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The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush – Himalayas that formed 50 million years ago, host legacies from the birth of Buddha and the invasion of Alexander the Great. They also represent the geographical identity of South Asia housing some of the largest fresh water sources in its ice caps and glaciers, situated among pristine valleys and dense biodiversity. It is often referred to as the third pole of the Earth for its glaciers and snowfields comparable in size to the arctic and the antarctic.

However, the recent land sinking incident reported in Joshimath has depicted the tenderness and fragility of the himalayan landscape. Though geological factors like Joshimath’s location in an ancient landslide site have contributed to the plight , anthropogenic activities like heavy construction contribute a great deal to the damage, putting around fifty thousand lives at risk.

Experts say, himalayan towns like Shimla, Darjeeling and Jammu face similar threats. Sinking zones and wide cracks have already formed in parts of Shimla substantiating the danger that lies ahead. Instances like these unravel the hidden threats to the third pole putting the glaciers, livelihoods and biodiversity at stake. According to the Hindukush Himalaya assessment report of ICIMOD(International centre for integrated mountain development), more than 35 % of the glaciers could retreat by 2100, even if the global temperature rise is capped at 1.5º C.

Unsustainable practices have weakened the climate vulnerable region over time. Emissions from automobiles, industries and stubble burning  get deposited on the glaciers, reduce albedo and accelerate melting. Over 200 glacial lakes in the himalayan belt are prone to outbursts and subsequent flash floods as happened in Chamoli, Uttarakhand in 2021.

In the long term, accelerated loss of ice caps will lead to a chain reaction of  water depletion in river basins like Indus-Ganga-Brahmaputra catering to irrigation, hydropower generation and biodiversity. Detrimental effects on aesthetic beauty will reduce tourist footfall that accounts for more than seven percent of state GDP in these states.

However, himalayan tourism has become a bane over the decades.Construction of resorts on the fragile slopes through deforestation have aggravated the landslide and avalanche vulnerability. Waste discarded by mountaineers needs no special mention with the Everest base camps being famous for tonnes of plastic litter. The Char Dham pilgrimage also contributes a large amount of solid waste to rivers like Bhagirathi, Yamuna and Alaknanda.

Arguments for himalayan conservation are further strengthened by its climate regulating functions, acting as a mediator of monsoon wind flow while also being a huge wall that shields the Indian subcontinent from cold winds of Central asia and Siberia. Decades of coal based industrial emissions have made the atmosphere conducive for more cloudburst incidents. The 2022 Amarnath cloudburst near the cave shrine caused significant havoc and flash floods in the region.

Thus  measures to preserve the landscape must include disaster mitigation steps with the help of satellite data for early mapping. The ‘himalayan glacier inventory atlas’ by ISRO can be used for identifying melt prone glaciers. Adoption of EVs and BSVI vehicles, switching to renewable energy etc will reduce the emission intensity to a great extent. Innovations like happy seeders and stubble based biofuel will address the mass burning of crop residue.

Furthermore, ecotourism  initiatives in places like the Great Himalayan National park with local communities is noteworthy.In Nepal, a rubbish deposit scheme was launched for the Everest mountaineers, a refundable fee for collecting litter. Bhutan designed a ‘low volume high value’ tourism policy  to overcome ill effects of mass tourism. The various national governments including India are also encouraging Eco friendly home stays.

In India, the National Action Plan on Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem is functioning under  NAPCC (National Action plan on Climate change) to preserve the ecological resilience of the region.The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) is also undertaking extensive research to oversee the status of himalayan cryosphere. Organisations like WWF that work with the governments of India, Nepal and Bhutan in reducing human footprint in the Himalayas are avenues for intergovernmental cooperation.

It is also crucial to adhere to bottom-up approaches by empowering local communities for himalayan conservation. Community based disaster management with the support of local bodies and panchayats also needs to be strengthened considering the fact that local inhabitants are the first responders in times of crisis.

The mighty Himalayas are witnessing one of the largest melt events after the Little ice age and there is an urgent need for conservationist policies to preserve one of the largest natural ecosystems of the world so as to ensure the continuity and growth of the culture and legacy it beholds.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Shilpa S
Associate, Academy

Shilpa completed her Btech in Electronics and Communication Engineering from FISAT, Angamaly. While pursuing she completed internships with organisations like BSNL and afterwards volunteered in the NGO sector with ‘Make a Difference’. She also worked in freelance educational content development for various institutes after completing her engineering. At CPPR, she interned with the IR Research team initially as a research intern and worked in International conferences. She is also passionate about writing and enthusiastic about India’s rich art and crafts. Apart from her academic interests, she also loves watching movies, cooking and styling clothes.

Shilpa S
Shilpa S
Shilpa completed her Btech in Electronics and Communication Engineering from FISAT, Angamaly. While pursuing she completed internships with organisations like BSNL and afterwards volunteered in the NGO sector with ‘Make a Difference’. She also worked in freelance educational content development for various institutes after completing her engineering. At CPPR, she interned with the IR Research team initially as a research intern and worked in International conferences. She is also passionate about writing and enthusiastic about India’s rich art and crafts. Apart from her academic interests, she also loves watching movies, cooking and styling clothes.

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