China and India have been competing with each other to build hydroelectric dams in an ecologically fragile and seismically vulnerable area.
GS Paper 3: Environmental conservation; Environmental pollution and degradation; Environmental Impact Assessment
- By planning hydropower projects, India and China are placing the Himalayan region at great risk. Discuss. 15 Marks
- Define the concept of carrying capacity of an ecosystem as relevant to an environment. Explain how understanding this concept is vital while planning for sustainable development of a region.
Dimensions of the Article:
- About Himalayan Biodiversity
- Significance of the Himalayan Ecosystem
- Threats related to Himalayan Biodiversity
- Steps taken to conserve the Himalayan Biodiversity
- Way Forward
About Himalayan Biodiversity
- Himalayas form about 12% of the country’s landmass and is home to about 30.16% of it fauna and 31.6% of its flora.
- In, India, Himalayas is spread over six states – Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. • It is divided into two bio-geographic zones namely – Trans-Himalayas and Himalayas based on the physiographic, climatic and eco-biological attributes.
- Himalayas is endowed with a varied biodiversity from alluvial grasslands to subtropical broadleaf forest, mixed conifers and conifer forests in higher hills and alpine meadows above the tree line.
- Himalayas has high species diversity and endemism and is one of the hotspots located in India.
- Himalayas has over 131 protected areas which include 20 national parks, 71 wildlife sanctuaries, five tiger reserves, four biosphere reserves and 7 Ramsar Sites.
Significance of the Himalayan Ecosystem
The Himalayas are the body and soul of India. In a very special measure, the Himalayas constitute India’s national mountain system. The following few points will bring out the significance of the Himalayan Mountains to India.
- Climatic Influence: The Himalayas play a very significant role in influencing the climate of India. By virtue of their high altitude, length and direction, they effectively intercept the summer monsoons coming from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea and cause precipitation in the form of rain or snow.
- Defence: The Himalayas have been protecting India from outside invaders since the early times thus serving as a defence barrier. But the Chinese aggression on India in October, 1962 has reduced the defence significance of the Himalayas to a considerable extent.
- Source of Rivers: Almost all the great rivers of India have their sources in the Himalayan ranges. Abundant rainfall and vast snow-fields as well as large glaciers are the feeding grounds of the mighty rivers of India.
- Fertile Soil: The great rivers and their tributaries carry enormous quantities of alluvium while descending from the Himalayas. This is deposited in the Great Plain of North India in the form of fertile soil, making the plain one of the most fertile lands of the world.
- Hydroelectricity: The Himalayan region offers several sites which can be used for producing hydroelectricity. There are natural waterfalls at certain places while dams can be constructed across rivers at some other places. The vast power potential of the Himalayan Rivers still awaits proper utilisation.
- Forest Wealth: The Himalayan ranges are very rich in forest resources. In their altitude, the Himalayan ranges show a succession of vegetal cover from the tropical to the Alpine. The Himalayan forests provide fuel wood and a large variety of raw materials for forest based industries.
- Agriculture: The Himalayas do not offer extensive flat lands for agriculture but some of the slopes are terraced for cultivation. Rice is the main crop on the terraced slopes. The other crops are wheat, maize, potatoes, tobacco and ginger. Tea is a unique crop which can be grown on the hill slopes only.
- Tourism: By virtue of their scenic beauty and healthy environment, the Himalayan ranges have developed a large number of tourist spots. The hilly areas in the Himalayas offer cool and comfortable climate when the neighbouring plains are reeling under the scorching heat of the summer season.
- Minerals: The Himalayan region contains many valuable minerals. There are vast potentialities of mineral oil in the tertiary rocks. Coal is found in Kashmir. Copper, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt, antimony, tungsten, gold, silver, limestone, semi-precious and precious stones, gypsum and magnesite are known to occur at more than 100 localities in the Himalayas.
Threats faced by Himalayan Biodiversity
- Climate Change and Global Warming – It is one of the biggest threat faced by many threatened species of vertebrates and mammals and is evident from the shifting distribution of certain species such as Asiatic Black Bear, Snow Leopard etc.
- Poaching – Illegal trade in some of the flagship species such as snow leopard, tigers etc. Has led to uncontrollable poaching and killing of wild animals for trade.
- Human – Animal Conflict – The retaliatory killing by the farmers and villagers is also a major threat.
- Habitat loss and Receding glaciers due to climate change – Climate change has many associated impact on an ecosystem which leads to changed precipitation pattern and change in mean temperature. This results in loss of endemic plants species and loss of glaciers in the Himalayas.
- Unregulated harvesting of Himalayan Herbs – Some of the Himalayan herbs have medicinal qualities such as Himalayan trillium, due to which they are extensively harvested combined with grazing of cattle leads to their vulnerability and possible extinction.
- Alien Species – Alien species are a threat to endemic species because they grow unchecked and do not have natural predators such as lantana camara.
- Natural threats – Threats such as landslides and shifting river course also impact the natural vegetation and faunal diversity.
- Encroachment: There is increasing population pressure seen in terms of extension of agricultural land, exploitation of forests for timber, fodder and fuel wood, intensive grazing. These are the major factors contributing to the habitat loss of various flora and fauna.
- Infrastructure Development: The competition to develop economy, increasing urbanisation, attaining energy security, connecting remote areas intrudes massively in the natural ecosystem of the Himalayan region.
- Waste Disposal: Human populations, their habitat, discharge from the industries in Himalayan regions give rise to unimaginable non-biodegradable wastes and toxics. These foreign substances enter in the local food chain and through bioaccumulation and biomagnifications completely alter the natural ecosystems.
- Political reasons: Insurgencies, wars, military operations and presence of war zone along India’s Pakistan and China Border cause destruction of forests and the biodiversity.
- Ceasing the conservation effort: Down listing the species from ‘endangered’ to only ‘vulnerable’ signals that the species does not require the same amount of attention and resources as before
Steps taken to conserve the Himalayan Biodiversity
- Secure Himalaya Program – The project aims to:
- Sustain critical ecosystem services (such as fresh water, erosion reduction, mineral resources, land for food crops, medicinal plants, etc.)
- conserve vulnerable snow leopards and other endangered species by securing community livelihoods, enhancing enforcement, strengthening community institutions,
- Improving knowledge, advocacy and information systems for promoting landscape-based conservation approaches.
- The National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE)- is one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). It is a multi-pronged, cross-cutting mission across various sectors. It contributes to the sustainable development of the country by enhancing the understanding of climate change, its likely impacts and adaptation actions required for the Himalayas- a region on which a significant proportion of India’s population depends for sustenance.
In a recent article in Nature, Maharaj K. Pandit, a Himalayan ecologist, says in recent years, the Himalayas have seen the highest rate of deforestation and land use changes. He suggests that the upper Himalayas should be converted into a nature reserve by an international agreement. He also says the possibility of a Himalayan River Commission involving all the headwater and downstream countries needs to be explored.