Call of the Himalayas

Article by: CS Upadhyay, professor, aerospace engineering department, IIT Kanpur

With nature’s clock ticking fast, we face an emergency situation. It’s time something is done about the irreversible damages and changes to the magnificent Himalayan environment and ecosystem

Ascending the steep slopes of the Himalayas one is struck by the sheer size, magnificence and majesty of the mountains. The thick forest cover, cool mountain breeze and the sounds of silence — the Himalayan whispers — take the weary traveller to a different world of bliss and peace. The Himalayas welcome all with a serene reassurance, a sublime sight and promise of undiscovered secrets.

Snuggled in the central Himalayas is a small town called Dwarahat. The town is blessed with several ancient temples built by the Katyuri kings. These beautiful stone temples are dilapidated because of age, administrative neglect and the continuous surge of human encroachment. The local community claims that the ancient path to Kedarnath and Badrinath passed through Dwarahat. The king had made replicas of the Badri and Kedar temples for the weary pilgrims who could not go any further. The path followed a small happy and lively stream, or gadhera. Sadly, the gadhera is a victim of modern development and trickles down the slopes — sick and uncared for. Dwarahat used to have several naulas, or natural fresh-water springs. The locals say that there were 300, but only about 30 survive. The local populace worship the mountains as their protector and life-giver and are willing to undergo any hardship to protect them. Yet, they are helpless and mute witnesses to the continuous decline of the health of these towering sentinels of our nation.

The country, especially the scientific community, needs to wake up to this looming crisis and create mechanisms to preserve and interact with the subcontinent’s life-giver and India’s crown jewel — The Himalayas. There is an urgent need to help sustain critical natural resources necessary for life in India and its neighbours. This effort has long been delayed and today we face an emergency situation with nature’s clock ticking fast, bringing about irreversible damages and changes to the Himalayan environment and ecosystem.

There is a need to urgently focus on the Himalayan ecosystem to understand major environmental challenges that confront the nation. The effort should be to evolve sustainable solutions on a host of issues such as rejuvenation of glaciers and ice-caps; replenishment of the water bodies and the great Himalayan rivers — Ganga, Yamuna, Beas and Brahmaputra (to name a few); and enrichment of the ecology and environment of the Himalaya and enable its communities.

The Himalayas are the major source of fresh water, and, so, a preserver of life on the subcontinent. Glaciers are the primary source of our perennial rivers. The world looks at the Himalayas as a major source of fresh-water and a preserver of the habitable environment (comparable in terms of criticality to the poles and hence christened as the third pole). The National Centre for Himalayan Glaciers, supported by the department of science and technology, had in 1986 promoted glaciology — a study of the life and behaviour of glaciers on the “third pole”. Several expeditions to some Himalayan glaciers were conducted, for example to Dunagiri, Bagni Bamak, East Rathong, Gangotri, Chhota Shigri, Naradu, Satopanth, Bhagirath Kharak, Patio, Penslunga, Nehnar, Phuche, Changme Khampu, Sonapani, Gaglee, Dokriani, Chorabari and Hamta glaciers. This programme was seeded in the Wadia Insitute of Himalayan Geology. However, the movement failed to gather steam due to sporadic funding and uncoordinated efforts.

A recent study by Greenpeace ( highlights the disturbing process of melting of large glaciers that are rapidly receding or, altogether disappearing. An example is the reduction in size of Samudra Tapu glacier by about 21 per cent in 40 years (Figure 1). Regular Himalayan buffs will testify to to the destruction at Rohtang, where the Beas mandir — the source of Beas river — is no longer a snow-covered igloo as it was even a decade ago, but a stone structure built on barren land. Yet, no serious attempts have been made to understand snow, its formation and its conservation. Snow modelling and harvesting, ice-formation, consolidation, glacier melting, debris, impact of global warming and studies on high-altitude snow and ice dynamics are not taken up as major and immediate challenges.

Glaciology has to come up in India as an inter-disciplinary activity involving civil engineers, atmospheric scientists, geologists and geophysicists. It has to be exacted as a predictive science that leads to technologies and prescriptions for slowing down, or even reversing the decline of the glaciers. The Divecha Centre for Climate Change in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, the Glaciers Division of the Geological Survey of India, IIT Roorkee, and Wadia Institute are working in this area independently. Yet, India does not have the critical mass of researchers and explorers to achieve the pace and level of advanced research. To reach that level and quality, India should seek support from institutions and organisations from across the world, with expertise in glaciology, such as Scandinavian, Canadian, Russian, American and Swiss universities and centres. Technologies need to be developed on continuous monitoring, data logging and analysis, predictive modelling; along with enhancement of snow catchment and snow harvesting.

