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The Fragile Future of the “Mountains of Life”

   /   Jan 7th, 2014Environment, India

Primulas in the Himalaya

Kamal Bawa and Sandesh Kadur, a biology professor at the University of MA (Boston) and a noted wildlife photographer, respectively, came together to catalogue the biodiversity and changing geography of the Himalayas. Their book, titled “Himalaya: Mountains of Life,” took five years to complete.  Determined to shed light on a region that’s been largely unknown and inaccessible, the two traveled extensively for several years, discovering remote communities, new plant life, and environmental damage to the area.

“The Himalaya – land of Gods, of ancient mountain kingdoms, of icy peaks and alpine meadows – is like no other place on Earth,” says Bawa. Esha Chhabra speaks with Professor Bawa about the recent floods in Uttarakhand, the environmental impact on Himalaya, and possible solutions to preserve its natural beauty and culture.

Esha Chhabra: The recent floods in Uttarakhand have garnered media attention.  But you saw this coming.  What environmental factors are affecting the Himalaya region most, causing such damage, and is there any plausible solution to remedy the situation?

Professor Kamal Bawa: First, Himalaya is naturally fragile, still growing and seismically active. Second, human footprint has been enlarging, with unplanned development, and poor enforcement of regulations governing the sites for human settlements. Third, it is well known that climate change will lead to an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, and it is an extreme event exacerbated by poor planning and highly inadequate disaster risk management. Uttarakhand type disasters are likely to increase in frequency. We need better a) planning for human settlements, b) monitoring of environmental parameters, and c) disaster risk management strategies – plans for dealing with disasters. It is not the Army’s job to rescue civilians from disasters. Where were the  government’s disaster risk management teams?

Chhabra: One of the solutions proposed has been “eco-tourism” or “sustainable tourism.”  What are your thoughts on this concept?  Is it feasible to bring visitors to the area to raise awareness without damaging the natural beauty and doing more harm?

Bawa: Eco tourism is a widely misused term in India. People do not understand the meaning of the term. Implied in the idea is the respect and concern for nature. When one is constantly violating ecological principles day in and day out, how can one even talk of eco-tourism?  Yes, if practiced as it should be eco-tourism can greatly benefit nature and the people in the Himalaya.

Chhabra: As far as plant and animal diversity is concerned, you state that the Himalaya region has plenty of both.  So why has it gone under the radar for so long?

Bawa: The biodiversity has been under the radar in the Eastern Himalaya, where it is extraordinarily rich as compared to not only the other regions of Asia, but also the whole world. Even during the colonial era, much of the area in the northeast was inaccessible. Still today, the region remains poorly explored due to lack of human resources and institutions. Exploration of the unknown generally suffers from lack of interest and financial resources in India. We have a much larger budget for exploring space than for exploring life on earth.

The largest moth in the world - The Atlas moth

Chhabra: There is a lot of talk around sustainability these days by large companies. Do you feel that the private sector can play a role in preserving the beauty and biodiversity of such a region?  Or is it largely a task for scientists and nature lovers?

Bawa: Of course the private sector has a large role to play. Businesses benefit from the ecosystem services provided by the mountains. Tea estates and tourism are directly dependent on nature’s capital and services.  It is a cliché, but civil society, government and the corporate world have to come together to safeguard our heritage.

Chhabra: You work on sustainable development.  The two seem like opposites.  Can you give an example of a sustainable development project?

Bawa: No, not really. The question of sustainability arises only in the context of environmental and often economic consequences of development. Ecotourism, we discussed earlier, if practiced in the true spirit of the word can bring economic benefits as well as raise awareness about the value of nature and the need to protect it.

Golden Langur resting

Chhabra: The climate change conversation has been rather limited, it seems.  Yes, the rising temperatures are melting ice and glaciers, but they’re also impacting lives, biodiversity, and wildlife, as you suggest.  Can you elaborate a bit more on the “impact” of all this – how vast is the damage?

Bawa: The damage due to climate change might be huge. We are not absolutely certain, but the cloudbursts  or extreme weather events in recent years might be due to climate change. We need long term data on environmental parameters, including the incidence of intense periods of rainfall, temperature and flow of water, to name a few.

But climate change is only one among several factors that is threatening biodiversity and livelihoods. Others include land use change, deforestation, and infrastructure development, especially the construction of dams, that will act synergistically to exacerbate the impacts of climate change.

01_2009_06_03_Kadur_5D_3229

We have done an extensive survey of people’s perceptions of climate change in the Himalaya. A vast majority of people feel that climate change is real: it is getting warmer, rainfall is more variable, and often intense. They also feel that it is getting drier, the amount of water in the springs is decreasing, and they are finding new weeds and pests in agricultural fields. Of course in some cases people are also benefiting from changes in climate.  At higher altitudes, people can grow crops that they were not able to grow before.

However, overall the impacts are negative. Actual data from the filed is scarce because of lack of monitoring of environmental parameters.

Photos courtesy of Himalaya: Mountains of Life.

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