Threats To Himalayan Ecosystem

SEP 8

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WHY IN NEWS?

  • Although the expert committee warned as early as in 2014 that hydroelectric projects could pose a disaster risk to the Himalayan region, Uttarakhand is still pursuing the construction of hydroelectric projects and dams.

BACKGROUND:

  • The Himalayan ranges are the youngest and loftiest among the mountain systems of the world.
  • They represent a highly complex and diversified system both in terms of biological and physical attributes. The region has a discrete geographic and ecological entity.
  • It produces a distinctive climate of its own and influences the climate of much of Asia
  • The Himalayan ecosystem is fragile and diverse. It includes over 51 million people who practice hill agriculture and remains vulnerable
  • The Himalayan ecosystem is vital to the ecological security of the Indian landmass, through providing forest cover, feeding perennial rivers that are the source of drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower, conserving biodiversity, providing a rich base for high value agriculture, and spectacular landscapes for sustainable tourism.

STATISTICS:

  • As per Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) the Indian Himalayas, which constitute about 12% of the country’s landmass, is home to about 30.16% of its fauna.
  • The Indian Himalayas also have 131 protected areas, which cover 9.6% of the entire protected area of the country
  • 133 vertebrate species of the region is listed as ‘threatened’ in the IUCN Red List.
  • Of the 940 bird species found in the Indian Himalayas, 39 are endemic to the region.

THREATS TO HIMALAYAN ECOSYSTEM:

  • Seismic vulnerability:
    • The frequently occurring strong earthquakes in the Himalayan region signify the seismic vulnerability in the region. Most parts of the Indian Himalaya fall in seismic zone V and IV.
    • The continued northward movement of Indian plate is generating large amount of stress at the plate boundary which is being released in form of large and great earthquakes.
    • For example Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district had witnessed 368 earthquakes since 1999.
    • Earthquakes and associated hazards such as landslides and flash floods cause serious threat to the ecosystem of the region.
  • Threat from climate change:
    • Ecologically sensitive mountainous areas, like the Himalaya, are prone to adverse impacts of global climate changes.
    • Some of the significant consequences arising out of the global warming on the Himalayan region could relate to
      • Variability in the volumetric flow of water in the rivers
      • Loss in biodiversity
      • Unsustainable changes in ecology
      • Glacier recession:
        • Recently, the glacial burst in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is an eye-opener to the ongoing disruption of the ecological balance.
        • A similar flash flood caused by a glacial lake burst ravaged the Kedarnath Shrine at the peak of the pilgrimage season in 2013.
      • Deforestation and degradation
      • Conditions for impending natural disasters
      • Dislocation of traditional societies dependent vulnerably on the Himalayan ecosystem
  • Increased population pressure:
    • In recent decades, greater access to the global market has increased the demand for natural resources in the Himalayas. As a result, populations are growing in the region.
    • The steadily increasing population in the hotspot has led to extensive clearing of forests and grasslands for cultivation, and widespread logging.
    • Both legal and illegal logging often occurs on extremely steep slopes, resulting in severe erosion.
  • Unsustainable farming and livestock rearing
    • Although cultivation has a general upper limit of about 2,100 meters on slopes exposed to monsoons, people farm crops such as barley, potato and buckwheat at high elevations in the inner valleys and transmontane regions, and in some areas, such as Jumla, Kashmir, Lahoul and Ladakh, there are major agricultural-based population centers well above this elevation.
    • The land is also often cleared in the summer months for livestock.
    • Overgrazing by domestic livestock, including cattle and domesticated yak, is widespread in the lowlands and alpine ecosystems
    • The use of fire to clear land poses an additional threat to forest land, as fires sometimes spread out of control.
  • Conversion of forest land for human settlement:
    • The conversion of forests and grasslands for agriculture and settlements has led to large-scale deforestation and habitat fragmentation in the region.
  • Overexploited for traditional medicine
    • The flora of fragile alpine meadows has been overexploited for traditional medicine
    • Because medicinal plant collectors invariably uproot the entire plant, regrowth is hampered.
  • Indiscriminate increase in hydropower projects:
    • India has heavily invested in dam development and the growth of hydropower in the Himalayas.
    • Sidelining several concerns of experts on allowing construction of hydropower projects in ecologically fragile Himalayas, the Union environment ministry has recently recommended allowing completion of 7 hydroelectric projects on upper Ganga in Uttarakhand, which includes Vishnugad Pipalkoti on Alaknanda river; Tapovan Vishnugad (520 MW) on Dhauliganga river etc.
    • If the national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills is completed, the Indian Himalayas will have one dam for every 32 km >> The highest density in the world.
    • Uttarakhand has 76 dams with a capacity of more than 3,100 MW, in paraglacial regions
    • The frequent disasters in Uttarakhand are caused by this indiscriminate increase in hydropower projects.
    • Apart from this, the life of dams is often exaggerated without taking a proper account of the siltation level in the dams. For example, in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, the siltation was higher by 140% than calculated.
  • Unsustainable extraction of forest resources:
    • Fuelwood collection and non-timber forest product extraction, both for domestic consumption and export, has inflicted severe damage to some forest ecosystems.
  • Irresponsible tourism:
    • Unplanned and poorly managed tourism has led to environmental deterioration
  • Increased urbanization:
    • The cities in the Himalayan mountainous zones are increasing in size and number.
    • They exhibit the same degradation that plagues our cities in the plains: growing dumps of garbage and plastic, untreated sewerage, chronic water shortages, unplanned urban growth, and heavy pollution from increasing vehicular traffic.
  • Threat to biodiversity:
    • Climate change is the major threat faced by Himalayan biodiversity.
    • The impact is visible in the shifting distribution of sensitive species like the Asiatic Black Bear, the Snow leopard, and the Himalayan Marmot.
    • Habitat loss due to land use change, illegal wildlife trade, forest fires and increasing anthropogenic activities also pose threats to this Himayalan biodiversity.
  • Threat from insurgencies:
    • Political unrest, often in the form of insurgencies, also threatens the integrity of some protected areas.
  • Poaching
    • Poaching is a serious problem in the Himalaya Mountains, with the Endangered tiger and Vulnerable greater one-horned rhinoceros hunted for their body parts for traditional Chinese medicine, while the Vulnerable snow leopard are sought for their beautiful pelts.
  • Other threats:
    • Other threats to biodiversity and forest integrity include mining, the construction of roads and large dams, and pollution from agrochemicals.

