Greener tourism in the Himalayas

Guest post from WWF-India

With over 60% of the world’s population concentrated in Asia, the stress on freshwater resources in this continent has risen exponentially, for industry, agriculture, domestic use and recreation. The Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalayan Mountain ranges meet the freshwater needs of the massive human population in central and south Asia.

The lesser known high altitude wetlands (located above 3,000 metres above sea level), often directly fed by glaciers or snow from the surrounding mountains have been identified as some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems on which several species of birds, fish, mammals and human settlements thrive and coexist. These wetlands act as a buffer between glacial melt waters and outflows to smaller rivers and streams, and play an important role in the hydrological regime of mighty rivers like the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus and the Yangtze. Moreover, they also provide livelihood and sustenance to the local people and livestock.

Any change to the dynamics of these wetlands can have a knock-on effect that could reach all the way downstream impacting fish populations, agriculture, river infrastructure, flood cycles and communities in those river basins. With tourism growing at an unprecedented rate in this region, these fragile wetlands and the rare flora and fauna they sustain are in peril.

Increasing numbers of tourists and unsustainable infrastructure development have led to huge problems of solid-waste accumulation, pressure on water and other natural resources, littering and trail degradation due to hiking pressure. Moreover, the huge influx of tourists during the summer season coincides with the peak wildlife activity period (breeding, feeding and reproduction). Animals such as the wild ass are sometimes chased by jeep safaris, while the feeding and breeding grounds of the endangered Black-necked Crane are also disturbed by unhindered tourist movements, posing serious threats to these species. Tourists also clean out the sparse mountain vegetation for campfires. The situation is further aggravated in the absence of garbage-disposal facilities, leading to the practice of dumping garbage into nearby streams, as well as into marmot, mouse, hare or vole burrows.

WWF, recognising the fragility, uniqueness, cultural and spiritual value of these wetlands, has been working since 2000, to conserve them, as well as, the biodiversity which thrives on them. Through its regional initiative, "Saving Wetlands Sky-High!" (SWSH), WWF is working across the Himalayan countries of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and China to encourage governments, NGOs and local communities to take responsibility for their wetlands. The initiative also aims to raise awareness about the importance of these wetlands and their fundamental role in the health of rivers downstream.

In the first phase of conservation efforts, WWF provided support to the national governments in the process of declaration of some of these wetlands as Ramsar sites under the Ramsar Convention – an intergovernmental treaty adopted to conserve wetlands – and documented biodiversity species like the endangered Black-necked Crane. Chandertal and Tsomoriri Lakes in India and Gokyo and Gosaikunda Lakes in Nepal have all been designated as Ramsar sites.

On the ground, WWF is working closely with local communities, NGOs, and the army to set up conservation trusts. Other activities include promoting local home stays; community-owned camping grounds; educational and awareness-raising activities; solid waste management plans and organising training workshops for tour operators and other service providers.

The Green Hiker campaign was launched in 2009 to raise awareness about the vulnerability of the high altitude Himalayan ecosystem and to minimise the negative environmental impact of tourism by encouraging responsible tourism practices. This campaign targets tourists and tour operators and spreads the message – "Nature leaves a mark on you, don’t leave one behind". Though the campaign has taken root in India, it will soon be spreading out to Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and China. 

The shift towards a "greener" kind of tourism is slow. But at least it has begun.