Environmental Conservation in the Himalayan Region

Abstract: The Himalayan region represents one of the most dynamic landscapes of the world. The hostile climatic conditions and land terrain makes it extremely vulnerable to even the slightest of disturbances. The Art of Living has initiated the Himalayan Unnati Mission – a movement to Preserve, Protect & Resurrect the biological, economic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of the Himalayas.

Author: Sanjam Kaur

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Measures to combat environmental issues in Himalayan region have been undertaken for the past 50 years. These usually revolve around afforestation, rainwater harvesting and expansion of green cover. A wide range of research has been undertaken in this region to figure out sustainable ways of protecting the environment fostering the livelihoods.

On one end of the spectrum, certain measures are doing wonders and are creating positive tangible impacts whilst others have failed to run in the long run and have proved to be unsustainable. The Art of Living initiated the Himalayan Unnati Mission in this respect. It is a movement to Preserve, Protect & Resurrect the biological, economic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of the Himalayas.

The initiative blends policy level research for state and central government, with grassroots developmental projects in the Himalayan Region by working with Government, Quasi Government, Researchers, Individuals, Corporates & NGOs as knowledge partners, to create a cross exchange of best practices across the Himalayas.

The Earth does not belong to the man. 

The Man belongs to the Earth.

The Himalayan region represents one of the most dynamic landscapes of the world. The hostile climatic conditions and land terrain makes it extremely vulnerable to even the slightest of disturbances.

Various milestones that have been achieved under Himalayan Unnati Mission are as follows:
– Students getting free education: 9385+
– Farmers trained in natural farming: 5000+
– Solar electricians trained: 4100
– People benefitted by solar electrification: 165000
– Candidates trained in different skills: 4450

With an endeavour to maintain the pristine nature of the Himalayan region and bring in sustainable growth, considerable steps have been undertaken on Solar Electrification, which is one of the cleanest forms of energy leaving no carbon foot prints.
Further since 2013, thousands of our dedicated volunteers are striving to revive our drying and dying rivers.

It is our mission to bring our rivers back to life and keep them free flowing, thereby solving the water crisis and making a positive impact on climate change. Impact oriented scientific methodology and our team of experts are spearheading this mammoth task.

9.6 million Trees were planted by The Art of Living volunteers under the Mission Green Earth initiative.

The activity not only helps in rejuvenating water bodies but also helps to rejuvenate air and soil. So far, various water conservation measures have been undertaken and 4 states, 47 rivers, and 1000+ water bodies have been impacted positively.

– Scientific methods: Geospatial technology and remote sensing
– Inclusive Approach: All stakeholders are taken onboard from farmers to scientists.
– Restoring Ecosystem: We are trying to bring back the natural hydrological balance.

– 48 rivers and 100+ water bodies are being revived.
– 22562 recharge structures have been built.
– 7000000 people have been benefitted in about 6186 villages.

The agricultural and traditional practices are unique to this area, which is why any potential solution demands unique approach in terms of research and implementation. It represents the highest mountain system on Earth and extends more than 2400 km in length.

Extensive research has been conducted in this region.

