• Protect Our Hills and Mountains Please!

    Rashmi Oberoi

    July 1, 2019

    India needs to wake up to safeguard and protect the ecology of our mountain ranges and Ghats that we have been abundantly blessed with. The Himalayan Ranges and the Western Ghats are the principal eco-regions of our country and long term measures need to be put in place to ensure they remain so.

    Our mountains, forests and rivers have for long sustained our massive population. Without these natural resources, much of India would have been a cold and arid landscape.

    Col CP Muthanna, former President Coorg Wildlife Society, Vice Chair, Kodagu Model Forest Trust, & Founder-Secretary, Environment and Health Foundation, [India] has spent painstaking hours in studying how to conserve and protect our land and the immediate remedial steps required. There is a rationale to protect these he explains in depth.

    The Himalayan and the Western Ghats are vital to ensure food and security for the people of India. Huge quantities of water are also required for Industries that propel the nation’s economy. The ‘Make in India’ strategy cannot be sustained without adequate water for industries. He further explains that the manufacture of a single mid-size car requires approximately 1,50,000 litres of water!


    Therefore, environment protection is not at the cost of development but it is vital for ensuring long-term sustainable development and economic stability. Food and water security in their true sense also ensure health security by addressing the issues of malnutrition and water-borne diseases caused by river pollution at source and beyond.

    Degradation of catchment areas and reduced water availability for downstream urban centres will result in overdependence on bore-wells. This has already led to groundwater in Indian cities plummeting to levels where the water is dangerously contaminated with underground minerals and salts.

    If you look around you will see real estate and construction boom – the growth is moving forward at alarming levels. All this is leading to the destruction of river catchments, erosion in food-producing areas, degrading rivers due to sand mining and finally having miles of concrete jungles and no green belts. The urban sprawl has hit us all like a ton of bricks. Only measures to curb rampant urbanisation and protection river catchment and food-growing regions from real estate interests will enhance food security and also protect our rivers.

    Policy-makers are looking at massive river-interlinking projects across the country in order to overcome drought. The economic costs amount to mind-boggling figures. Mountain ranges, forests and river systems have evolved through the millennia.

    Drastic man-made changes to these geographic features carried out directly or induced by man will only cause irreparable harm to humanity. Drought conditions in India are due to reduced inflow into the peninsular rivers originating in the Western Ghats, while the floods are caused by excessive water flow into the Eastern Himalayan Rivers. Both the droughts and floods can be addressed by going into the causes in the catchment areas and by adopting benign measures such as watershed management, forestland restoration and reducing the emissions of short life climate forcers.

    The costs would be perhaps about one-tenth of the funds required for the river interlinking projects. It would be useful to take a look at Kodagu in Karnataka which is a small district of 4,108 square kilometres, astride the Western Ghats. It is the principal catchment for River Cauvery and provides almost 50 percent of the total inflow. River Cauvery sustains about 80 million people across South India and also provides water for hundreds of major industries. Protection of the Kodagu landscape and other similar regions is in the national interest.

    Hence, it is a matter of deep concern that these areas are being subjected to rapid urbanisation and invasive tourism. Across Kodagu, paddy fields and coffee plantations are fast being converted to residential layouts, sites, villas and tourist resorts. Meanwhile, development projects such as national highways, railways, power lines and hydro-electric projects are poised to rip through Kodagu.

    The Prime Minister had announced that the North Eastern States would be turned into a global hub for organic produce. This is precisely what needs to be done for the entire country. Each region or sub-region needs to be identified as a zone for a specific purpose and the policies should be formulated and implemented accordingly.
     

    Principal eco-regions – essentially catchment areas and food-growing belts need to be kept relatively free from demographic pressures to the extent possible. The concept of zone-level planning if successfully implemented in India can also be adopted by other countries.

    We need policies to be formulated with a time-vision of around the Year 2050. At that timeline, the policymakers can easily foresee the projected population with estimates of the productive and dependent percentage and the requirements by that time in terms of water, food, energy, housing, education, industries etc.

    Forests are often linked with catchment areas. India has de-notified 700,000 hectares of forests during the past decade for the sake of development projects. Today, vast areas of our country reel under the spectre of drought. Various reports have warned that India is headed for a devastating water crisis. Government policies are urgently required to ensure the protection of catchment areas. Even as of now the Chennai water crisis is staring us in the face! We have no time to lose.

    Meanwhile, across the country, man-animal conflict is on the rise. Elephants, leopards, bears and even gaurs are increasingly coming into direct contact with human populations outside forest areas. Monkey menace is also a serious problem in many places.

    There is growing anger and frustration among communities adjacent to forest areas. There is constant demand on the Forest Department to capture, cull, trans-locate and barricade. But unfortunately, the focus is only on the species and not on the root causes of habitat destruction which translates to the destruction of catchment areas.

    Col. Muthanna stresses the need to look beyond our borders when it comes to the looming threat of climate change. The most important case in point is the Himalayan ranges that are vital to food and water security for a sixth of the world’s population across South Asia, China and South East Asia. The effects of climate change in the Himalayas could also pose a threat to our internal security due to Influx of Climate Refugees.

    If the Himalayas are to be protected from climate change there is a need for cooperation between these concerned nations. Climate change mitigation strategies through reduction of Short Life Climate Forcers (especially Black Carbon) are easily within our reach and at almost no cost.

    Col. Muthanna has written a concept paper on the HIMEK Alliance. It is a proposal for the countries of the Himalayas and the Mekong basin to form a regional cooperation for the reduction of Black Carbon emissions coupled with large scale Forest Land Restoration.

    Due to his protracted efforts, the International Union for Conservation of Nature [Asia Regional Office] and the Asian Institute for Technology, both based in Bangkok, have signed an MOU last year on the basis of the HIMEK Alliance proposal. In India, we have excellent scope for afforestation of the Himalayas through Ecological Territorial Army units manned by able-bodied ex-servicemen points out Col. Muthanna.

    There is still time to save these precious eco-regions. The Himalayas, in particular, holds out an immense opportunity for international cooperation and this could be a beacon of hope for other shared eco-regions such as the Alpine ranges, the Andes and the Arctic Icecap. India should lead the way!


     

    First published in The Citizen.

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