The Living Himalayas: Lasting fuel to Prosperous New Nepal

'The Living Himalayas'; Lasting fuel to Prosperous New Nepal


By Krishna Prasad Sigdel


The enchanting beauties of the Himalayas, their bracing climate and the soothing green that envelopes you leaves nothing more to be desired. I wonder whether their scenery and the climate are to be surpassed, if qualified, by any of the beauty spots of the world.

 - Mahatma Gandhi



The abovementioned witty saying of the bygone spiritual and political leader of the 1900's, Mahatma Gandhi, attest to the value of the mighty Himalayas. The Himalayas - the magnificence of geology; is stand synonymously to the living forces. The Himalayas is a source of power and symbol of sacredness - a continuous source of inspiration as well as life in itself. The Himalayas is recognized for its ecosystem services to the Asian region as well as to the world at large for maintaining slope stability, regulating hydrological integrity, sustaining high levels of biodiversity and human wellbeing.


Preamble to the Himalayas

'Himalayas' is a terminology from Sanskrit and means "abode of snow". The Himalayas is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world. Its revolution can be traced to the Jurassic Era (80 million years ago). The Himalayan range was created from powerful earth movements that occurred as the Indian plate pressed against the Eurasian continental plate. The Himalayan Mountains, at the front of this continental collision, are still forming, growing and assuming complex profiles.


The arc shaped mountain range in between the Indus River in the northwest to the Brahmaputra River in the east is called 'The Himalayas'. The Himalayan range is approximately 2,400 km length and averaging 320 to 400 km in width. It covers an area of approximately 750,000 sq. km in South Asia. It has been divided into two regions- the Eastern Himalaya and the Western Himalaya.


The Himalayas is one of the few remaining isolated and inaccessible areas in the world today. Though still not confirmed, the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) is believed to have been living somewhere in these mountains.


The population in the Himalayan region is nearly about 40 million. The main occupation of the people in the Himalayan region is agriculture and animal husbandry. The unfavorable geo-structure of this region has crippled the life of common people and has hindered the development of this region itself. The Himalayas is too big for anyone to study.


Now the question is on the epithet, the Living, added before the Himalayas. It is obviously true, those lofty mountains, known the world over as 'The Himalayas' have no life, even though they support to life providing goods and services. Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) named it - 'The Living Himalayas' with honor. How they are supporting to the living creatures of the world and where the heart 'beat' of the life is blowing in the Himalayas is a major concern to all the dwellers of this global village. The following points will explicate the liveliness of the mountains.


The Himalayas: Center of Origin of Religion, Culture and People's Civilization

People have lived in the mountains of the Himalayas for thousands of years. The Himalayas, due to its large size, have been a natural barrier to the movement of people for tens of thousands of years. In particular, this has prevented intermingling of people from the Indian subcontinent with people from China and Mongolia, causing significantly different languages and customs between these regions. Himalayas was also a witness to the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest Indian Civilization.


Therefore, the Himalayas is not merely a range of mountains; it epitomizes a people's civilization identity that goes back to the dawn of history. The Himalayan peaks are sacred in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The ethnic groups living in remote valleys have generally conserved their traditional cultural identities. There are more than 60 ethnic castes, 70 different dialects and 11 languages in Nepal. They have their own unique cultural heritage, language, and indigenous knowledge.


Himalayas: Freshwater Towers of the Earth

Mountains play a central role in collecting and storing water- the most important element for life on earth. The higher regions of the Himalayas are snowbound throughout the year and they form the sources for several large perennial rivers. The Himalayan range encompasses about 15,000 glaciers, which store about 12,000 km3 of freshwater. The 70 km long Siachen Glacier at the India-Pakistan border is the second longest glacier in the world outside the polar region. Some of the world's major rivers, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Yangtze originate from the Himalayas. Around 1.3 billion people live in the basin of these river systems. Careful management of the sources of water such as the Himalayas has become a global priority in a world moving towards a water crisis in 21st century.