The region is prone to severe monsoons and high intensity Earthquakes which makes it extremely challenging to sustain. To add fuel to the fire, anthropogenic pressures like deforestation and land use changes have further impacted the entire ecology of the region. We need to create an equilibrium between environment and economy. NITI Aayog considers Himalayan region as one of the five pillars for achieving sustainable development in the country. The urgency of the situation can be understood by the facts as mentioned below.
  • According to world wildlife fund, The Eastern Himalayans faces following issues: o Species loss o Infrastructure development. o Some 163 native species have already been considered as globally threatened.
  • Climate change is major factor which accelerates environmental degradation and glacier retreat. Reserves of fresh water are disappearing and it has dramatic impact on lives and livelihoods of people.
  • Conversion of forest into agricultural land and exploitation of forest cover is a major threat to the region.
  • Wood charcoal production
  • Intensive grazing
  • Poaching
  • Severe landslides.
  • Human-wildlife conflict is predominant in the region.
  • Killing of snow leopard for livestock and other reasons is yet another predicament.
  • Moreover, development of infrastructure demands energy. Eastern Himalayas mostly relies on hydroelectric power. Current projects are unsustainable in long run. Proper research needs to be undertaken rather than directly replicating scientific models.
  • Creation of dams without deliberate research and thoughtful thinking has put fish ecosystem in threatening condition.
  • Connectivity is yet another challenge. Roads are extremely important for development of any region. Roads are not properly constructed. This region hosts some of the world’s most dangerous roads which make it difficult for children to access schools and healthcare resources. Proper research must be undertaken rather than mere replication of western models.
  • The culture inherently present in this region needs to be preserved as well.
  • Geological evidence provides insights on great earthquakes which happen every few hundred years. The magnitude usually exceeds 8 on Richter scale and damage is severe.
  • According to a study conducted by Foster and Rosenweig (2003), the major problem in the regions of Uttaranchal and Himachal is degradation rather than deforestation. Tree branches are extremely fragile and have limiting foliage.
  • The same study mentions that 61% of forest areas sampled exhibited crown cover below ecologically sustainable threshold of 40%.
  • Average Basal Area exceeded the sustainability threshold of 40 square meters.
  • Firewood collection times have increased to 60% but walking time to forest increased only by 10%. This is due to decreasing quality of firewood.
  • With economic growth comes environmental consequences. Rising consumption levels (up to 95 percentile) result in increased firewood collection.
  • Certain demographic factors are also responsible here. Rising population levels and land use patterns aggravate the crisis.
  • On the other hand, household size is also shrinking day by day.
  • According to statistics, in a situation wherein productive assets are growing by 10% in Himalayan region, firewood grows by less than 0.2%.On the other hand, similar growth in population can increase the same by 9.9%.
  • Households also end up accumulating firewood in agricultural seasons.
  • Local inequality and income divide is yet another challenge.

Water Crisis

The region is also impacted severely by water crisis. Springs are disappearing and only 29% of Ganga water is from the glaciers. This is till when the sacred river reached Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. NITI Aayog (the think tank of India) published a report on the revival of Himalayan Springs. According to the report, Himalayan springs play a core role in maintaining the flow of Mountain Rivers. Of 5 million springs that are present in the entire country, let alone 3 million springs find their homes in Himalayan region.

About 50% percent of the perennial springs dried up or have turned seasonal, which further aggravates the problem. This also has ramifications on river ecology and fish ecosystem. The flow of rivers is decreasing which in turn can be detrimental for farmers of Northern India.

The 5 major facets of the problem are:
  • Lack of sustainable sourcing of water
  • Failing models of water governance
  • Inequitable distribution of water
  • The ignored role of women in water governance
  • The increasing impact of climate change.
In Almora alone, the number of streams have reduced to 60 from the past 360 in mere 150 years. The drying of springs demands immediate attention because spring water is the only source of water for 50 million people in 60,000 villages that lie in the belt. Village people meet their water needs via stream drinking water.

About 60% of them are directly dependent on them. To understand the magnitude of the problem, we also need to understand that 64 percent of cultivable land is irrigated by streams. Such disappearing streams are a threat to lives and livelihoods of farmers.

Glacial ice and snow have been affected deeply too. Global warming and climate change has resulted in increased glacial melt. This also results in frequent glacial bursts like that of Uttrakhand region.

Mountain regions provide about 60-80% of world’s freshwater resources and 24% of the clean energy. Their utility is enormous. The entire country’s ecosystem is dependent on them. Himalayan region also fuels majority of rivers in the country. The threat is not only confined to this particular region, but to the entire world.

