The threats to the Himalaya that rose and retreated this year
Stephen Alter, author of 'Wild Himalaya', shortlisted for the NIF Book Prize 2020, observes that the pandemic has been both good and bad for fragile ecosystems, in an exclusive essay for Lounge
A single year in the vast timeline of Himalayan history is all but insignificant. The 366 days that have made up 2020 matter very little when compared to the prolonged changes occurring over thousands of centuries. In the rapid-fire world we have created for ourselves, boasting instantaneous communication and our ability to gratify virtually any desire with a keystroke or the swipe of an index finger, there is a tendency to imagine that everything around us is accelerating at the same pace. Yet, mountains teach us patience. They are not measured in megabytes or gigahertz. The Himalaya were here before our anthropoid ancestors evolved into the frenetic creatures we have become, and ultimately this geological protrusion of the earth’s crust will outlast our species.
Nevertheless, in my lifetime, human beings have done more to change the face of the Himalaya than several millennia of orogeny – the natural process of mountain building and erosion. We have reshaped the contours of ridges with terraced fields that alter the angle of a slope. We have cut paths and roads through narrow gorges and across high passes. We have built villages, towns and cities where grasslands and forests once stood. We have constructed dams and redirected the course of Himalayan rivers, clogging vital arteries with concrete.
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But more than any of these intrusive developments, it is our contributions to climate change that will probably have the greatest consequences for the Himalayan region. Of course, nowadays it has become convenient to blame everything on “global warming,” from unseasonal storms to viral diseases, often without much scientific evidence. Gradual increases in average temperatures and accompanying changes in humidity are difficult to discern or measure, but there is no doubt that these are causing significant environmental degradation. Himalayan glaciers are probably the most visible evidence, as almost all of them are in retreat and some at an alarmingly rapid pace.
Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic has been good for most Himalayan environments. Though it has caused enormous human suffering and economic hardship, a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, on account of India’s lockdown, provided a brief respite from airborne pollution and the immediate effects of greenhouse gases. For a while this year the internet was full of photographs of snow-covered mountains visible for the first time in decades from places like Singhwahini in Bihar, Saharanpur in UP and Ludhiana in the Punjab. Aside from demonstrating convincingly how vehicular exhaust and industrial smog veil the sky, these few short months of clarity also provided the mountains with a momentary reprieve from particles of carbon and other forms of dust that are carried by the wind to settle upon snowcaps and glaciers, darkening their surfaces and causing them to absorb more sunlight and melt at a faster rate.
Now that the lockdown has been eased, even if the coronavirus is still rampant, the Himalaya are once again lost in a miasmal haze. Meanwhile, a number of other environmental factors have changed significantly this year. Religious tourism to sacred sites in the Himalaya dropped to record lows. This will have a beneficial effect on the ecology of river valleys, even if it disadvantages many people who depend on pilgrim traffic for their livelihood. Anecdotal evidence suggests that wildlife like brown bears and blue sheep, in places such as Gangotri National Park, were more evident and active this year in the absence of migrant herdsmen, trekkers and pilgrims. Unfortunately, another significant threat to the Himalaya is the militarization of border areas. Even as the pandemic put a damper on most human activity, Chinese incursions along India’s northern frontier ignited dormant conflicts that have led to a larger army presence in the mountains, which inevitably results in ecological damage.
2021 has one less day on the calendar than its predecessor but it is likely to accelerate and accentuate the many causes and consequences of climate change. In the year ahead, as we eventually begin to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, it is unlikely that anyone will recall or appreciate the recent environmental lessons the Himalaya have taught us. Neither patience nor prudence are traits inherent to Homo sapiens and the brief hiatus of the lockdown will soon be forgotten in our headlong pursuit of unbridled growth and development. Just seven years ago, in 2013, a fragile ice dam burst above Kedarnath, triggering flash floods that ravaged the watershed of the Ganga and caused enormous loss of life. In the aftermath, conservationists hoped that a greater awareness of the risks of melting glaciers might emerge out of that tragedy. But little has changed. More than likely, the broader consequences of the current pandemic will also be forgotten as man continues his assault on nature.
Under the circumstances, it is difficult for Himalayan environmentalists not to become pessimistic, projecting all kinds of doomsday scenarios. Our industrious desire to manufacture faster and faster inventions has propelled the Anthropocene – this epoch of human domination – to a point of no return. At the same time, it is important for us to understand the core message of the mountains: Change is inevitable but not necessarily at our pace or at our behest.
We often think of the Himalaya as being eternal and immutable. Yet, this young range of mountains is constantly evolving. Tectonic forces that began fifty million years ago, when primordial continents collided, continue to push the Himalaya skyward while the corrosive and creative flow of water constantly scours the land even as it generates new life. For the past ten thousand years, since the last ice age ended, there has been a steady migration of plants, trees, insects, birds and mammals that have ascended slowly to occupy the spaces vacated by glaciers and snow fields.
Climate change was already occurring when Stone Age hunters crossed the Indus from the north and entered the Himalaya in search of prey. Those nomadic people left behind remarkable petroglyphs of the wildlife they encountered – ibex, bharal, yak and snow leopards – which can still be seen today on boulders in Ladakh. The simple stories our ancestors etched on the surface of stones speak of a primal struggle to survive. These images of animals remind us that our species is only one of many creatures that inhabit these highlands. The mysteries and moral lessons that emerge from these rocks, speak of the slow passage of Himalayan history in which one year of our lifetimes is no more than a pebble on the summit of Mt. Everest. It is our responsibility not to hasten the forces of nature but to live in concert with the rhythm of the mountains, their profoundly patient tempo.
Wild Himalaya is shortlisted for the NIF Book Prize 2020.