The Himalayas have a profound effect on the climate of the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau. The towering Himalayas play a critical role, blocking the northwesterly advances of moist, tropical air from the Bay of Bengal, and ultimately leading to its conversion to rain in the summer. The water yield for a given input of rainfall from the mountains, like Himalayan watersheds, depends on the quality of its forests, agricultural yield, and conservation of wetlands and provides such innumerable ecological benefits. Hence 'Men, Monsoon and Mountains' are intractably tied up with each other.

The Himalayas: Biological Hot Spots

Deforestation in the Himalayas has been the major concern today. We are left with just 25 percent of the original vegetation. The region is physiographically diverse and ecologically rich in natural and crop-related biodiversity, so it has been taken as a globally significant region for genetic, species and ecosystems diversity. It represents the important hot spots and high levels of endemism in South Asia. It includes two endemic bird areas and several centers for plant diversity. The Eastern Himalaya is designed as one of the WWF 'Global 2000' eco-regions and declared as a 'Gift to the Earth'.


About 15 percent of the land area of the hotspot is under some form of protection in the Himalaya region. There are 38 major ecosystems found in the highlands. Similarly, of the estimated 10,000 species of plants in the Himalaya hotspot, about 3,160 are endemic. In addition, nearly 980 birds and about 300 mammal species have been recorded in the hotspots. In is estimated that nearly about one third of all mountain animals live in the Himalayas. It is a habitat of the world's endangered flagship species, like Tiger, Asian Rhinos, Elephants, Wild Buffalo, Snow Leopard as well as Red Panda, Musk Deer and so on.


Himalayas; a Repertoire of Natural Herbs

A large proportion of the Himalayan flora is medicinal and it makes the Himalayas a globally significant centre for the medicinal plants. It has been estimated that the Himalayan region harbors over 10,000 species of medicinal and aromatic plants, supporting the livelihoods of about 600 million people living in the area. Such natural herbs provide basic healthcare for millions of citizens and possess immense cultural and economic values. Nepal Himalayas is worth about 2,000 species with medicinal and aromatic values, and more than 1,400 of these are known to be used locally particularly as medicines.


Himalayas and Tourism Industry

The Himalayan mountain system is the planet's highest physiographic location and home to the nine of the ten highest peaks of the world. Moreover, the Himalayan system includes over 100 mountains exceeding 7,200 meters. There are about 90 peaks in Nepal's Himalayas over 7,000 meters and eight giants exceeding 8,000 meters, including earth's highest, Mount Everest and third highest, Kanchenjunga.


Since 1950, tourism has emerged as a major growth industry in the Himalayas. With its exotic wildlife and outstanding natural beauty, it has always attracted travelers and tourist across the world. One million visitors come to the Himalayas each year for mountain trekking, mountain climbing, wildlife viewing, river rafting, and pilgrimages to major Hindu and Buddhist sacred places. For the sustainability of the tourism industry in Nepal, the concept of ecotourism has been practiced.


The aforementioned facts support that the Himalayas has life and billions of people are dependent on that directly/indirectly. However, economic changes and syn-anthropic onslaughts peril the ecology of the Himalayas. Over exploitation of natural herbs, illegal poaching of wildlife, drying-up of springs, drought, extinction of species, unscientific irrational slash and burn agricultural practices and increased forest fires are major environmental risks in the Himalayan regions. Such an environmental degradation in the upper region affects not only the upper region but also invites environmental consequences in the low land areas.


The Himalayas: Impacts of Climate Change

The Himalayas is one of the world's geologically most active areas. Eyewitness say mountain glaciers have served as an indicator of climate change, advancing and receding with long-term changes in temperature and precipitation. Twenty, out of 2,380 glaciers in Nepal are in the endangered list. According to a UN climate change report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of Asia's biggest rivers could disappear by 2035 as temperature rises. As a result, India, Tibet, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades.


