The Living Himalayas: Lasting fuel for a Sustainable Nepal
By Krishna Prasad Sigdel
The Himalayas are the youngest and the largest mountains in the world. Among the global mountain systems, the Himalayas are the most complex and diversified ecological regions. Spreading at a length of about 2,500 Km from Bhutan in the East to Afghanistan in the West they separate the northern part of the Asian continent from South Asia. The Himalayas that cover 17 percent of Nepal's territory in the north function as a natural border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The nature has endowed these Himalayan ranges with most precious resources like fresh water, flora and fauna. These mountain ranges perform one of the most important life-support systems in the entire Asia. However, those lofty mountains that have the potential of luring thousands of visitors from around the world have themselves been neglected. Due to unsustainable practices of development across the planet, the Himalayas are now under pressure. They are in fact dying. This has been a matter of serious concerns for many ecologists and conservationists. With these concerns in mind, some conservation organizations have begun a campaign with the slogan, 'The Living Himalayas' to revitalize the dying Himalayas.
The rugged snow-capped peaks remained a mystery as well as attraction for adventurous mountaineers for centuries. It was only with the first ascent of Late Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgey Sherpa to the world's highest peak, Mt. Everest that Nepal was introduced to the world. Since then, with the increasing media publicity, the number of foreign travelers coming to Nepal to visit these Himalayas gradually increased.
The Himalayas, which cover a quarter of Nepal's geography, play a crucial role for the entire social and economic development of the nation. The mountains are regarded as a meeting ground for different races, different varieties of culture and religion. The Himalayas are water towers of the nation. The innumerable glaciers and glacial lakes are the source of fresh water in Nepal. Most of the rivers and rivulets are originated from the glacial lakes and the Himalayas. Similarly, the Himalayas are the Mecca of tourists. Nepalese tourism industry is basically mountain region-based. So far, 300 mountains are open for expedition in Nepal. Due to its uniqueness in the diversity of geography, climate, and eco-system, this region has been taken as a favorable habitat to wild life species too. The Himalayas are one of the world's threatened biodiversity hotspots designated by WWF. Likewise, this region is rich in different edible and medicinal plants and traditional knowledge for the utilization of such plant species incurred upon the indigenous ethnic groups.
Despite its rich biological and cultural resources, the region is under-developed. The unfavorable geo-structure of this region has crippled the life of common people and has hindered the development of this region itself. However, the communities at the local level rely on the natural resources for their livelihoods. Collection of herbs has fulfilled the subsistence needs of poor mountainous communities; they have fulfilled the needs of firewood and fodder harvesting the trees, some communities are also involved traditionally in unscientific slash and burn agricultural practices.
As a result of the depletion of the natural resources, harsh climates, inaccessible geographical location, scarcity of food and sources of energy, lack of the basic facilities like education, health, communication, roads/bridges, combined with political and social marginality, the mountain life has been made more complicated and vulnerable. Likewise, most of the mountain communities are below the poverty line. Developmental activities are nominal at the mountain regions. Besides, present trend of the development in this region is unsustainable.
Mountain lives in Nepal are characterized by poverty and deprivation. Hardship is what the people in the region face at every aspect of their lives. Presently Nepal is in a stage of revolutionary political transformation. In this occasion, we should make not only future plans but also should analyze the past activities. It is a high time to find out the sustainable solutions on the following issues- major causes behind the degradation of the mountain environment and mitigation measures, ways of sustainable mountain development and so on.
A major ecological principle states that components of the ecosystem are interrelated in nature therefore any change in one component is bound to change the states of all other components. For example, deforestation leads to increased floods, increased soil erosion at one side and increased silting of water bodies at the other, drying-up of springs, disappearance of species, and atmospheric loading of carbon dioxide -hence global warming, climate change and increased glacier-melting rate. Finally, it has resulted adverse impact on the entire ecosystem.
Presently, Nepal is in a development process with new vision and new statute. In the preliminary phase of forming new statute of Nepal, the nation should understand the geographical importance of the nation and the relation between upland and down land regions. Development in the mountains, therefore, has to have a different approach - a sustainable approach, to conserve the Himalayan ecosystems and prevent the ecosystem of the down land. In the same way, judicious planning and sound implementation of program are prerequisites for integrated sustainable mountain development. Anil Manandhar, Country Representative of WWF Nepal, says that 'we have a good plan on paper. Had we been able to implement our plan strongly, we could have reached a higher level'. As the solution to the problem, we should focus on good governance, proper implementation of policy and programs and effective monitoring mechanism.
