Treasures bestowed by nature

I being a frequent trekker am witness to the declining status of these invaluable treasures

Dr Zulfikar Siddqui
Publish Date: Dec 11 2012 12:00PM

Mountains cover approximately one-quarter of the world’s surface, and surveys that 12 percent of the human population live on mountains. Mountains are common and can be found on every continent with impressive ranges such as the towering Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps and the Rockies, and some highlands which include the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Elburz Mountains, the Cairngorms in Scotland and the West African Fouta Djallon Highlands.
Quran while emphasizing the importance of mountains describe them as the nails (chapter 78 verse 7); obviously because they stabilize the planet and provide a sort of balance to this planet besides providing so many things for the human comfort. Prophet Adam and the mother of us all ‘the Eve’ were reunited at the mountain only (Jabl-e-Rehmat). The great prophet of Islam “Muhammad” (PBUH) chose the mountain for meditation and took seclusion in these mountains only. Even the heavenly book the Quran start revealing on the Great Prophet of Islam, again it was a mountain; Jabal-e-Noor (Cave Hira). Moses was talking to God that too from a mountain, the Sinai. He sought to see the God from here only and the glimpse of the Noor of God was bestowed on the Mount Sinai only. Mountains are abode to the great Munis, Sufis and Rishis who took to mountains for meditation and in search of the truth.
Studies in the mountain science have revealed that they are complex and are fragile ecosystems with marked topography. They have highly differentiated climatic conditions and vertical processes. They are known as the water towers of the world. Let us not forget that half of the world’s population gets fresh water from these mountains for their domestic use and even for irrigation, industry and hydropower. Mountains also have the privilege of being the storehouses of global biodiversity. However, the flip side of the coin also tells us that mountains can pose a lot of risk at times for the adjoining areas because of the fact that they are also high-risk environments. Events like avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glacial lake outburst floods are some features which threaten life in mountain regions and surrounding areas.
But, the environmental, economic and social developments have made many mountain regions increasingly disaster-prone. Let us not forget the current position of the glaciers and water bodies especially the high altitude tarns in our state. Kolhai glacier is the glaring example in this regard. Once a massive glacier; presently reduced to traces of mere existence due to its fast receding, courtesy human interference resulting in high temperatures. The present status of high lands and lush green glades of this beautiful valley reveal a self explanatory plight of their own.  I being a frequent hiker & trekker am a witness to the declining status of these invaluable treasures nature has bestowed to us. Especially last three decades have seen the complete change to the profile of these mountain treasures. I remember my maiden hiking trip to Kolhai Glacier and the twin lakes of Tar Sar and Mar Sar back in early eighties. Believe me the massive Glacier at Chandanwari itself was so fascinating that one could hardly imagine its vanishing. Alas! It is a history now. The situation with the tarns is no different. They are shrinking at an alarming rate. The vandalism human race has unleashed on these mountains has resulted in no less than a catastrophe, threatening the very existence of the life on this planet. Disasters in mountains not only harm mountain communities but also have great impacts downstream, affecting millions of people.
In order to help focus the world on the issues in which the United Nations has an interest and commitment, it (UN) establishes a day for every particular issue with an aim that its member states and other organisations mark these days so that their priorities are reflected. It was in this spirit that in the year 1992 the UN adopted of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (UNCED). What is chapter 13 by the way?  Chapter 13 in its simplest form promotes the sustainable development of mountain regions, underlines the emphasis to understand the ecology of mountain ecosystems in much better ways, and more importantly acknowledges mountains’ importance for humankind. It was for the first time that sustainable mountain development was placed on priority among other major global issues which need immediate attention.
In the back drop of these circumstances the United Nations General Assembly in the year 1998 proclaimed that 2002 would be the International Year of Mountains (IYM) with an aim to evolve some sort of mechanism for implementing chapter 13. The year did prove a catalyst towards the desired aims and it was during this year that long-term and effective action plans were chalked for successful implementation of Chapter 13 towards the sustainable development of mountains. Many more mile stones were achieved during this year as far as the mountain development is concerned. To reckon with few of them, a significant contribution was made in this year for raising awareness about mountain issues, a consensus was evolved and popular support ensured for the establishment of 78 national committees, and above all strengthened partnerships among different stakeholders, which culminated in the launch of the Mountain Partnership at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was in this year only that 11 December was designated as International Mountain Day to be celebrated every year with different theme which will provide an apt occasion for events that highlight the importance of sustainable mountain development.
