Opinion: The Himalayas are not just for tourism, sustainable or not

Mountains are not just for tourism. In the mountainous town of Devprayag in Uttarakhand, natural springs have seen a flow decrease of more than 50% over the past three years. File photo by Ashish Jalan / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

He came and went without too much hooha. World Mountain Day on December 11e. And his theme for this year, “Sustainable tourism”. It was an appropriate theme that the UN chose. But it also exposed the limited understanding of mountains in a larger context.

Mountains all over the world, including our own Himalayas, attract large numbers of tourists. But viewing them as mere hot spots for sustainable tourism is not the right approach. These mountains are in fact great ecosystems so deep in the sustainability of our existence.

The Himalayas provide abundant evidence of this. The lives of millions of people depend on these ecosystems. Not only to preserve them, but the restitution of nature itself is urgent.

Why the Himalayas are important

the Himalayas span five countries: Bhutan, India, Nepal, China and Pakistan. It stretches 2,500 km from west-northwest to east-southeast in an arc. The Himalayan range is bordered to the northwest by the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, to the north by the Tibetan plateau and to the south by the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Some of the world’s major rivers, the Indus, Ganges and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, rise close to the Himalayas, and their combined drainage basin is home to some 600 million people, including 53 million people living in the regions. Himalayas.

The Himalayan mountain ranges contain 60,000 km² of ice – storing more water than just the Arctic and Antarctic.


Read more: What causes climate risks in our small towns and villages?


Almost 33% of the country’s thermal electricity and 52% of its hydropower depend on river water from the Himalayas. These rivers receive a significant portion of their water from melting glaciers, making them a critical part of India’s energy security. And its water security needs.

the Himalayas also play a role in maintaining the monsoon. The Tibetan Plateau warms up in the summer, creating an area of ​​low pressure that leads to southwest monsoon winds arriving on the Indian subcontinent. It also changes the route of the winds. In the east, the winds turn along the mountains to the northeast, and move along the Brahmaputra-Ganges plains distributing the precipitation.

The impact of climate change is evident in this region today in the evolution of precipitation regimes and the melting of its glaciers. Himalayan glaciers lost billions of tonnes of ice between 2000 and 2016, double the amount that occurred between 1975 and 2000, according to studies. Which also shows a surplus in its river waters of 3-4% due to a 10% increase in the melting of the western Himalayan glaciers, and the 30% increase in the eastern Himalayan glaciers.

All these facts only underline how and why mountains are indispensable and the urgency of their restitution. Unfortunately, our mountains are only treated as tourist destinations without realizing that excessive depletion of resources beyond a point can be disastrous.

Photo file. How long will this view last. A view of the Gairsain Hills, Uttarakhand. Photo: Rohit Gosain / CC BY-SA 4.0

Read more: What is behind the worsening water crisis in Himalayan cities?


The theme of sustainable tourism may sound good, but the sustainability of mountains as an ecosystem needs to be revisited. Mainly in the Himalayas and hill towns like Shimla, Mussoorie and Dalhousie built by the British.

It is totally wrong to say that British engineering and technology skills have supported the mountains. The point is that the local communities before the British came to the mountains never built any structures or lived on the “ridges” and peaks of the hills. It was the British who did this with their hill towns.

What Shimla and Leh can teach us

The British taught us to ruin mountains, but in a sustainable form. Take for example Shimla, the former capital of colonial India. It is quite an intriguing city for town planners. The city’s water supply was initially provided from nearby water catchment areas such as the Seog Forests, which were gravity-fed from forest sources to the city. Later, a water elevator system was installed as the population grew. This Gumma project had an altitude of nearly 2,000 meters to pump water which was then distributed throughout the city.

The British could support such a system because of its Imperial booty. But the high costs of operating and maintaining these systems have made it impossible for today’s urban local authorities to run such a system without heavy state subsidies.

Take another example, the city of Leh, which has experienced a significant influx of tourists in recent years. Shimla with a population of two lakh receives more than 4.5 million tourists. While Leh with a population of only 30,000, there were almost 10 times as many tourists.

It is for sure a source of income for many people. But land use change and the change in the structure of employment also need to be closely studied.

Why? For the simple reason that the city of Leh, which used to consume drinking water from the natural source of water from the glacier and underground boreholes, can no longer do so. The water is now unfit for consumption due to the switch from dry toilets to wet flush toilets for tourists, which has contaminated the water table. It is not sustainable tourism.


Read more: Yet another plan to regulate traffic in Shimla, but will it work?


There are some important lessons to be learned from these two cities just to ensure that the least damage is done to the mountains and especially the Himalayas.

  • The first: The rampant construction of hydroelectric projects without any concern for the ecology must stop. The mighty Sutlej River, from the point where it enters India, is conducted through the mountains until it meets the Bhakra Dam at Bilaspur. Other projects commissioned or in preparation include, to name but a few, directly from Khab, son Khab Shaso, then Jangi Thopan-Powari, followed by Shongthong Karcham, Wangtoo Karcham, Nathpa Jhakri, Rampur, Behna, Kol Dam and finally the Bhakra. Then there are projects being commissioned on the tributaries of Sutlej and other rivers. It is the design in almost all mountain states. The result: a massive change in ecology and the environment. And the damage is irreversible.
  • The second important intervention concerns the nature of land use change and the typologies of construction in urban mountain towns. Almost no mountain town has a regulatory master plan. Most of the city planners who design mountain towns bring the plains formula and try to implement it there.

Take for example the widespread use of reinforced cement and concrete in house building and total paranoia for the use of wood under the pretext of saving forests, even though there is evidence that houses in the mountains must be built. with native materials including wood to reduce the carbon footprint. However, the exact opposite occurs with the heavy use of steel and concrete. This further increases the vulnerability of the bearing capacity of mountains.

Sustainability ruled out smart city considerations in select hill towns like Shimla
Photo file. Recipe for disaster. Dense concrete construction covering the slopes of Shimla Hill. Pic Pradeep Kumar
  • Mobility is another important area which must be developed in conjunction with the mountain. This means that instead of these massive four-lane Char Dham roads and the widening of existing roads, alternative modes of mobility must be adopted. Cable cars and internal railways through tunnels, which do not rely solely on fossil fuels, can be a major mobility alternative. For cities, it is important that they continue to insist on good practices of more pedestrianization and clean public transport. What we are currently seeing in these cities are massive traffic jams on the roads and almost no parking spaces.
  • Fourth, for sustainable tourism, the emphasis should be on the development of more homestays, by strengthening the capacities of local populations, by building tourist houses in a sustainable mode (solar, local soil, recovery of water, local waste treatment, etc.), training people to ensure adequate waste disposal.
  • Waste management in mountain towns is a big challenge. As temperatures for almost six months remain low, there is hardly any composting. In addition, the collection, sorting and treatment of waste are very poor in these cities. Garbage dumps have become an eyesore in these mountains. Bomb Guard is a site in Leh which is one of the worst garbage dump sites and requires immediate attention. Likewise, most of the hill towns are struggling with waste treatment. With the opening of the Rohtang tunnel, access to Lahaul and Spiti is extended over a period of one year. The resulting massive influx of tourists means more waste generation. This must be taken into account, otherwise the clear rivers flowing in the upper reaches will soon experience irreversible changes.

Given all of this, this commitment to “sustainable tourism” will only make sense if mountains are supported as an ecosystem. Restitution and not restoration should be the slogan.

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About Jonathan J. Kramer

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