A supplementary study should be on avalanches and snow instabilities. The Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) in Manali, set up by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), is the onlyIndian organisation studying avalanches. From P1

Avalanche modelling, prediction and mitigation are internationally pursued research themes that require deep understanding of material models for debris-laden snow, motion of granular materials, dynamics and stability of possibly phase-evolving continuum materials (see Figure 2). Additionally, lab-, medium- and large-scale experiments need to be set up and routinely conducted, similar to the Swiss and American experiments on real avalanches. Field studies will be required, along with creation of a pan-Himalayan grid of sensors to monitor precursor events and also acquire real-time data. Influence of external factors like local climate, noise and pollution levels, human and machine movement induced disturbances need to be incorporated.

Himalayas are earthquake prone, whose effect on avalanches is unpredictable, but catastrophic. This is, therefore, neither easy science nor ready technology! It is imperative to setup centres for snow mechanics and glaciology — possibly in the mountain-located technical institutions as for example in Dwarahat, Hamirpur, Pauri and Mandi.

The Himalayas are conduits of freshwater — tapped for irrigation, industrial activity and hydroelectricity. Several studies have focused on the Ganga: such as the Ganga project undertaken by a consortium led by IITs. Yet, implementable technology and legislations are few. The demand for electricity and water has grown due to industrialisation and population increase. This has led to the creation of several dams and canals in the lower Himalayan regions. The impact of these developments on the Himalayan ecology is relatively unknown and has not been pursued as matters of national importance.

The much-discussed river-linking initiative can be successful only when the rivers carry sufficient quantity (and quality) of water. Ganga is the life-giver to the nation, but other mountain/snow-fed rivers are equally important (see Figure 3). Healthy rivers upstream, through proper water-shed management, legislations, use of appropriate science and technology, will ensure a perennial source of water to the ever-expanding needs of the sub-continental population. Of equal importance will be the preservation of the unique marine life in these rivers. For example, river dolphins that support local livelihoods, foster nature tourism and, importantly, constitute our moral mandate to preserve for a future generation. This demands a trans-Himalayan region collaborative programme, involving all the countries impacted by the Himalayas and Himalayan rivers, to be initiated through a nodal centre for Himalayan river and river ecology studies.

Mountain rivers are not only snow-fed, but also depend critically on wide networks of mountain streams. These streams are not mere tourist attractions, but are a river’s and local community’s life-line. Yet, these stream networks are hardly studied and almost never managed. The savage destruction of popular falls such as Kempty falls, Mussoorie, due to human and commercial interventions has led to a serious decline in the health of these streams. The streams are fed by multitudes of aquifers and springs. Alarmingly, several of these aquifers/springs have dried up, or are drying up. Aquifer mapping, preservation, and study of subterranean water sources needs to be taken up urgently as a major thrust area. Drying of the subterranean water sources may be due to climate change, changing mountain morphology and willful /ignorant human interference.

Water-shed management studies have been undertaken and cascade catchment using check dams and reservoirs has been proposed and tried out. Sadly, the impact has been minimal because solutions have not been implemented. Rains in the Himalayas are intense but short. Over millennia, nature has carved out flow-paths that ensured water retention and recharging of aquifers. However, unplanned and unregulated constructions have obstructed these natural flow-paths, causing excessive water run-off and, often, seeding flash-floods downstream. Mountain communities are willing to assist if properly guided, as they are sensitive to the demands of the mountains. Who can forget the Chipko movement that saved the Himalayas from being denuded of trees. With proper rainwater harvesting, creation of small local reservoirs and by recharging aquifers and rejuvenating streams, sufficient perennial water supply can be created.

The loss of subterranean water, increased mean temperatures, unmonitored forest-fires and unregulated increase in human interference have drastically depleted natural vegetation. This loosens soil along mountain slopes making them unstable and leading to deadly mud and rock slides such as in Joshimath, Kullu and Sikkim. This has a debilitating effect on the Himalayan morphology and also poses a severe threat to civil society and security personnel. In fact, loss of vegetation and aquifer mismanagement are cited as reasons for the greenhouse effect experienced by Shimla. An accompanying unreported tragic outcome is the destruction of animal habitats. It is necessary to develop construction technologies, and town and city planning that minimise impact on Himalayan vegetation and geology. Enhanced monitoring is required to protect against forest-fires, illegal mining and logging. Technologies will have to be developed to better manage and mitigate landslides, forest-fires and similar disasters. At the same time, there is a need to rejuvenate ravaged hillsides. Studies on Mountain slope dynamics and stability should be studied. Some solutions may be available as part of various ongoing research.