Warming in Himalayas has been much greater than the global average of 0.74 over the last 100 years. It has the potential to affect half a million people residing in the region. With current threshold of world poverty and food crisis, we cannot afford to let it increase anymore. 1 in every 3 children is at the threat of food insecurity. We might run out of water in a few decades if immediate action is not taken.


The infamous theory of Himalayan degradation stated that after the year 1950, Himalayan region has been exposed to an array of problems:
  • Increased demand of fuel wood.
  • Massive deforestation
  • Loss of lands
  • Frequent flooding
  • Soil erosion
This year has been deemed as the turning point for this region. Fast forward today, this region requires our immediate attention. Because of large scale and massive exploitation, many government laws and rules have been passed.

The challenge is to create a dynamic ecosystem which is sustainable in long run. The problem is that we are trying to integrate western solutions in Indian landscape. People need to understand the problem at the grassroots level and find viable solution.

We used to plant Peepal, Banyan, Tamarind, Mango (the trees which provided shade and fruits to the passersby). However, when we started planting and capitalizing on British aesthetic trees: Gulmohar, etc. this didn’t work out very well. They look gorgeous but add little to biodiversity.

The people residing in this region have in depth knowledge of the same. We need to address their concerns and then take a viable action.

Proposed Solutions

The key to problem solving in this region lies in understanding the problem better. For ages, governments and people have failed to deliberately take a thoughtful action that has been tremendously sustainable in long run.

Climate change is affecting Himalayan region more than any other place on this Earth. Collective action to curb carbon emissions are needed to be taken.

To keep a tab on climate change, international institutions need to come together. Entire world needs to unite together as a family to ensure that climate change is taken a lot more seriously. Not to mention how it is due to sheer courtesy of highly developed countries that contribute the maximum to climate change and underdeveloped and developing countries the bear the most brunt of global heating.

With increasing food insecurity and global climate crisis, people need to come together and take individual actions too. A major caveat here is that most of the people in Himalayan region are reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the climate change is real. Mere unacceptance of the issue becomes a major impediment in taking corrective action against the same. The clock is ticking and we must act now before it is too late.

71% of emissions coming from Himalayan region are contributed by Himachal Pradesh alone. A report published by WWF and TERI (The energy and resources institute) elucidate on 17 space heating solutions which can create an impact in the given region. The heating controls can help in prevention of degradation of forest cover, thereby saving the environment and ecology altogether. Mentioned below is a table showing the cost benefit analysis of a number of heating solutions which can be implemented in Himalayan region.

Currently, pine trees are being recklessly grown on the region. Not that they are not lucrative enough, but they are not compatible with the landscape that is present there. The cone of pine trees falls down and catches fire extremely easy. This makes this region extremely vulnerable to forest fires. Rather than blindly following western methods of forest conservation, we need to go back to our traditional roots and ensure that we grow trees that adapt to the diversity and terrain and spatial conditions of the region.

In terms of plants, here are certain recommendations:
Different trees can be grown in different regions. Bamboos can be grown on steep slopes, oaks and Indian chestnuts on the lithsol and alder trees along the watercourses on the steeper slopes. Deodar Cedar are highly values endemic species and they usually grow in western part of the range.

Further, we need to ensure that we are taking care of endangered species and medicinal plants. 14 Himalayan medicinal plants, which have to power to wade away diseases ranging from cancer to anorexia face very high risk of extinction. Certain critically endangered species include:
  • Aconitum chasmanthum: dried root used in Ayurvedic medicines
  • Gentiana kurroo: leaf powder, root and flower tops used in Ayurveda and Unani
  • Gymnocladus assamicus: pods harvested to make soap by indigenous communities
  • Lilium polyphyllum: white lily, used against respiratory disorders and in skincare
  • Saussurea costus: roots and oil used to treat worm infections, against asthma, cough and intestinal diseases amongst others.
Local communities are the major stakeholders no matter what plan of action is implemented. It is therefore important that we take their opinion into consideration and understand the indigenous practices which have helped them to sustain themselves for so long. Ecological conservation is an intricate process and needs to take all the factors into account.