Nepal is a Himalayan country; there was a remarkable representation of the members elected from the mountainous region in the previous parliament as well as in the present constitutional assembly. However, past trends show that they are applying 'Use and Throw' principle to the mountainous region. Not only the members of the parliament, but also other strata of the society have used to the mountainous region, as a means of getting remote area benefit, in their academic as well as professional career. Nevertheless, after getting benefit rarely they have returned and cared to the mountain development.
The Himalayas are rich in resources, but nobody has considered it. Environmental degradation in the mountain region would be disastrous not only for the local populace, but also for downstream inhabitants. Such negative impacts of unplanned development, insensitive to mountain specificities, are already becoming common, the most frequent being the regular incidences of landslides, river obstructions and flash floods in the mountain and recurrent floods in the plains. Depositing the silt causes a great damage in the Tarai region, for example as we can see in the catchments areas of Koshi River, eastern Nepal.
There are several political parties as well as some of the armed groups in the Terai region agitating and demanding 'One Madhes, One Province', since past two years. But no one has demanded 'One Himal, one Province' until the date. Presently Nepal is in the stage of radical political change. Nepal is going to adapt 'federal republic political system'. It seems that the expressions of the political leader as well as general people from the Madhesh (Plain Terai region of Nepal at the southern boarder), indicates that they are not willing to accept the Himalayas in their province. They have seen only the plain surface and fertile land of the terai. Never they have analyzed the interrelationship between mountain and terai. Depute director general of ICIMOD, Dr Madhav Karki says that 'In the context of Nepal, the Terai is a son and the Mountain a mother'.
In 2008, a sudden burst of Koshi dam caused a heavy loss of lives and property in the riparian areas in Tarai. After the catastrophe, the Government of India has shown interest to work for the conservation of the Churia region of eastern region of Nepal only but has not prioritized, for the conservation of the other mountain region, though, mountains are extended from east to west facing towards India. Possibly no one cares for the timely mitigation, before natural calamities.
Juddha Bahadur Gurung, member secretary of NTNC says that 'The Himalayas are common property of the world. Though, some part of the Himalayas including Mt. Everest is in Nepal, impact on the mountainous region, affects to the entire world. Honorable Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, Kiran Gurung also agrees to this fact and further adds that 'the temperature is increasing by 0.06 degree Celsius each year. It will certainly affect the mountainous region, resulting in a terrible natural disaster in the near future'.
These events have arrived at a consensus that mountains would require specific approaches and resources for sustaining livelihood needs and improving the quality of life. This would require an integrated approach, which gives due consideration to closely intertwined aspects of human socio- cultural/socioeconomic systems and natural ecosystem components/processes. Anil Manandhar says that 'we should consider not only biodiversity but also livelihood, cultures, indigenous knowledge and social structures collectively while working in the mountain region'.
Finally, the inherent fragility as well as the increased vulnerability of the Himalayas due to human-induced ecological impacts has caused to the symptoms of ecological ill-health in this region. It will not only jeopardize the existence of such almighty Himalayas but also affect the lives of million people and the entire ecosystem. Considering the need of instant deed for the conservation of the Eastern Himalayas, WWF, the global conservation organization, has launched the 'New Living Himalayas Program'. Even though, it is an initiative of WWF, may be an illustration to the Nepalese communities too. The new 'Living Himalayas Program' of WWF, is a new paradigm in conservation of the mountain regions.
The major political parties have given the slogan of ethnicity. The political division of Nepal will be based on the ethnicity. It may be harmful to some extend, if it is not considered to the proper division of the natural resources in the federal political system of Nepal and there will not be given proper attention for the sustainable management of the resources of the mountainous region. Unless the Himalayas are living, development in the other sectors is beyond imagination. I hope that Nepalese people will consider the importance of Himalayas and will act toward their long-term management. Just as Nepal is known as a Himalayan country, "The Living Himalayas" program will be a lasting fuel for prosperous new Nepal.
(Krishna Pd Sigdel is a Nepalese ecologist and an environmental journalist)