Monitoring can benefit from employing state-of-the-art surveillance technologies, electronics, remote sensing and aerial observation platforms — for example, drones and UAVs. Active research on drones and UAVs is going on at IIT Kanpur and other IITs. Technology enabled mountain slope beautification by using drones to spray wild-flower seeds is a possibility. This can spread eco-tourism, with trickle-down benefits to local communities via increased employment. Earthquake monitoring and precursor identification, along with deep-earth sensing technologies need to be developed and deployed. Specialised construction technologies and policies are needed. This will impact agencies in road and rail construction, tunnelling, commercial construction and town planning. Therefore, centres for seismology, twinned with centres for disaster management are required.

The Himalayas are home to an extremely rich collection of flora and fauna, whose preservation is integral to the Himalayan ecology. Rare medicinal, ornamental herbs and plants, fruit-bearing and woody trees abound in these mountains. Human intervention, climate change, receding snow-line have caused not only a migration of flora and fauna to ever higher altitudes, but has, sadly, also pushed certain breeds to extinction. The fragile habitats of mountain wildlife are coming under ever-increasing pressure due to the changing environment and unregulated human pressure. A study of the changing Himalayan environment and population and its impact on the flora and fauna is required. Habitat restoration, agro-forestry based revival of native Himalayan plants, commercial plantations and their impact, studies on the Himalayan gene pool of species and their preservation and energy harvesting from natural resources (e.g. pine needles) need to be made into an exact science. Studies on medicinal herbs, enhancement of naturally extracted chemicals for clinical applications are exciting and untapped areas. India should endeavor to become an international authority on bio-medicines, health products and a repository for Himalayan genomes. We need involvement of academic institutions (along with DRDO and CSIR laboratories) for strong research initiatives through Himalayan bio-science, bio-technology and habitat centres. This should be coupled with centres for the preservation, rejuvenation and modern application of indigenous knowledge systems in medicine (ayurveda) and agriculture.

The pristine environs of the Himalayas have historically motivated the pursuit of higher knowledge —leading to profound contributions to abstract science, astrophysics, philosophy and literature. Kashmir was an ancient seat of vedic studies. We need to create schools of Himalayan art and culture — where thinkers, philosophers and writers can become the source of a new wave of creative Indian literature and philosophy.

Himalayas have preserved memories of the evolving history of the great Indian subcontinent. Communities hiding from marauders; hardy travellers treading the hostile mountain routes to trade; sages and wisdom-seekers; monasteries and seats of religion had sprung up and left a trail of history — buried in the snow, waters (Roopkund), caves and exposed rocks of the mountains. Heritage structures abound in the Himalayas. These need to be understood from a civil engineering perspective so that effective technologies for their discovery, health monitoring, preservation and restoration can be developed. Site development and beautification, in order to boost tourism, is needed as haphazard beautification and development can actually be detrimental to the health of the heritage sites and even lead to large-scale disasters (for example, Kedarnath).

Heritage site mapping and cataloguing, along with health and repair indicators, need to be built. Fields of town-planning, civil engineering, mechanics, materials, geology and archaeology have to come together with managers, artists and social scientists to synergise these heritage sites with local communities, regain their lost splendor and once again become the jewels in India’s crown. Hence, schools of Himalayan archeology, as a unique amalgamation of engineering, archeo-metallurgy and social-science, are needed to revolutionise conservation.

Time is ripe for a national initiative on the Himalayas — as an entity that continues to nurture life. Presently, there are several isolated centres that study isolated aspects of the Himalayan ecosystem. This has led to a rich, but idiosyncratic, body of work on various facets of the Himalayas. Universities of Jammu, Garhwal, Kumaon, Himachal and GB Pant agricultural university are some traditional centres. Several books and monographs, have stemmed from years of research and field studies. A notable and useful discussion is available, for example, in the work entitled Central Himalaya: Ecology, Environmental Resources, and Development by professor DD Maithani (formerly with Garhwal University). However, precise, pertinent, interlinked and comprehensive studies that tie together various aspect of the Himalayan story and are critical to addressing the key environmental issues stemming from the Himalayan ecosystem are missing. The national initiative on the Himalayas should weave together these disconnected efforts, bring together research, adventure, local communitites, invite international participation to actively engage with and understand the sheer diversity and complexity of challenges that the Himalayas pose. Such an initiative could be incubated in a dedicated university or a slew of host education and research institutions so that the younger generation learns to love and care for the greatest ecosystem in the world — the Himalayas. The Indian nation has to listen carefully to the Himalayan whispers — as its destiny is entwined with that of these great mountains.

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