This World Environment Day has brought in focus many criticalities of this planet. From climate change to biodiversity loss, from eggs frying on Australian cars to their trucks being stuck in the snow, our world in the past one year has seen it all and all at once.
What has caused me to write today is not inspiration or enlightenment but fear and anxiety. I wanted to become a travel writer but later found a purpose in my passion for writing and travelling and that was to work towards sustainable development. Nothing has inspired me more than the Himalayas in making this career shift, and the very problem of increasing human traffic in the hinterlands of the mountains is what I seek to solve. But my heart aches today that even before taking my first step towards regulating tourism policies in the Himalayas, the battle seems to be lost.
Among various reports being circulated in May 2019, one of the most disturbing news was to see the train of trekkers from the summit point to the shoulder of the Mount Everest. What is said to be the most arduous peaks to accomplish, is now a cake walk for many tourists. However, instead of thanking the economy and technology, I would blame them. Very similarly, how I blame people making a mockery of the mountains and its ecosystem by advertising difficult yet beautiful terrains in the name of religion and tourism.
Nepal, which hosts the southeast ascent to the mountain is one of the weakest economies of South Asia. Almost 25% of the population resides below the poverty line and its major source of income being tourism. Along with weak socio-economic structure, the area is also compromised at resilience against natural disasters. Being situated literally amidst the Great Himalayas, the country is prone to landslides, excessive loss during earthquakes, erratic snow and rainfall patterns, and flooding of water bodies. The only positive thing going for this poverty struck state is that Nepal is an open gate to most of the privileged treks, summit, and circuits of the Great Himalayas, with eight peaks above 8000m in its territory called “The Eight-Thousanders”. Some of these peaks are Mt. Everest, Annapurna, Kanchenjunga, Mt Lhotse, and Mt Cho Oyu.
Given the Himalayan advantage at Nepal’s disposal, the local community, as well as many foreigners, have formed groups and companies curating and guiding these treks for the tourists. Moreover, this number is burgeoning at an unbelievable pace with more than two million tourists visiting the country each year, and most of them come to make their way to Mt. Everest. Everest was first accomplished by the New Zealander mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary with his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. In the past seven decades, the number of trekkers on the summit has increased to 800 people each year. In fact, after Hillary and Norgay, approximately 4000 more people have achieved the Everest peak. While the number seems innocent but it is devastating and discouraging from a sustainability point of few. Increased trekkers not only cause traffic at the toughest trails of the peak but also lead to many environmental and social problems.
More trekkers mean more waste. A couple of years ago, a tourist shared a picture from the Everest Base Camp and it looked nothing like the serene landscape which one would have expected. The ground was as polluted as the small hikes like Triund in India with tons of plastic, metal, and food waste. In addition to the nonbiodegradable waste, is human waste. While human excreta is biodegradable and should be seen as harmless, excess of waste in these areas is a serious threat to the wellbeing of humans, plants, and animals. With the temperature at or below freezing point, the waste doesn’t decompose in this area, at least not at the expected rate. Instead, it remains frozen beneath the layers of ice, when melted, flows down to join water streams and rivers, thereby polluting the entire water source across the country. I need not even elaborate on its impact on health, in a country with a poor social security system and high vulnerability to ecological incidents.
The social costs of increased tourism which Nepalis pay are: one, their lives at risk when they escort amateur tourists to the peak, and second, the compromised environment and availability of natural resources which gets affected directly and indirectly due to increased human intervention. Among the deaths during the summit, one-third are the Nepali sherpas. Everest, whose tourism was supposed to bring economic prosperity is instead bringing misery to humankind and to the Himalayan Region
As an obvious solution people across the globe are asking the Government of Nepal to restrict the number of permits for the summit. While that has been one of the deliberations at their end, its execution is not possible right away.
- Reducing even the slightest number of permits a year affects the Nepal economy drastically. Since tourism is its major source of income, compromising on rich tourists may not be feasible instantly
- There is no strict governance of the trekking companies born in and out of Nepal, offering tourism in this country. Many groups or organizations are not even legally registered or formed with required sources and promise to take to the summits at the cost lower than the registered ones. Since there is no track of such organizations popping, it is difficult to curb unauthorized tourism.
- Most of the tourists visiting Nepal for Everest or other treks come from developed countries or wealthy backgrounds, and the value of Nepal’s currency is always at the disadvantage against these nations. Thus, money is not a problem for these rich tourists and they can easily pay hefty prices for the access and equipment required for the summit.
- While suggesting to restrict one major source of earning to save the environment, the government needs other alternative sources to keep up and increase its economic stability. Agriculture is the second highest contributor to their GDP but its numbers are not enough to compensate for money made from tourism.
The problem of Everest cannot be solved with hasty decisions and temporary restrictions on permits. There needs to be a conscious development among each and every citizen and traveler to understand to what extent exploration is desirable. While it is a great feeling to put feet on every place on the Earth but it is high time that we evaluate what are our reasons and how our ecosystem is being impacted with our actions. In a public interaction at Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, travel writer Colin Thubron spoke about his experience on the journey to Mount Kailash when his monk friends from Tibet gave him flags to pay tribute to the mountain but not climb it themselves. There is a religious belief among the Tibetans to not to set foot on the mountain because it is sacred, and this belief might have saved so many lives from being compromised and reduced millions of tons of waste that would have generated enroute. However, we, from the western world in our race to conquer everything, forget that it is important to not disturb some balances. Neither every trail is to be discovered, nor every mountain is to be defeated. In fact, if we truly wish to save the most beautiful mountain ecosystem on the Earth, we might as well abstain from walking the paths and give them a chance to revive while they still can.
As far as Nepal authorities and citizens are concerned, there is a huge opportunity for capacity building and skills development among its community and various avenues of business and commerce can be explored which can help in taking the weight of the economy shift and are not be deleterious to the environment at the same time.
And as for us, we might as well promise to not burden nor exploit these beautiful landscapes and commit ourselves to give rest to the Everest.