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This book seeks to examine the basis of the widely supported prediction that the Himalayan region is inevitably drifting into a situation of environmental supercrisis and collapse, a process of thought to which we refer as the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. For comparison, drought-ridden Africa today is defined as being in a state of supercrisis. The costs of the on-going relief action in Africa, and the attempts to avert future recurrences, are enormous. And these are merely the material costs; those relating to the largescale human misery are unquantifiable and unthinkable. Terrible as this African tragedy undoubtedly is, if the many supporters of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation are proven correct over the next several decades, then the new world-scale supercrisis, in which the Himalayan region will have become enmeshed, will be much more severe. This evaluation is based simply upon consideration of the much larger numbers of people who will be involved, since the densely populated plains of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, upper Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze), and other major rivers are tied to the mountains by a welter of physical and human processes, both actual and perceived.
It is all too easy to urge that prevention is more effective, and less costly, than cure, and infinitely more humane. But simply to call for a world-level effort to avert a portending catastrophe in the Himalayan region ignores the sea of uncertainty that surrounds it. By this we mean that our understanding of the processes operating in the region, whether geophysical, environmental, social, economic, or political, is tenuous at best. Differentiation between cause and effect is thwarted by lack of data in all fields, by unreliable, even manufactured, data. This situation, in our estimation, is further confounded by a pervasion of assumptions, conflicting convictions, and latter-day myths, most of which lead into the perceived, and preconceived, downward spiral of environmental disaster.
At the risk of being accused of arrogance, or over-ambition, we will introduce and discuss in some detail the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. We will try to separate out the several linkages between its component parts and subject them to critical examination. We will come to no firm or unassailable conclusions, nor propose any clear-cut panaceas. We hope to demonstrate, however, that many of the linkages of the Theory are untenable, while others can be neither supported nor disproved in terms of the available body of information. We will argue from this, nevertheless, that the overall theoretical construct is unrealistic and that, since much development and foreign aid policy is based upon it, an urgent re-think is in order. This is required if only because current policies may well be contributing to problems that the people of the region are undoubtedly facing, based as they often are upon unacceptable simplification and extrapolation across one of the world's most varied and complex regions. We will then move on to make some recommendations that we hope will lead to a reduction in the degree of uncertainty, and we will provide an outline research strategy that, if carried forward, may further clarify the issues that affect the lives of a significant proportion of humankind.
Two recent examples from the mass media give a strong impression of the potential dangers of allowing the uncertainty and misunderstanding to proceed unchecked - and these dangers have political overtones, as well as physical and socio-economic ones. In an October 1987 article in India Today under the title: 'Bihar Floods: Looking Northward,' the author states:
Each time north Bihar is devastated by floods, the state Government performs two rituals. It holds neighbouring Nepal responsible and promises to implement a master plan for flood control.... Nepal is invariably held guilty because most of the rivers . . . originate there before flowing into the Ganga. The Bihar Government maintains that Nepal's non-cooperation lies at the root of the annual cycle of human misery.... This time the chorus of accusation reached fever pitch when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ... demanded to know what preventative measures had been taken.... Predictably, the [response] referred to the hill kingdom's lack of cooperation.
The Nepal-bashers also scored a major victory at the second National Water Resources Council meeting in New Delhi last fortnight. State Irrigation and Power Minister Ramashray Prasad Singh managed to have the national water policy draft amended to say that the solution to Bihar's flood problems lay beyond its borders.
(Farzend Ahmed, India Today, 15 October 1987: 77)
From the other side of the world, about a month later, Newsweek produced the dramatic prediction under the title: 'Trashing the Himalayas,' that 'a once fertile region could become a new desert.'
Dense alpine forests once covered the lower slopes of Mount Everest, and the Khumbu Valley below the mountain used to blush dark green from its carpet of junipers. But that was the Everest of 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to conquer the highest peak on earth. Today the forest at Everest's base is 75 percent destroyed, replaced by a jumble of rocks interspersed with lonesome trees. All of the Khumbu's junipers have fallen to axes....
The degradation of the Himalayas is not confined to the tall peaks. In Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet, deforestation has eroded fertile top-soil from the hills, triggering landslides and clogging rivers and reservoirs with so much silt that they overflow when they reach the plains of the Ganges. ... At the rate trees are being felled for fuel and cropland, the Himalayas will be bald in 25 years....