Certain trees if planted, can have adverse impacts on local hydrology and have the capability of reducing water availability. Tree plantations can nevertheless help in recharging groundwater levels, if implemented thoughtfully.

Ministry of environment, forest and climate change has published a compendium of case studies pertain to Himalayan region. It includes the best practices and captures the very essence of what worked and didn’t work in that region. It is one document that can be referred to whilst framing policies and programs.

Energy lies at the core of sustainable development. In the HKH region, hydropower is one of the most promising environmentally friendly sources of energy. With a potential estimated to be 500,000 MW, the region has abundant opportunities for hydropower development. Energy security can open up opportunities for development and employment and contribute to the national GDP.

Old methods of harvesting like naulas and dharas can be leveraged to save water and use it for commercial and household purposes. Ancient wisdom has been so far extremely beneficial in guiding management of natural resources. We need to go back to our roots and integrate traditional measures with modern technology.
SOME PROGRAMS AND INITIATIVES: Mention below are some of the ongoing missions:
– National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS)
– National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE)
– Protecting Himalayan glaciers is another initiative by World Bank which aims at solving problems predominant in this region.
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report lately which said that Himalayan glaciers have the propensity to disappear by the year 2035.
– Ministry of forest, environment and climate change
– National Centre for integrated mountain development

Sustainability and Monitoring

One aspect common in all unsustainable solutions is that they were implemented without much in depth research and study. For sustainable solutions, we need to monitor the impact at every stage of the entire process. We need to ensure that areas wherein strategies are implemented are first taken care of in terms of pilot projects and then expanded in terms of scale. We can learn from the case studies that have proved lucrative results and replicate those models.

MENTIONED BELOW IS ONGOING FRAMEWORK OF A MISSION CONDUCTED BY NMSHE (National Mission for sustaining Himalayan ecosystem)

Study References

  • https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2020.603422/full
  • https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/eastern_himalaya/threats/#:~:text=The%20Eastern%20Himalayas%20faces%20a,%2C%20and%20infrastructure%20(development)
  • https://savehimalayas.org/
  • https://bioone.org/journals/mountain-research-and-development/volume-24/issue-4/0276-4741_2004_024_0312_FTADIT_2.0.CO_2/Fuelwood-Timber-and-Deforestation-in-the-Himalayas/10.1659/0276-4741(2004)024[0312:FTADIT]2.0.CO;2.full
  • A Foster and M. Rosenzweig (2003), “Economic Growth and the Rise of Forests”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118: 601-637.
  • https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/desertification-in-india-where-are-himalayan-springs–66555
  • https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/a-himalayan-plunder-29090
  • https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/climate/how-altitude-will-decide-himalayan-communities-survival/
  • https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/climate/thirsty-in-the-himalayas/
  • https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/nayakgiri-a-leader-within-an-individual/protecting-the-protector-of-india/
  • https://wwfin.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/sustainable_space_heating_solutions_in_the_himalayan_region.pdf
  • http://www.knowledgeportal-nmshe.in/
  • https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/112-medicinal-plants-in-himalayas-threatened-but-conservation-plans-in-place-for-just-5/articleshow/80279192.cms
  • https://www.farreachesfarm.com/Himalayas-Plants-s/2415.htm
  • https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/why-frenzied-tree-planting-is-no-answer-to-ecological-restoration/article35759379.ece
  • https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/protecting-the-himalayas/article2672059.ece
  • https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/sustainable-heating-can-cut-co2-by-30-in-himalayan-region/articleshow/76738397.cms
  • https://www.mountaininitiative.in/images/Report_Final_Correction_June_02_2021.pdf
  • https://reliefweb.int/report/india/changing-face-himalayas
  • https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/the-himalayan-waters-complex-challenges-and-regional-solutions-49113