From time immemorial, the magnificent, snow capped Himalayan ranges have been held in awe and reverence with the Indian spiritual literature describing this mountain stretch as “divinity incarnate”. As a source of mighty rivers watering many countries in South and South-East Asia, Himalayas play a crucial role in supporting a huge human population across a large swath of the Asian continent. In the Indian context, Himalayas are crucial for the well being of the thickly populated Gangetic plains in Northern India. Massive deforestation in the upper reaches of the Himalayas has been the root cause of devastating floods and landslides that batter many parts of northern and eastern India with recurring regularity.
On another front, over the year’s reckless promotion of trekking, mountaineering and tourism in the upper reaches of Himalayan region has resulted in this ecologically significant, mighty mountain range turning into a giant rubbish dump. The numerous mountaineering expeditions that followed the historic conquest of Everest—about six decades back by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay—have shattered the tranquillity and peaceful poise of Himalayas. The Nepal Tourism Year celebrated in 2011 which attracted a growing number of trekkers and adventurers, many of whom made it to the Everest region, did contribute in its own way to the increasing volume of litter dump in the Himalayas. It has been estimated that around 100-tonne of litter in the form of empty oxygen cylinders, canisters, tent materials, food items, blankets and polyester bags strewn haphazardly by mountaineering expeditions remain along the route to Everest. At one point of time, Sir Edmund Hillary irked by the pollution and ecological degradation near the base camp to Everest had referred to it as the “highest junkyard in the world.”
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Incidentally, since the 1950s, there has been an exponential explosion in the number of mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayan peaks. For every 10-member expedition team attempting to scale a major Himalayan peak an average of 30 porters and a large number of baggage animals, mostly goats move around the mountain heights destroying vegetation. Further, the camps established by the expeditions would clear acres of grasslands in the alpine meadows. Meanwhile there is concern over the growing threat to the lands of Himalayan kingdom due to a sudden rise in the demand for timber to feed the booming economy of Tibet. With the tourism and pilgrimage infrastructure of Tibet being strengthened, the demand for timber in the once forbidden kingdom has gone up by a substantial extent.
There is no exact estimate of the rubbish including discarded oxygen canisters, climbing gear and food packaging left behind each year by mountaineering expeditions. While mountain guide Sherpas make their living by leading expeditions to base camps and beyond, entrepreneurs have set up small outlets to cater to the needs of occasional climbers. In a recent development, the Nepalese Government has said that the mountaineers and support staff climbing Mount Everest must bring back at least of 8 Kg of rubbish each on their descent. But then the recent move of the Nepalese Government to bring down the climbing fee for Mount Everest is expected to give a big boost to the mountaineering expeditions to the world’s highest peaks with serious consequences for its eco health. This move has upset various environmental groups working for preserving the ecological balance of the Mount Everest. Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner had sometime back urged Nepal to block access to Mount Everest for some time with a view to help the mountain peak and its surroundings recuperate and recover from the incessant onslaughts of human intervention.
Radhakrishna Rao (The writer is Senior Columnist)