Although a significant fraction of the erosion stems from nature . . . most of the damage is man-made. (S. Begley, R. Moreau, and S. Mazumdar, Newsweek, 9 November 1987)
While both of these articles tail off mildly to allow for the prospect that there may be other causes and that all may not be lost, they provide, through their emphasis, a thoughtless repetition of similar statements that have been reiterated for several decades. Considering the multi-million readership of these journals, their political and socio-economic impacts cause us grave concern.
Nevertheless, the most serious anxiety that faces us in our attempt to demonstrate that the Theory is an over-dramatization and distortion is that our position should not be interpreted as indicating that there is no problem and that, therefore, there is no need for re-thinking, action, or alarm. Our study is much more than an object of scholarly endeavour for its own sake. It is involved intimately with the well-being of several hundred million people and with the environmental conservation of a region that is a vital part of the world spiritual and cultural heritage. By focusing our approach in this way, however, we perforce enter a dangerous and labyrinthine arena composed of a complex of territories and imperatives that may well be defended by a host of vested interests. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the prevailing views on the Himalayan situation are indeed distorted and that a large part of the 'problem' is due to the uncertainty that engulfs it. We must emphasize, moreover, that this uncertainty is not merely technical; that is, an absence of certainty. Rather it is technical and structural in the sense that, without their realizing it, some of the actors in the Himalayan debate have succeeded in imposing their desired certainties within it. It is these unwarranted certainties (or myths) that have evoked the Theory that we wish to dismantle. Our aim in doing this is two-fold: first to confront the full extent of the uncertainty (both technical and structural); second, to get to grips with it, both by reducing it, where this is possible, and by learning to live with it, where this is not possible. This theme will be deliberately reiterated throughout the text.
We recommend, therefore, that the Problem needs to be addressed at the highest level and that a course of action must be developed. Even in this final point, as academics, we are conscious of the hard-pressed decision maker's observation that, when the university professor does not know what to do, he collects more data, yet the decision maker does not have the time to wait for 'academic perfection.' Our counter observation, nevertheless, is that if a beginning had been made thirty years ago to collect relevant data on a systematic basis, a required course of action could have been much more readily defined today.
Similarly, the Himalayan region and its problem(s) will be with us for a long time, and the potential supercrisis, as we define it, is one of drift, or gradual development. Thus while urgent action tomorrow can still be perceived as vital, let us not waste the next thirty years arguing that more data are not the answer to formulation of a flexible response that can be adjusted as greater understanding is acquired. Let us set in progress a carefully constructed course of relevant data collection as soon as possible.
We hope that this book will constitute a scholarly contribution to the study of mountain environments in general, and to the Himalaya in particular. As such it should be of value to university upper-division undergraduates and graduate students in geography, in a variety of cognate disciplines including agriculture, forestry, economics, and the natural sciences, and in political science and related areas of environmental and Third World development studies. We also hope it will assist scholars who are involved, or who are contemplating research, in the region. However, because of the very complexity and uncertainty that we are anxious to emphasize, the book can hardly serve as a geographical treatise, nor can it be comprehensive. The primary intent is to provide enough background material, either directly, or indirectly through the references cited, so that the reader can focus on the conventional wisdom that has been built up over the past three or four decades and, we hope, be forced into reassessing both it and our own contribution. Thus our other, perhaps overriding, purpose is to enter the political arena in the hope that we can influence the evolution of a new approach to development and environmental management. Thus we believe that there is a second readership, perhaps more numerous than the academic - resource managers, decision makers, the development and foreign aid establishment - as well as the general public concerned about what is, and what is perceived to be, happening in the mountain world.
The very fact that we have come to produce this book at all is due to an unusual degree of privilege that we have experienced in support from a number of institutions and many individuals and colleagues. This privilege also derives from our encounters with a large number of mountain people, in all their complexity, beauty, indigenous wisdom, and ethnic variety, into whose homes and fields we have been welcomed, and whose fears, perplexities, and aspirations we have learned to share. Because of the magnitude of our task, therefore, the remainder of this Preface is devoted to an explanation of how the book evolved.
We have worked together to establish the United Nations University's (UNU) project on Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems since its inception in 1977. We became involved in the Himalayan region in 1978 when reconnaissance journeys were made in Nepal, the Darjeeling Himalaya, and northwestern Thailand. While Thailand is not normally included in conventional definitions of the Himalaya, we intend to use the term 'Himalayan region' in a very broad sense.
