Garbage strewn Nainital lake, one of the main sources of drinking water of the city.(Neeraj Santoshi / HT Photo)
Garbage strewn Nainital lake, one of the main sources of drinking water of the city.(Neeraj Santoshi / HT Photo)

From polluted Ganga to drying springs: 5 environmental challenges before Uttarakhand

For residents of the state who live in proximity to nature and wildlife, the biggest challenge is in striking a balance for coexistence.
By Neeraj Santoshi | Hindustan Times, Nainital
UPDATED ON JUN 05, 2019 03:41 PM IST

Uttarakhand, which has a forest area of over 38,000 sq km that constitutes 71% of its total geographical area, is one of the few states in India where a large section of people live quite close to the nature. The lives of people are intermingled with the local environment. And this proximity has created many challenges when it comes to dealing with environmental issues. Here HT lists five main environmental challenges before the Uttarakhand.

Checking pollution in Ganga and other rivers

One of the biggest challenges is to check pollution in the Ganga river, which holds central importance in Hindu tradition and originates in Uttarakhand. The 2,525 km long Ganga is home to over 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the endangered Ganges river dolphin, according to experts. Experts have consistently raised their concerns on pollution of the sacred river, caused by varied activities of nearly 40 crore people living close to its banks. The Uttarakhand high court in March 2017 even accorded the status of “living entity” to Ganga and Yamuna rivers bestowing on them same legal rights as a person. However later in July that year, the Supreme Court stayed the HC order. The HC has repeatedly expressed its concern on pollution in Ganga and other rivers like Kosi, Rispana, and Bindal. Rispana, once a gurgling river that passed through Dehradun, has now been reduced to a drainage for the heavily populated town.

Pollutants and waste of various types continue to make its way into Ganga and other rivers .In August last year, the HC while taking suo motu cognizance of contamination of waters of Ganga, had directed the state government to ensure no untreated sewage water is released into Ganga.

Delhi based activist Ajay Gautam whose letter to HC on pollution in Ganga and Yamuna and their decreased flow in off-monsoon months was admitted as a PIL, said their waters were not even fit for performing religious rituals, forget about bathing or drinking. “If Ganga has to be saved, all the stakeholders, like Centre and Central governments of , Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, National Capital Region (NCR), Haryana and state mission for clean Ganga, Uttarakhand pollution control board have to work together in a time bound manner”, he said.

According to a research paper published in the journal Nature in August last year by geo-scientists Abhijit Mukherjee and Soumendra Nath Bhanja from IIT Kharagpur, the groundwater depletion along Ganga was causing reduction in the water flow of the river, triggering its drying up in summer. According to these scientists, the low water level in Ganga was due to depletion of ground water level at the rate of 0.5 to 38 cm per year. The groundwater was depleting due to depletion in the Gangetic aquifers on the sides that feed groundwater seepage. They have warned that predictions suggest that the average groundwater contribution to the Ganga can substantially decrease in future and coupled with predicted climate change and dwindling of the Himalayan glacial retreat, the future situation can be catastrophic, raising a question mark on the very existence of Ganga.

There is also problem of some polluting industries. State pollution control board has been directed by high court to shut most polluting industries based on the report of the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB), which has listed 323 polluting industries under red category in the state.

Checking the drying up of Himalayan springs and saving Himalayan lakes

According to rough estimates by experts, roughly 12000 springs have dried up in Uttarakhand over the decades of total 60,000. In March last year the National Green Tribunal (NGT) even sought responses from the Uttarakhand government and the National Biodiversity Authority following a petition alleging that the natural hot springs in the state were drying up. It cited a study by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology which allegedly showed that the natural springs were becoming extinct. The National Institution for Transforming India also called NITI Aayog, has also constituted a working group on the “Inventory and Revival of Springs of Himalaya for Water Security”. Its report in December 2017 pointed out that there are three million springs are in the Himalayan region, stressing that significant part of drinking water supply in Uttarakhand was spring based. According to this report, nearly half of the springs in the Indian Himalayan region (IHR) were drying up, empathising for “preventive and corrective measures”.

If springs are not saved, it will create a huge impact on the water security scenario of the Himalayas and water availability to locals for drinking and small scale farming on the hills.

