau, also called the Third Pole because of its enormous store of ice - controls earth's heat gain to a significant extent.  
·         The fertile plains of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system has been created by the mineral rich soil-silt carried by many of these Himalayan-origin rivers.  Even the world's largest mangroves - Sundarbans, a UNESCO-listed world heritage and far into the coastal plains, owes its origins partly to the Himalayan rivers.
·         The forests that cover large parts of both the high mountains (below the tree-line) and mid & lower levels, also harbour a large variety of life-forms, holding a treasure trove of biodiversity.
·         The Himalayas are the only major mountain range still undergoing a build-up, and thus susceptible to very high seismic activity (nearly 85% of all earthquakes in India occurs in the Himalayan region), with consequences on the kind of "development" that should be attempted here.  

Being one of the youngest mountain ranges and possibly the only major one in the world to be still under the neo-tectonic process (a 'living-mountain'), there are several fragilities as well. This massive mountains are geologically very active, and are prone to numerous ruptures, up-thrusts etc.  Thus the fragility of the entire eco-system, and vulnerability of the life-support systems are more than many other mature mountain eco-systems in India or elsewhere. The people of the Himalayas had learned to live with these natural limits, though often suffering from the same instabilities of a fragile mountain eco-system – though with limited damages.  

In the last century, the Himalayas have come under increased number of multiple exploitations and attacks.
·         On the one hand, it has seen massive militarisation, being in the "political border region" of several nation states.  This high level of militarisation, with its attendant constructions, heavy machine use, extensive and large-format terra-forming, and the pressures of high volume human & goods transport for the armed forces - has created enormous strain on some of the fragile eco-system components.
·         The concurrent large-scale urbanisation and mechanization of mountain societies have increased these destabilizing pressures immensely.  
·         The attendant decrease of forest/ vegetative cover has compounded these problems - leading to destabilization of numerous mountain slopes, and causing innumerable land-slides and slips.  This process was tremendously accelerated by the British, through their large scale timber extraction from Himalayan forests.    
·         An increased number of big and medium dams and reservoirs to feed the ever increasing power demand of a GDP-growth oriented economy has also contributed to these loss of a delicate balance of the mountain slopes.  
·         Of late, a large number of so-called run-of-the-river projects - while avoiding creating large reservoirs, have blasted numerous huge tunnels through these unstable mountains, thus loosening their integrity.  The result is again more frequent slides, falls and slips, along with draining out water sources for the villages located on top of these.
·         The increased number of large hydro-meteorological weather events, like unusually heavy rain-falls or devastating floods have increased and are still increasing due to both local (deforestation, slope cutting, heavy construction,....) and global (climate change driven) ecological degradations are also taking a heavy toll on the Himalayas.
No one can deny the economic and reasonable life-style aspirations of the mountain societies, but the enormous opportunities that the Himalayas offered by its very uniqueness have been missed & misinterpreted, while pursuing these economic dreams.  The huge benefits of its eco-system services to a large population of south-Asia, have just been seen as an input to industrial and economic growth opportunity, rather than a life-enhancing contribution.  The values and indicators of a high-consumption and disruptive urban society have been mindlessly super-imposed on a vastly different geo-ecology.  The Himalayas has been used by the far-off urban consumer societies as an inexhaustible store of basic inputs for the production of their consumer goods, and the result has been devastating.

This has resulted in skewed demographic conditions in many of the rural areas. A large migration of the young, male members in search of jobs and income has left many of the villages with old-women-children as dominant resident populations, leading to new but unstable societies.  Simultaneously, many village areas being deserted, with plains / other migrants - attracted by the job opportunities in large construction activities and seasonal jobs in orchards - settling in these near empty areas.  Social tensions are rising in a hitherto peaceful and accommodative society.  

The other fast paced change visible in the last couple of decades is the rapid inroads that the large-scale market forces have done in to a largely regional-dependency oriented low-consumption society.  The pattern of food and necessity growing mountain farming has changed fast, to very high dependence on cash crops.  This in itself is not the sole or root cause of the problems that mountain agriculture faces – having given a much needed economic leeway, but the attendant commercialization of inputs, processes and commodification of food, has led to economic bondage. 