The primary focus of these early journeys was to ascertain the viability and usefulness of transfer of Swiss Alpine and Colorado Rocky Mountain experience in mountain hazards mapping. The area of reconnaissance coverage was expanded to include parts of the Qinghai-Xizang (Tibet) Plateau, the Chinese Tien Shan, and the Hengduan Mountains of western Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan. The most sustained effort, however, was that associated with the Nepal Mountain Hazards Mapping Project.
These activities included the training of UNU fellows from the host countries, a series of small conferences, increasing linkages with other scholars, and extensive literature research. They led to a growing conviction that there was something seriously amiss with the conventional Himalayan environmental-scientific wisdom, upon which much foreign bilateral and international aid and development policy was based.
We believe that the UNU Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems Project was established at a critical time in the development of Himalayan research. Because it was staffed by a group of young and international scholars who had the opportunity of working for several years in a number of small field areas, it was possible to take a provocative and unconventional, and highly critical, look at some of the accepted scientific paradigms, and to begin to challenge them.
As fieldwork progressed, so a core of research results and new interpretations became available. In addition, progress was such that in 1984 UNU commissioned the preparation of a position paper on 'The HimalayaGanges Problem' from which this book directly evolved. With the formulation of the position paper strategy, a group of over a dozen scholars with Himalayan experience began producing draft reports of case studies and strengthening the access to existing, but sometimes obscure, literature on specific aspects of the Problem. In addition, contacts were established with Dr. David Pitt, who had begun a separate study of the Himalaya for UNO/UNEP, and with Dr. Michael Thompson, who was directing a study for IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)/UNEP. These contacts resulted in the formation of a steering committee, comprised of Ives, Messerli, Pitt, and Thompson, which met at Appenberg, Canton Bern, Switzerland, 16-27 November 1984, to refine further the strategy for the position paper (this committee was subsequently expanded to include Dr. Lawrence S. Hamilton, and Professor Sun Honglie).
During the Appenberg Workshop it became overwhelmingly clear that the task we were setting ourselves could easily swamp our available resources. In other words, as we learned more about the Himalaya-Ganges Problem, we came to understand that an exhaustive analysis was at least an order of magnitude beyond our combined capabilities. The descriptors, 'complexity' and 'uncertainty', came to be regular components of our discussions. This led to a degree of rationalization. Thus there followed a recommendation to the UNU that we move immediately to prepare for an international conference to address the Himalaya-Ganges Problem. This would provide the benefits of involving a wider range of participants, especially scholars from the region itself and experts from United Nations and national aid and development agencies. It would both focus and extend our efforts. These two, apparently contradictory, aims were viewed rather as being mutually supportive and interdependent. In the first place, we were responding to the perceived need to increase our available energies by extending the two-year period allotted for production of the position paper. In the second, we were substantially widening the scope of potential contributions.
The conference was eventually held, as the Mohonk Mountain Conference, 611 April 1986, at Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York State, USA, under the Honorary Chairmanship of Mr. Maurice F. Strong. A series of resolutions was passed and directed to senior administrators of the United Nations System and to the heads of state of the concerned governments of the region. In addition it was recommended that this book be produced, as well as the conference proceedings per se (see Mountain Research and Development 1987, Volume 7(3)), and a task force be established to carry our growing momentum further. These decisions, in turn, helped to limit the objectives of the UNU position paper and ensured its completion on schedule (June, 1986). They also became a stepping stone to a wider and more extensive endeavour (this book and additional new field studies) transcending the objectives of the position paper.
It was decided to edit and publish prior to the conference many of the position paper case studies as independent papers in a succession of issues of Mountain Research and Development, the quarterly journal of the International Mountain Society. This process also attracted responses from independent, and sometimes hitherto unknown to us, readers of the journal which, of course, further enlarged the effective size of the working group. Especially important amongst these contacts are:
- Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna, Messenger of the Chipko Movement;
- Drs. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Vandana Shiva who provided invaluable insights into the linkages between Indian Himalayan ecological research and the Chipko Movement;
- Professor David M. Griffin, Department of Forestry, Australian National University, and director of the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project;
- Dr. Lawrence S. Hamilton of the East-West Center, Hawaii, who became a member of the steering committee, and the East-West Center became a co-sponsor of the Conference;
- Dr. Janos Hrabovszky, senior agricultural consultant to FAO and to HMG, Nepal;
- Sir Robert Jackson, Senior Adviser to the Secretary-General, UNO;
- Dr. Rajni Kothari, director of the UNU project on Peace and Global Transformation, New Delhi;
- Dr. Corneille Jest, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France;
- Dr. V. V. Dhruva Narayana, Director of the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, Dehra Dun;
- Dr. Colin Rosser, Director, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu;
- Dr. Hans Schreier, Department of Soil Science, University of British Columbia, Canada, and CIDA;
- Dr. C. K. Sharma, Executive Director, Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, HMG, Kathmandu;
- Mr. Maurice F. Strong, President, World Federation of United Nations Associations;
- Professor Sun Honglie, Vice President, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
This list is by no means complete. Nor is it intended as a formal acknowledgment, but rather as providing a few examples of the way in which the resources of the original working group were expanded. Thus the ensuing results are many times more extensive than the original funds allotted by UNU could possibly have commanded.
