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Crisis in the Himalayas

Tags: GS 3 :Conservation Disaster Management

In News

Recently, the hill town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand experienced rapid subsidence (or ground sinking).

•Recently, the hill town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand experienced rapid subsidence (or ground sinking).

More about the news

• The town’s significance:

o Joshimath is the gateway to popular pilgrimage sites such as Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, as well as the popular international skiing resort Auli.


o Despite having a population of only about 23,000, it is densely populated with hotels, resorts, and a bustling market that primarily serves tourists, pilgrims, trekkers, and army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel (ITBP).

o Following the occurrence of rapid subsidence, the town is likely to become uninhabitable, illustrating the consequences of ignoring the key metric of the carrying capacity of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.

Additional Himalayan towns:

o According to reports, Joshimath-like subsidence can also be observed in a number of other Himalayan towns.

Ecological threats to the Himalayas

Ecosystems under duress:

o Due to population growth, industrial and commercial activity, the delicate ecosystem is under tremendous strain.

o Common threats include deforestation, soil erosion, and land use pressure.

Climate Alteration:

o People and wildlife in the Himalayas are affected by climate change.

Numerous glaciers are melting and forming lakes that are susceptible to bursting and downstream flooding as a result.

o Traditional water springs have dried up, resulting in a diminished water supply.

o The unplanned and unauthorised construction has resulted in the obstruction of the natural flow of water, leading to frequent landslides.

Due to increased construction, hydroelectric projects, and the widening of the National Highway, the Himalayan slopes have become extremely unstable in recent decades.

• Habitat Loss:

o The conversion of forests to agricultural use and their exploitation for timber, fodder, and fuelwood threaten the region’s biodiversity.

• The Building of Dams:

o The construction of numerous dams without conducting an adequate environmental impact assessment could result in the inundation of arable land and biodiversity hotspots.

o Not only would the creation of reservoirs result in the flooding of valley habitats, but villagers would also be displaced.

o The impact of dams on fisheries and the ecology of fish is also cause for concern.


Planning urban expansion:

o Unplanned expansion of new communities should be discouraged.

o It would be preferable to consolidate dispersed settlements into semi-urban clusters based on stable terrain features, water availability, and accessibility.

o Facilities:

These should have access to education, health care, and waste management services.

o Tourism:

Tourism must take the form of homestead tourism, as opposed to the construction of opulent eco-lodges.

Local aesthetics and natural harmony must be respected.

• In Joshimath, each of these rules was broken.

• Pilgrimage:

A state-wide inventory of pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan region should be conducted, as well as a scientific estimation of each site’s carrying or load-bearing capacity in terms of the number of pilgrims it can accommodate daily and annually.

The distinction between tourism and pilgrimage should be made crystal clear.


It was suggested that construction of roads should be prohibited beyond 10 kilometres from protected pilgrimage sites, creating an ecological and spiritual buffer zone with minimal human interference. No construction should be permitted within this buffer zone.

Sustainable road constructions:

The concept of eco-friendly road construction was introduced with a number of guiding principles.

No plan for road construction would be approved without provisions for the removal of debris from construction sites.

o This was essential to avoid obstructing natural drainage in the construction site.

o In many parts of the Himalayas, widespread disregard for this rule has caused waterlogging in upstream areas and water scarcity in downstream areas.

Hydropower projects:

o It was acknowledged that the development of hydropower could revolutionise the economies of the Himalayan states and bring prosperity to their inhabitants.

It was also suggested that, in the Himalayan region, hydro projects should generally be of the run-of-river variety, as large-scale water storage reservoirs can significantly disturb a seismically unstable and still-shifting terrain. There have already been a number of major catastrophes.

o The risk-benefit analysis suggests that such projects should not be undertaken in such a fragile and seismically unstable region.

Defence constructions:

o Regarding defence constructions, it is essential to keep in mind that improved access in the short term should not come at the expense of severely disrupted communications in the long term as a result of environmental disasters.

Way ahead

It would be a grave injustice to deny development to populations living in remote mountain regions, but the real issue has always been pursuing development consistent with environmental sustainability.

Multidisciplinary expert teams are urgently required to conduct a comprehensive survey of these communities.

National Initiative for the Conservation of the Himalayan Ecosystem


o India’s first National Action Plan on Climate Change includes eight national missions, one of which is the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem.

• As stated in the mission document, the ecological significance of the Himalayas:

o Himalayan ecosystem is essential to the ecological security of the Indian landmass, which includes the subcontinent of India.

Conservation of abundant biodiversity,

Providing water security as the third ice pole in the world after the Arctic and Antarctica and Influencing regional weather patterns across the subcontinent.

The mission seeks to address the following significant issues:

o Himalayan Glaciers and the associated hydrological consequences;

o Biodiversity conservation and protection; o Wild life conservation and protection;

o Traditional knowledge societies and their means of subsistence; and

o Planning for sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem.

Management of tourist influxes:

    • o The mission proposed measures to “regulate tourist inflows into mountain regions so that they do not exceed the carrying capacity of mountain ecology.”

Mains Practice Question 

[Q] What are the most significant ecological threats to the Himalayan Region? Suggestions for environmentally sustainable urban planning in the Himalayan Region to prevent future occurrences.