"Sustainable tourism" is the theme for 'World Mountain Day,' observed across the world on December 11.
The United Nations' call for this year's theme is quite apt. Though it also shows the limitation of understanding the mountains in the larger context. Are mountains only for tourism?
While mountains worldwide attract a reasonably large number of tourists, considering them just as hotspots for sustainable tourism is not the right approach to looking at them. They are large ecosystems so profound in the sustainability of our existence.
The major mountain range in India, the Himalayas, proves this beyond doubt. Millions of peoples' lives depend on these ecosystems; it is not enough to just focus on preserving them; the restitution of nature is also direly desired.
Why are the Himalayas Important?
Himalayas span five countries- Bhutan, India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan. It spans around 2,500 km, running west-northwest to east-southeast in an arc.
The Himalayan range is bordered on the northwest by the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush ranges, on the north by the Tibetan Plateau, and on the south by the Indo-Gangetic Plain.
Some of the world's major rivers- the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo–Brahmaputra- rise in the vicinity of the Himalayas. Their combined drainage basin is home to some 600 million people; 53 million people live in the Himalayas.
The mountain ranges of the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram span 2,400 kilometres across six nations and contain 60,000 km² of ice – storing more water than anywhere besides the Arctic and Antarctic.
Almost 33% of the country's thermal electricity and 52% of hydropower in the country is dependent on the water from rivers originating in the Himalayas. These rivers receive a significant part of their water due to the melting of ice glaciers, making them an indispensable part of India's energy security.
Himalayas play a role in the monsoon. Tibet plateau heats up in the summers creating a low-pressure area that leads to southwest monsoon winds coming to the Indian subcontinent.
It also modifies the route of the winds. In the east, the winds turn along the mountains in the northeast and move along the Brahmputra-Ganges plains, distributing rainfall.
Himalayan glaciers are the lifeblood of not just the water security needs of India but also for India's energy security.
The impact of climate change is evident in this region as well- Impact is visible on precipitation patterns and melting of glaciers. As stated, the Himalayan glaciers feed seven of the great rivers of Asia - Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang.
According to studies, the rivers have shown 3-4% surplus water due to a 10% increase in the melting of the western Himalayas' glaciers and a 30% increase in the eastern Himalayan glaciers.
Glaciers in the Himalayas lost billions of tons of ice between 2000 and 2016, double the amount between 1975-2000, as per studies. Mountains are indispensable, and so is the need for their restitution. We have seen over the years how extreme weather events have led to vast landslides and even flooding in the mountains.
Unfortunately, mountains are treated only as tourist destinations without realising that over draining resources beyond a point can be disastrous.
The theme of sustainable tourism may sound good, but mountains' sustainability as an ecosystem must be revisited.
Coming to India and especially the Himalayas and the hill towns built by the British, an argument often heard is that the British kept the mountains safe, and we, in post-independent India, have ruined them. This is erroneously wrong. A general understanding of British engineering can be made that their technology and skills sustained the mountains. Still, the fact remains that the local communities living before the advent of the British to the mountains barely built structures or lived on the 'ridges' and hilltops. It is the British who, with their mighty engineering skills, built these large hill towns like Shimla, Mussoorie, Dalhousie etc.
The British taught us how to ruin the mountains, but of course, in a "sustainable" form. For example, Shimla, the erstwhile capital of colonial India- quite an intriguing town for urban planners. The water supply initially to the town was ensured from nearby water catchment areas like Seog forests, which was piped in gravity form from the forest springs to the town. Later, a lift water scheme was installed as the population grew. This scheme from Gumma had an elevation of nearly 2,000 metres to pump water which was then distributed in the town.
The British could sustain such a system because of its imperial loot. Still, it is extremely difficult to run such a system without subsiding it with such high operation and maintenance costs.
Hence this argument that the British built towns and made them sustainable is incorrect.
Take another example of Leh town, which has seen a great influx of tourists over the last few years. Shimla, with a population of just 200,000, gets more than 4.5 million tourists. Likewise, Leh, with a population of just 30,000, had nearly 10 times more tourists. It is for sure a source of livelihood for many people. But the land-use change and change in employment patterns also need to be studied closely. Why? For the simple reason that Leh town which used to consume drinking water from the natural source of water flowing from the glacier and underground bores cannot do so. The water is unfit for drinking purposes, and the shift from dry toilets to wet flush toilets for tourists has contaminated the water. These are not sustainable forms of tourism for long.
A few crucial lessons must be learned to ensure that the least damage is done to the mountains, especially the Himalayas.
First, the rampant construction of hydropower projects without giving an iota of concern to the ecology must stop. The mighty Satluj river, from the point it enters India, is being conduited through the mountains till it joins Bhakra Dam in Bilaspur. The projects have either been commissioned or are in the pipeline. To name a few, right from Khab, it is 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 many other tributaries of Satluj and other rivers. This is the design in almost all the mountain states. The resultant, massive change in ecology and environment. The damages are irreversible.
The second vital intervention to ensure that mountains are damaged less is the nature of land-use change and the building typologies in urban towns on the mountains. Mountain towns hardly have a statutory master plan. Most of the planners designing mountain towns bring the formula of the plains and try to implement it there. Take, for example, the rampant use of reinforced cement and concrete in the construction of houses and a complete paranoia for using timber on the pretext of saving forests. Whereas, it is a proven fact that the houses in the mountains must be built with indigenous material, including wood, to reduce the carbon footprint. However, one finds the reverse happening and massive use of steel and concrete. This further increases the vulnerability of the load-bearing capacity of the mountains.
Mobility is another critical area that must be in tandem with the mountains. It means that instead of these 'Char Dham' roads, massive four-laning and widening of the existing roads, alternative modes of mobility must be adopted. The four lanes' widening increases the vulnerability of the mountains as more cutting is required to get those spaces. Besides, there is a massive increase in the number of cars entering the mountains, thus increasing the carbon footprint. Ropeways and internal railways through tunnelling can be other major alternative forms that do not just rely on fossil fuels. The urban towns need to continue to harp on the best practices of more pedestrianisation and vertical mobility instead of using motorised transport. What is being witnessed in these towns is massive jams on the roads and hardly any availability of parking spaces.
Fourthly for sustainable tourism focus should be on developing more homestays by building the capacities of the people, building these tourist houses in sustainable mode(solar, local earthen material, water harvesting, local treatment of waste etc.), training them and ensuring that there is adequate disposal of waste generated. However, in most of the towns, many large groups in the hospitality sector have already ventured and are attracting high-end tourists.
Managing garbage in the mountain towns is a big challenge. Since the temperature for nearly six months remains low, hardly any composting occurs. Besides, waste collection, segregation and treatment is very poor in these towns. The dumping sites have become an eyesore in the patches of the mountains. Bomb Guard is a site in Leh, one of the worst waste dumping sites and requires immediate attention. Likewise, most of the hilly towns are grappling with waste treatment. With the opening of the Rohtang Tunnel, the access to Lahaul and Spiti is for a longer period in a year with a massive influx of tourists. Along with that, waste generation has also increased. This has to be taken care of, else the clear rivers flowing across soon will be a witness to irreversible changes. Mithi river in Mumbai once was a source of drinking water. Now its sewer is flowing in the open.
Hence, this "Sustainable Tourism" pledge will be meaningless unless the mountains are sustained as an ecosystem. Restitution and not restoration should be the slogan.
The writer is the former deputy mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.