The first part of the book (to Chapter 6) represents an exposition and critical analysis of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation, primarily from a physical process point of view. Chapter 7 focuses on the 'human element' and the facts and pseudo-facts associated mainly with the indigenous subsistence farmer, the convenient scapegoat who is widely perceived as the destroyer of the mountain environment and the ogre of the plains. Chapter 8 presents two case studies in the form of prescriptions for averting disaster: the one approaches the issue from the village level as a fundamental self-help and self-directed undertaking, with governmental facilitation; the other, at the opposite extreme, is a large scale intervention and technological 'fix'. We do not necessarily support either but introduce them as extremes and as a basis for further emphasis of the complexity of the Problem. Chapter 9 takes us into the political arena and raises the question of 'crisis, pseudo-crisis, or supercrisis?' The final chapter (10) is drawn together as an outline for research - or rather as a fabric of overlapping designs.
Much of our presentation depends upon a large number of papers, many of which were prepared as background studies for the Mohonk Mountain Conference, together with others that they provoked or that reached us serendipitously as independent submissions to Mountain Research and Development. It should be noted that the deliberate emphasis on the Himalaya in the editorial policy of the journal has ensured that it has become not only a major repository of new information, new thinking, and debate, but also a motivating force in furthering this process of testing conventional wisdom and of searching for new insights. A second book is planned to follow this one, which will draw on Mountain Research and Development, and other publications, and serve as a major source volume for much of the present debate.
It must be admitted that, despite efforts to avoid it, a distinct bias in favour of Nepal will be apparent throughout this text. In large part this is due to the openness of Nepal and ease of access for both foreign and indigenous scholars, compared with many other parts of the region.
Our conclusions carry the conviction that it is essential to address, reduce, and/ or learn to live with the Himalayan uncertainty. To do this we believe it is necessary to dismantle the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation before we can begin to unravel the magnitude of the Problem, as a first step toward treating it. We strongly support the notion of multiple problem definition - multiple solution definition, and we emphasize this in the concluding chapter. It may seem trite to recommend that the Himalayan Problem is not environmental, but is socio-economic, and especially political. However, unless new political approaches can be devised, and unless quite profoundly different thinking can evolve - about access to resources, about what 'development' should be - and unless the overwhelming majority of the subsistence farmers in the region can be better accommodated (to anticipate: unless they can be regarded as part of the solution(s) rather than as part of the Problem), we believe that the Himalayan region sensu lato is destined to experience a supercrisis of unthinkable magnitude. This is the dilemma facing the Himalayan region.
The foregoing perspective of what we are attempting would appear to justify our fears that it is over-ambitious. This we have decided to risk. We feel humbled by the magnitude of the task and our inadequate resources to attempt it. However, as so eloquently argued at the Conference by Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna, Messenger of the Chipko Movement, we must all recognize the special role of the Himalaya as a unique part of the world cultural heritage and the importance of its spiritual contribution to the wellbeing of the world community. Some of the more serious threats to world civilization and environment are lethargy, complacency, despair, conviction that the problems are too great, the time too short, and that the damage already accomplished is irreversible. A great deal can be done given the inspiration, determination, and commitment, provided a proper focusing can be achieved. By tackling the uncertainties and misunderstandings that enshroud the Himalaya and the neighbouring plains, we hope that this book will make some contribution toward achievement of that necessary focus.
Jack D. Ives
President, International Mountain Society
UNU Coordinator: Highland Lowland Interactive Systems Project
Chairman, IGU Commission on Mountain Geoecology, 1988-92
Chairman, IGU Commission on Mountain Geoecology, 1980-88
UNU Institutional Coordinator
Vice President, International Mountain Society
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