The Himalayas were always a destination for non-mountain people, but here too, the rapid commercialization/ commodification of 'natural beauty' and ‘religiosity’ have distorted the pattern.  People no longer are willing to bear the restraints that this special destination is inherently integrated with.  The desire to enjoy the 'special', without the tolerance to experience the difficulties and limits that creates this special attraction, has created environment destroying mass market tourism, with short term economic benefits but long term erosion of life-support systems.    

Today, a fairly significant part of the snow & ice cover of the Himalayas has disappeared - a result of both local actions like deforestation and urbanization, and also due to the global warming caused by capitalist societies’ humongous emissions of greenhouse gases over the last century and more.

The depleting vegetative cover is changing the capacity of the mountains to hold water - leading to large and unstable variations in river flows, as well as to hold their own weight while subjected to heavy rainfalls, leading to myriads of life and livelihood-threatening massive land-slides.

The increasing demands of plains-modelled heavy transportation has led to the reckless clear-cutting of the steep slopes throughout the mountains, destabilising large areas of these where human habitations and their farms were created over the last few centuries. 

All these have now been forced into facing an even more acute challenge, due to increasingly extreme climatic events driven by the GHG-led climate change.  Extreme climate events are increasing and their combination with fragile eco-systems is proving deadly for the human and other life here.  The deadly extreme rainfall and flooding of June 2013 was neither the first, nor will be the last, only the most damaging out of a long chain of increasing disasters.  This should have served as a final wake-up call for all concerned, including the governments of the Himalayan states.  Instead, they are asking and planning for more of the same drivers of this increasing devastation.  In many places, large-scale polluting industries like cement factories, chemical industries etc. are coming up in the name of job creation, without checking the carrying capacity of these enclosed eco-systems. 

It is time that we wake up, before it is too late to save this world ecological, cultural and 'spiritual' heritage. Himalayan people themselves need to take the control of the direction their development takes.  The consequences of the present trend are clear, but the contours of a sustainable and mountain-specific development process – though being discussed - is still not worked out in great detail.  

A few of the critical questions that we need to ask, debate over and find some answers to --

1.  What are the extents of damage of various sub-components of the Himalayan eco-systems ?    The snow-ice systems are somewhat (though sketchily) known, but need better assessments.  The river systems need to be considered as a whole, rather than "impact assessments" river by river, in isolation. The forest and grass-land systems are being strongly impacted, and need extensive studies.

2.   What are the economic and social drivers of the present pattern of destructive mega-construction mania, and how these can be replaced with mountain-specific economic activities ?

3. How do we assess the true extent of damage by the extensive militarisation of the Himalayas, and what would be the processes to start making this a prominent agenda in all of our discourses on the Himalayas ?

 4. How the genuine energy needs and demands of the mountain people be met without damaging the very sustenance of these ecosystems - the rivers and forests ?

5.  How the dominant discourse of consumption and life-style oriented 'development' be challenged and transformed into a satisfaction and quality of life oriented discourse ?  

6.  How the over dependence of ceaseless inflows of consumer goods and equally incessant outflow of cash-generating produce be transformed to more regional/ local exchanges that are also far less prone to disruptions ? 
7.  What would be a holistic model of mountain-suitable transportation system, with local-condition specific modes, which will also be less vulnerable ?

8.  How the fast reducing production of food in the mountains be arrested, with an equally needed up gradation of the quality of farming as a viable alternative livelihood. 

9.  How the special qualities of the Himalayas be used for creating life-enhancing wealth for mountain people, without creating the havoc of transient mass tourism or its concomitant damages ?  How the "unique destination" qualities be used to generate resources for the people, without yielding to crash commercialization, leading to devaluation of the same uniqueness ?

10.  How can a critical mass of popular demand on these be created / encouraged, in a wide section ofthe Himalayan areas ?   What will be the political processes and social engagement strategies for this ?

11.  What are the mechanisms and processes to engage and transform the existing institutional, state, commercial and cultural processes that exist in/ around the Himalayas ?

Several more critical questions need to be raised / debated and some broad consensus arrived at over a reasonable period of engagements, involving all those committed to this.   

Soumya Dutta, Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha - BJVJ/Beyond Copenhagen Collective (BCPH) /India Climate Justice (ICJ);
can be contacted at -
circulated in the Himalaya Day program on 14th Sept 2015

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