Checking impact of climate change

One of the major challenges is to understand the overall impact of climate change on the environment , agriculture, weather patterns, wildlife and agricultural practices in the Himalayan state.

Vishal Singh, deputy executive director at Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR) Dehradun, who studying climate adaptive water management practices in some areas of Uttarakhand said according to various studies, the Himalayas were warming at a faster rate than the global average .

“And these changes in climate change are leading or will lead to increased melting of glaciers, phonological changes like early flowering of Rhododendron, increase in vector-borne disease, erratic weather patterns leading flash periods and long period of droughts, glacial lake outbursts like that happened in Kedarnath in 2013, a decrease in the water flow of the Himalayan rivers and so on”, he said.

Singh said the need of the hour is to initiate in-depth studies of climate change and come up with climate change adaptive policies with the involvement of the local communities

Checking forest fires and landslides

Forest fires and landslides remain main challenges when it comes to direct impact on the lives of people in the state every year. According to one estimate over 5000 people have died in landslides in the state in the last 18 years or so. For long term landslide mitigation initiatives, the state government has sought the expertise of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in treating the vulnerable landslide prone mountainsides in the hilly Himalayan state. The Japanese experts are carrying out surveys at three places in Uttarakhand, which have been selected as model places for scientific and cost-effective measures to check landslides. These three places include Neergard near Rishikesh, Jowari 2 in Rudraprayag and Padli in Nainital. This model will be then replicated in other landslide-prone areas of the state with the transfer of Japanese technology to officials and engineers here in the state. A memorandum of understanding was signed by the Uttarakhand government and JICA in August 2016 for disaster mitigation in the hilly state, especially slope treatment of the landslide-prone mountainsides. The project is in operation in the state from March 2017 to March 2022.

Forest officials claim that over 90 % forest fires in the state are man-made. From this perspective, it is a major challenge before the authorities how they should involve people , spread awareness and make efforts that stop man-made forest fires that damage a lot of forest wealth and incur huge losses. Recently forest officials decided to provide a reward of Rs 5000 to anyone who reports man-made forest fire in Nainital forests, one of the most forest fire prone areas.

Uttarakhand which has a forest area of over 38,000 sq km that constitutes 71% of the total geographical area of the state, is prone to three types of forest fires Ground fires, Surface fire and Crown fires, reported generally from February to June. Over 44,554 hectares of forest area or roughly 61000 football grounds worth area been damaged in forest fires in Uttarakhand since its formation in 2000, accruing a loss of over Rs 185 lakh, according to the reply to an RTI query of the Haldwani based RTI activist Hemant Gauniya.

Challenge of balanced tourism and proximity of human populations with forests and their wildlife

Uttarakhand police put up “Nainital Houseful” flexi-banners on approach roads to the hill station last year to discourage tourists from coming to the hill town. (HT Photo )
Uttarakhand police put up “Nainital Houseful” flexi-banners on approach roads to the hill station last year to discourage tourists from coming to the hill town. (HT Photo )

The state is primarily known for pilgrim and wildlife tourism. With 12 per cent of total Uttarakhand’s geographical area under protected areas including 6 national parks, 7 wildlife sanctuaries, 4 conservation reserves and one biosphere reserve, wildlife tourism is increasing and so are the problems associated with it. Like in Corbett landscape, elephants have been repeatedly attacked by the tuskers or in Nainital where surge in tourist numbers causes lot of problems with some saying that small hill station like Nainital can’t handle such numbers.

With the rise in tourist influx, one of the main challenge before the authorities is how to balance tourism with local ecology so that it doesn’t have any adverse impact on it. According to experts, tourism sector has been a major constituent of the service sector that contributes around half of the Gross State Domestic Product of the state. Balanced tourism that is in tune with the local environment can economically uplift the lives of people, check the migration and also help in coordinated efforts in conservation and protection of the biodiversity with the help of the local people.

The proximity of human populations with forests and their wildlife in the state has also created its own set of problems like destruction of wildlife habitat, encroachments, increase in poaching activities, electrocution of wild animals, increase in man-Tiger, man-elephant and man-leopard conflicts in various parts of the state. This is another major challenge that needs to be addressed for striking a balance with the local environment.

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