Hill tourist destinations: Building better resilience for climate vulnerability

Himalayan towns that witness large scale tourism activity need to build resilience in view of climatic changes with a sustainable approach

The Char DhamYatra in Uttarakhand took a major hit in 2013 in the wake of the cloudburst and heavy flooding leading to large scale disaster. Year 2014 continued to witness fewerpilgrims. Srinagar saw an acute dip in its tourists’ inflow post the 2014 floods. Excessive snowfall in December 2016 and January 2017 saw several road blockages in Himachal Pradesh and left scores of tourists stranded.

With tourism, come the associated weather-related problems.The past three decades have seen an exponential surge in the ‘developmental’ activities in major towns across the Himalayan states so much so that the risk posed by the massive developments, especially the increasing concretisation and pressure on water availability, need a serious relook vis-a-vis trade-offs for the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.

From the westernmost areas such as Wuler Lake, Srinagar and Leh (Jammu & Kashmir), to popular tourist spots in central Himalayas such as Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), Mussoorie, the pilgrim hub of Uttarakhand to the eastern Himalayan Gangtok (Sikkim), Tawang, Walong, ParshuramKund (Arunachal Pradesh), Indian Himalayas are full of natural beauty. Pristine landscapes, snow-clad peaks, wilderness, deciduous forests, pine forests, cold desert such as Ladakh, and wide river basins such as Brahmaputra – you name it and the Indian Himalayas have it.

Both pilgrim centres and places of general tourist attraction serve a range of purposes. The visitors offer economic growth, livelihood to the locals and bring in investment of all kinds to facilitate the tourists. In fact, at several places along the Himalayas, tourism has become the main source of revenue and livelihood for the people and any kind of adverse impact for whatever reason directly hits the local economy.

Importance of the Himalayas

As many as 10 major river basins originate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) region. Thus, the HKH provideswater, livelihoods, and ecosystem services to more than210 million people and provides water to more than 1.3billion people – a fifth of the world’s population – livingin downstream river basins.

This region, the Hindu Kush Himalayas region, has already started witnessing the impacts due to changing climate. The phenomenon of climate change is no longer restricted to high value research or some sci-fi films, but it is already manifest vis-à-vis increasing precipitation, floods, landslides, avalanches and even droughts. This takes a huge toll on the already vulnerable Himalayan communities and, also poses a challenge for several of its places to continue as tourist attractions.

Many of the towns across the Himalayan states have witnessed an ugly cement-concrete boom because of tourism. The adverse climatic impacts will affect such developments the most.

During a recent international conference ‘Resilient Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH): Developing Solutions towards a Sustainable Future for Asia’ held at Kathmandu, David Molden, Director General of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), called for collective action – including youth and women – for “increasing the resilience of mountain communities in the HKH, where impacts from climate change, outmigration, and dwindling natural resources pose formidable challenges”.

Leh and Tawang – two typical examples

Since the British times, scores of places in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Darjeeling in West Bengal had undergone changes. From sleepy clusters and villages, the places witnessed a rapid makeover into summer hill stations for the Brits, who brought in the paraphernalia leading to a complete change in the character of these places.

For the last three decades, tourism expanded to lesser explored terrain, now on full-fledged tourist itineraries. Leh, the headquarters of the Ladakh region of the State of Jammu and Kashmir on the West and Tawang, the district headquarters of the same name in Arunachal Pradesh are the most striking examples of how a typical Himalayan town grows to accommodate the increased pressure due to tourism.

Both Leh and Tawang have witnessed exponential growth in number of tourists flocking there for the past few years, almost round the year. Both towns are highly dependent on spring water for domestic use. But in view of the commercial establishments, Leh, a place with undulating landscape, has resorted to haphazard withdrawal of groundwater. Tawang, an entirely hilly place, continues to rely mostly on spring water and very less but yes, increase in commercial activity has led to digging borewells there too.

Both the places have seen an exponential rise in concrete buildings such as hotels and guest houses – each of which has a modern toilet and most also have showers. Such establishments are possible only with 24×7 watersupply. This means a two-fold problem. One, the requirement of water goes up and second, with no sewage network and subsequent sewage treatment, the disposal of this sewage is a problem too.

Water and sewage are just two of the problem issues. Tonnes of solid waste generated in these towns lies scattered around the hills due to lack of proper engineered landfill sites.Leh at least has a dedicated dumping site for disposing all municipal waste, Tawang has nothing and small water channels and hills slopes on almost all roads leading outside the town are littered with garbage.

The intergovernmental organisation ICIMOD – India is a partner state along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar in this organisation – has defined “resilience” as the ability of communities and ecosystems to be prepared for shocks, recover from shocks, and “bounce forward” to emerge stronger than before. As was discussed during the conference, ICIMOD and its local partners have been working on developing solutions for resilience building, promoting regional cooperation, and enhancing knowledge for sustainable mountain development.

India’s Mission Himalayas

“The increasing intensity andfrequency of extreme events poses a severe threat that can completely wipe away/wash out the tourism resources & centres(settlements), forest & biodiversity, infrastructure, transport & communication network, support facilities and servicesectors. Such incidents also involve risk of life for tourists and host communities and service providers in destinations andvulnerable areas in transit locations”, points out the Policy Brief on ‘Sustainability of Tourism in Indian Himalayan Region under Climate Change – Analyses of Policy Options’ brought out by the Central Government in 2016.

An important recommendation of this policy brief was “incorporation of climate change and disaster risk factors in tourism development planning” as the Himalayasare vulnerableto disasters and the extreme climatic events are likely to aggravate the intensity and fury of disasters in fragile settingsand socio-economically backward society. Such disasters can damage and wash out the tourism infrastructure, roads& communication networks, the support facilities and cut–off the essential supplies to destinations, it said. Therefore, it was strongly recommended to strictlyadhere to the guidelines as mentioned in the national level and the respective state level action plans for combating climate change. This also includes an effective early warning system for changes in weather patterns and reliable forecast provisions.

Himalayas offers soulful pilgrimage for the devout. Himalayas offers solitude for the seekers. Himalayas offers adventure for the daring. It offers scenic beauty for the traveler. One may be a casual work-related traveler, a pilgrim, an ardent tourist, everyone in enchanted by the hypnotic Himalayan beauty. For us to continue to enjoy all this and much more in the long term, building up a resilient Himalayan community is a must, not an option.

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