Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

10. Research strategy for the Himalayan region

Uncertainty revisited: what are the critical gaps in knowledge?
A conventional approach for the natural scientist
Implementation failure caused by institutional problems
Himalayan development: development for whom?



We have concluded that our region is characterized by extreme uncertainty and great complexity. We have tried to dissipate some of the uncertainty and this has led us to two postulates. First, the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation is not a valid entity and must be broken down into its component parts and each part must be evaluated on its own merits. Thus the major linkage, population growth and deforestation in the mountains leading to massive damage on the plains, is not accepted. We favour the more cautious approach based upon acknowledgment that the long-term geophysical processes are more than adequate to account for the on-going formation of the plains as the continuously rising mountains are progressively eroded. We would argue, for instance, that appropriate forest establishment in the mountains is vital, but only for the well-being of the mountain environments and the mountain peoples dependent upon those environments. If reforestation in the mountains is conceived as a palliative for the problems of the plains, it is likely that vast resources will be expended to reap only disappointment. Moreover, this conception may divert attention away from the necessity of water resources management and adaptations to the natural environment of the plains.

In terms of the need for a research strategy, however, we must confess that we cannot totally disregard the importance of learning more about the natural process linkages between mountains and plains. In part, this is because we are not satisfied with being in the position of concluding that human intervention in the mountains has little or no impact on the plains because the inherent problem of shortage of data pervaded our own counter-arguments. In assessing future prospects, therefore, it is better to stipulate that, while we are comfortable with our refutation, the linkage between events in the mountains and events on the plains is unproven rather than proven false.

Thus we will outline a standard approach that should serve to improve our understanding of the highland-lowland physical linkages. This, at the same time, will provide two important practical advantages: (1) as our understanding of Himalayan natural science grows (but without comparable and integrated growth in human science this will be inadequate), 'development' agencies and governments should be progressively better positioned to effect successful interventions in terms of resource utilization; and (2) the same learning process will provide the necessary benchmarks against which the magnitude of any future possible impacts on the plains deriving from land-use changes in the mountains can be assessed.

The second postulate is that, despite our setting aside the physical highlandlowland elements of supercrisis, there are enough indicators of potential disaster for us to recommend that the national governments of the region, and the international community, should begin to react immediately to the probability that the socio-economic situation in the Himalayan region will run out of control. It must be recognized that this could give way to a level of human suffering not yet witnessed in this harsh world of the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, this should not veil our conviction that there are grounds for optimism. While we cannot understand whether population pressure on an inadequate natural resource base is driving a downward spiral toward increased poverty and starvation, or whether poverty is the basic causal factor itself, we are inclined to regard population growth, at least in part, as the symptom. The relationship must be more fully explored and a major adjustment in thinking and planning implemented. This will be very difficult, not the least from a political point of view - both from within national societies and between nation states. It is because of the latter conviction that we urge a co-operative and unprecedentedly large-scale undertaking between governments with some appropriate initiative being provided by the United Nations.

Two issues are apparent already, however: the level of uncertainty enshrouding the Himalayan Problem must be both lowered and utilized. Both approaches need to be faced and we believe that our own modest efforts have merely laid a foundation for this. This chapter, therefore, is essentially a first tentative suggestion of a series of considerations that might be useful for the delimitation of a major change in the agenda of research planning and 'development' implementation. As might be anticipated, there are several possible approaches to the definition of a research strategy, and a healthy strategy will be one that commands many different initiatives. Because we ourselves endorse the need to avoid rigidity we will introduce a number of perspectives here. The next section is largely derived from one of the Mohonk Conference panel discussions, led by Michael Thompson (Ives et al., 1987). We have identified as many as possible of the specific ideas with the names of the individual conference participants. While this may be somewhat unconventional in a book of this kind, we believe that our approach will help in indicating the spirit of enthusiasm and the intellectual stimulation that the Conference brought forth. This could be considered of some importance as a demonstration that international co-operation is feasible. This was true, even amongst a most diverse and complex group of participants, with the seeming potential for the maximum possible disagreement and contention, almost as a mirror of the Himalayan region itself. The unanimously approved Resolutions are included at the end of this chapter.

Contents - Previous - Next