  In a stark comparison of last two decades, mountain issues have clearly gained momentum not only on the national level but also on the global agenda. In this connection a number of global and regional networks have been set up which are tirelessly working for the purpose, and numerous international and regional conferences and workshops have been organized on mountain development and highlighting the issues and challenges. Despite such efforts by the world body and having made the importance of mountains explicitly clear, mountains, unfortunately have received little attention in global discussions of environmental and development issues and even in the policy making of the countries. Little concern has been displayed towards the bad state of affairs with these mountains despite their undisputed role and importance in sustaining the only planet which supports life.
It is an undeniable fact that mountains are crucial to life. No matter we live at sea level or the highest elevations, we are still connected strongly to mountains and we are affected by them in more ways than we can ever imagine. Who can deny the fact that most of the worlds freshwater is provide by the mountains. It is the mountains which harbour a rich variety of plants and animals and as a matter of fact are home to one in ten people. Yet, the undesired & unwarranted human activity in the form of environmental degradation, the consequences of climate change which is the direct effect of the human interference, reckless and exploitative mining out of sheer greed, unnecessary armed conflict which could be avoided if we respect the sovereignty of other countries, poverty and hunger the direct result of the materialist approach of the humans, threaten the extraordinary web of life that the mountains support. Inappropriate farming practices and the destruction of mountain forests aggravate the pressure on fragile mountain ecosystems. Let us not forget that mining can bring large benefits to the country, but it can also be devastating to fragile mountain ecosystems and local cultures, destroying the livelihood base of mountain communities. Because of the fragility of mountain ecosystems, development activities should always be preceded by a careful assessment of local conditions and accompanied by impact monitoring. This is especially important when successful projects are scaled up to larger areas or applied in new settings with different characteristics.
Sustainable development as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) clearly states that development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; is the development in its real sense. In line with this general definition, sustainable mountain development, therefore, requires that mountain ecosystems be managed in ways that allow them to provide goods and services for local livelihoods and lowland people, now and in the future. Investing in sustainable mountain development should be the global priority for addressing the current challenges in order to safeguard the future. The present scenario calls for all round efforts that reaches far beyond monetary terms to embrace increased attention towards mountains and support in all aspects for the preservation of mountain ecology and society.
Among other factors mountain people are key to maintaining mountain ecosystems and their role in providing environmental services to downstream communities are immensely important and cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately the world’s poorest and hungriest communities include these mountain communities which need to be empowered enough and their livelihoods improved to the accepted standards, in order to enable them to take responsibility open heartedly for the protection and preservation of the wealth of natural resources and to fulfil their role as mountain stewards satisfactorily.
 As it is very difficult to reverse environmental degradation in mountain regions, timely action is required to prevent such processes and trends through long-term approaches that combine the management of water, soils, pasture and forests. All the stakeholders like mountain people, the private sector, politicians, NGO’s and other decision-makers should be involved and made responsible for ensuring the judicious and proper use of natural resources in a wisely manner keeping in view the particular characteristics of upland ecosystems. Moreover, we must remember that different subsystems prevailing in the mountains are closely interlinked; hence, management tools that tackle only a single component or segment instead of a comprehensive one will not be effective. The present global challenges, issues and threats warrant an apt respond with a holistic, participatory and integrated approach for the timely redress of all outstanding aspects of sustainability which might be required. Water, biodiversity, forests, tourism and infrastructure which are the different aspects of sustainable mountain development must be dealt in such a way that their specific needs and inter linkages must be taken into account.
The wise and sustainable management of water, soils, pastures and forests is essential for avoiding environmental degradation in mountain areas. Integrated and diversified land-use systems have to be maintained and enhanced. This becomes more important with respect to Kashmir given the nomadic activity which includes Gujjar & Bakerwalas as far as the issue of grazing of their herds of cattle & sheep is concerned. Overexploitation of the pastures & meadows may result in turning the land barren.
We need to translate this into relevant regional and national programmes and local initiatives. Optimum utilization of the existing institutions, partnerships and policy frameworks which offer important platforms for promoting and intensifying sustainable mountain development must be ensured to maximise concrete action on the ground.