The rising temperatures are threatening a tremendous loss of biological diversity in this ecologically sensitive region. The altitudinal shift in vegetation belts is expected to be around 80m-200m per decade, which threatens both biodiversity as well as livelihoods of mountain people.


The Himalayas: Biodiversity Conservation Initiatives

For the past eight decades, modern conservation practices have been initiated in the Himalayan region. In the 1920's wildlife sanctuaries were established in Assam, India. Similarly, Chitwan national park was established in 1973 in Nepal. As early as the 1960s, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park was established in Bhutan as well. In the northeastern Himalayan states of India, a network of protected areas was established in the 1970s and 1980s. Now conservation practice has been shifted to landscapes level conservation. Terai Arc Landscape Program and Sacred Himalayan Landscape Program are major Transboundary and landscape level conservation of conservation practices in Nepal, where biodiversity has been conserved based on their biological corridor. Apart from these, biodiversity has been conserved through the concept of 'conservation of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) sites' holding populations of globally threatened or geographically restricted species. Another important initiative is the plan to create a tri-national peace park among Nepal, India and Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Nepal has been working to promote people's participation in conservation. The Annapurna, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga Conservation Areas have been run through community-based biodiversity management practice. Moreover, community forestry program has been flourishing in the Himalayan region of Nepal.


Regional Coordination for Sustainable Conservation of the Himalayas

Economic, environmental, political and social marginality have made the mountain lives more complicated and vulnerable. Developmental activities are nominal at the mountain regions. Plus, the present trend of development in this region is unsustainable.


The Himalayas is common property of all the people of this Global village for it is one of the most important life-support systems in the entire Asia. Therefore, international as well as regional coordination and cooperation is prerequisite for the sustainable management of the Himalayan resources. Only establishing protected areas, national parks, bird sanctuaries, Ramsar sites, and World Heritage sites, covering critical eco-regions and transboundary areas are not the solutions for the serious environmental issues. All the countries of the Himalayan region have to develop a common future strategy for mountain biodiversity conservation.


Since most of the area of the Himalayas is in Nepal, India and Bhutan, the people of these countries will be affected more by the ongoing environmental degradation in the Himalayas. The governments of India, Nepal, and Bhutan should be conscious and integrated environment management programs should be launched. ICIMOD, The Mountain Institute, National Trust for Nature Conservation, Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology are working with some programs.


Considering the need of instant actions for the conservation of the Eastern Himalayas, WWF- the global conservation organization, has launched the 'New Living Himalayas Program' in the eastern Himalayas in a joint collaboration of WWF Nepal, WWF India and WWF Bhutan. Governments of those nations, conservation partners, local community should cooperative with WWF in this connection.


Living Himalayas inevitable to the Prosperous New Nepal

The Himalayas is intricately interwoven with Nepal and shares approximately the entire landscape of the country. Nepal stands at the cross-point of western Himalaya and Eastern Himalaya. Where, the Eastern Himalaya dominates at the scale of about two-third. Development in the Himalayan region, therefore, has to have a different approach - a sustainable approach, to conserve the spatial upland as well as the down land ecosystems.  To fulfill the dual objectives- integrated sustainable mountain development and promotion of the local community's livelihood - judicious planning and sound implementation of program are prerequisites. 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'. Hence, in New Nepal, the nation should focus on good governance, proper implementation of policy and programs and effective monitoring mechanism.


Presently, Nepal is in a process of radical change with new vision and new statute. At this moment, while adapting to the federal political system, the nation should understand the geographical importance of the nation, importance of the natural resources and the relationship between spatial upland and down land regions. Even though, 'The Living Himalayas program' is an initiative of WWF, it is the voice of the Himalayas and its communities. It is high time we understood the gravity of the environmental issues facing the Himalayas. The Himalayas is our pride, and has stood synonymously to our life, culture and future. Nepal is a Himalayan country, thus sustainable utilization of the resources from the Himalayas determines the economic revolution of the country. The central theme of 'The Living Himalayas' is to revitalize the existing resources as the lasting fuel to a prosperous New Nepal'.

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