Trekking has become a ‘to-do’ activity recently. While this sport was only meant for rofessionals a couple of decades ago, today, almost every person can climb a mountain with the help of organisations which lead such expeditions.
As a traveller myself, I have analysed the problem of litter, waste disposal and air pollution in the initial camps in Indian Himalayan Region. In contrast to what I see, local community up there is the most responsible set of people as compared to the ones living in plains and south. They are mindful of cleaning the roads, trails and pick up plastic wherever possible. During interaction with tourists, they make sure that they don’t litter and leave behind a place as clean. Yet there are environmental concerns on rise and only a little is done to keep them in check. With respect to my personal experience and observations, I have identified the problem areas and it would be wrong to say that no action is being taken to make it better but surely a lot of work is to be done to make it have an impact on a larger scale.
All the major peaks and expeditions are usually scoped under National Parks and Sanctuaries and to have access one needs forest permits which are usually fetcched by the organisations which host and conduct the activities. No matter how much you try to control pollution but unregulated and uninformed human inflow will add to environmental issues. To estimate, there are more 10-15 organisations on an average which conduct treks simutaneously in one region and in single season. If the season is open for two months and each organisation takes 30 people on an average to the summit (excluding the maintenance staff), this amounts to 10(organisations)*30(trekkers)*60(days) =18000 people entering the eco zone in one season! And imagine the amount of waste generated by these people and for these people.
One must understand that areas in which such treks are conducted are remote areas and have no sophisticated waste disposal system, majorly because of its socio-economic and geographical limitations. That makes it more important to be mindful of what items can be carried and consumed so that it gets absorbed by the environment and not pollute it further. Now, people may say that they don’t throw garbage or use plastic but is it all that leads to pollution? It is very common for us to carry our toileteries and the soaps and face washes we use are not eco friendly. They contain fluoride and other harmful chemicals that seep into soil and affect its fertility. There are very few such products available in the market and they are costly. One sustainable solution would be to engage local communities to produce organic consumer goods which are eco friendly as well as create an economic opprotunity for people residing in such interior areas who do not have access to better education and employment opportunities.
Waste is a major concern in mountain region. Due to lack of proper infrastructure, unorganised tourism, lack of awareness, there is no system of tapping waste generation and its disposal which adds to environment pressures of that area. Waste includes both biodegradable and non-biodegradable components and both of them need different processing and disposal. In these areas, it is wiser to opt for recycle whenever and wherever possible since waste disposal in expensive activity due to its transport to designated landfills and recycle industries. Unfortunately, not many are aware of recycling and the waste ends up being dump elsewhere. With increasing inflow of trekkers and to live up to their maintenance, a lot more waste is generated and there is no proportionate disposal of the same.
While government and some organisations are working on scaling up the waste disposal system in an economic manner, it is important to go back to the point no. 2 and avoid as much non biodegradable material as possible or put them to recycle. Though there are norms for green tourism yet a stronger system should be installed to ensure ethical processing of waste.
Carbon footprint by burning of woods
Up there in mountains, especially in areas with no fuel/electricity facility, basic act of cooking food or providing hot water for the team and organisers is carried on forest wood. While locals are mindful of not shedding down trees carelessly, one cannot ignore the fact that at the scale at which treks are conducted, there is major unorganised burning of woods which adds to carbon footprint in the Himalayan region. All these trekking organisations operate in private capacity and there is no standard coordination for utilisation of natural resources which often leads to wastage.
Instead of these organisations operating independently, they can come together and share these natural resources to avoid wastage and pollution. Collaboration between such organisations in terms of providing facility of food, bio-toilets and waste disposal will actually lead to better service providing and will bring down unnecessary usage of natural resources. Another systematic solution would be to draft guidelines to which trek agencies, travellers and local community abide in order to ensure that they are functioning in eco friendly manner and are following certain set of standards required to maintain healthy environmental conditions.
This is another major and unavoidable concern of managing human waste. Because of lack of infrastructure, organisations have set up a bio-toilet which is actually a deep pit inside a closed tent. Layers on layers of human waste releases really bad odour and is unhygienic to use but since trekkers have no option, they have to adjust with this. While many organisations abroad have come up with innovative solutions to cater this problem, India lags behind since it is unable to regulate tourism and find its balance with environmental sustainability.
Limited access to motor vehicles
Government is trying hard to provide infrastructure wherever possible and by infrastructure I mean access to transport, electricity and other facilities. While all this contributes to the development but unregulated transport activity adds to green house gases. Because of mountaineous terrain, all the vehicles operate on diesel (cannot be operated on CNG or electricity) whose emission is harmful to the environment and there is only little which can be absorbed by the nature. Influx of private vehicles by tourists and researchers in such regions has exponentially increased the carbon footprint. Though transport is a basic necessity and cannot be avoided yet more emphasis should be given to public transport at reasonable rates for locals as well as tourists and keep a check on vehicles that they do not pollute the air as per green standards.
It is impossible to introduce changes unless you have the very community living there come on board with you and take initiative. In order to encourage their involvement, some incentives are needed to be carved out so that working in environment sustainability is not just a social activity but also an economic activity. By providing environment friendly solutions to lets say production of organic toiletries or initiating a business of waste recycling would not only benefit the nature but will uplift the society as whole.
Himalayas is a very sensitive region. Due to its difficult terrain and climatic conditions, its all the more difficult to conserve its biodiversity and ecology. One cannot and shouldn’t put restrictions to development and scope of expansion but it is also to be realised that we have this piece of land which cannot be expanded. Within this planet and given conditions we have to grow, thus, it becomes important that we step forward in a more sustainable and regulated manner so that we don’t run out of resources and favourable conditions which are impossible to regenerate.