CONTRIBUTION OF HIMALAYAN ECOSYSTEMS:

  • Source of water – surface and groundwater:
    • The Himalayas – the highest and largest mountain range in the world – has the largest body of ice in the world outside the two polar caps.
    • The region’s more than 54,000 glaciers hold ice reserves of about 6,100 km3, representing huge stocks of water
    • The glaciers of the Himalayas are the headwaters for  major river systems in Indian Subcontinent
    • These rivers receive significant contributions from the snow and glacier melt of the Himalayas, which provides the main basis for both surface and groundwater irrigation
    • The Himalayan mountains also store large amounts of groundwater, which contributes to both surface water and groundwater recharge in the downstream basins
    • Groundwater – the invisible ecosystem service of the Himalayas – is vital for irrigation in the entire agricultural landscape of South Asia, in addition to serving other human uses and sustaining wetland ecosystems.
  • Energy security:
    • With increasing levels of industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth, electric power consumption will increase.
    • The Himalayas have the potential to play a vital role in energy security in Indian Subcontinent
    • The hydropower potential in the region exceeds 500 GW.
  • Climate change mitigation:
    • If properly harnessed, hydropower could provide reliable access to energy for most of the population and reduce use of traditional fuels, thus also reducing atmospheric black carbon.
  • Support to food production:
    • Climate regulation:
      • Himalayan mountain system creates conditions conducive to agriculture by regulating micro-climate as well as wind and monsoon circulation in India
      • Because of its altitude and its location, directly in the path of the monsoon, it influences precipitation as rain or snow, saving northern India from the gradual desiccation that afflicts Central Asia
    • Agro-biodiversity:
      • The Himalayas are also important storehouses of agro-biodiversity.
      • Over 675 edible plants and nearly 1,743 species of medicinal value are found in the Indian Himalayan region alone
      • The genetic diversity in mountains is particularly high, not only because of mountains’ geographic isolation, but also because the mountain cultures have long traditions of protecting certain plants and animal species

STEPS TAKEN:

  • National Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem:
    • It is one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).
    • It aims to assess the vulnerability of the Himalayan ecosystem and formulate policies to protect the fragile ecosystem based on the scientific study.
  • SECURE Himalaya project:
    • It covers the high Himalayan Ecosystem spread over Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
    • This project is collaboration between the MoEFCC and the UNDP.
    • The objective of the project is to secure people’s livelihood, restore, conserve and use sustainably the high range ecosystems of the Himalayas.
    • The key focus of the project is on improving the enforcement to ensure the reduction in wildlife crime, protection of snow leopard and other endangered species and ensuring a secure livelihood to the people in the region.
  • Species specific initiatives:
    • Project Snow Leopard
      • It aims to promote an inclusive and participatory approach to conserve snow leopards and their habitat.
      • India is also party to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Programme since 2013.
    • Project Hangul
      • It is a project for the protection of the habitat of Hangul or the Kashmir stag.
  • Campaigns:
    • Uttarakhand officially declared September 9 as ‘Himalaya Diwas’ – a day which would be celebrated across the State to spread the message of conservation of the Himalayan ecosystems.
  • Chopra Committee recommendations:
    • The committee studied the impact of receding glaciers on hydroelectric power projects (HEPs)
    • It has in its report objected to the construction of HEPs in regions between 2,200 to 2,500 metres above the sea level (paraglacial regions).

WAY FORWARD

  • Restoration of natural water storage capacity:
    • There is an urgent need for restoration of natural water storage capacity in the Himalayan watersheds through conservation of soil, ice, wetlands, permafrost, lakes, and aquifers;
  • Ensure local community participation:
    • There should be a mechanism for providing incentives to mountain communities for managing Himalayan ecosystems.
  • Rethinking about the hydro power developments:
    • The government should realize that the fragility of the Himalayan mountain’s ecosystems. Governments need to re-prioritize their projects based on the potential of the mountains, local and traditional knowledge as well as the aspirations of the place.
    • Hydro projects should be confined to the areas with the least impact in the Himalayas. Also, the government needs to build more low-impact run-of-the-river power projects rather than building destructive large dams and reservoirs
  • Building environmental awareness
    • Local festivals and fairs must be utilized to spread environmental awareness, with the protection of the environment being linked to local cultures and festivals.
    • Central and state governments must together organize an annual festival of the Himalayas to celebrate local cultures, which demonstrate ways of sustainable living for resilient societies in harmony with the pristine nature of the Himalayas. This will also expose the rest of the country to the importance of the Himalayas in India’s national life.
  • Town planning and adoption of architectural norms
    • Given the ecological fragility of mountainous areas, it is imperative to halt the unplanned growth of new settlements.
    • Instead, there should be consolidation of existing urban settlements to be governed through land-use planning incorporated in a municipal master plan.
    • State authorities will prescribe regulations taking into account the particularities of the local ecosystem, including seismic vulnerability
  • Green Road Construction
    • Roads are the lifeline of this remote and inaccessible region.
    • However, the construction of roads must fully take into account the environmental fragility of the region
    • Environmental Impact Assessment should be made mandatory for the construction of all state and national highways, and expressways of more than 5 km length.
    • All hill roads must provide adequate roadside drains and, wherever possible, be connected to the natural drainage system of the area
  • Regulating tourism:
    • Homestead tourism could be promoted in this area and commercial hotel tourism of the three- to five-star variety discouraged or prohibited
    • Local communities will be encouraged and enabled to provide homestead-based tourist facilities, through a package of incentives and capacity building.
    • Recognizing the adverse impact on Himalayan ecology of unrestrained expansion in vehicular traffic, each state should impose an entry tax for vehicles entering important hill towns

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. “There need an urgent review of developmental projects in Himalayan states, considering the ecological vulnerabilities of the region”. Discuss