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Managing waste to save the wetlands of Himachal Pradesh

March 18, 2021 / 04:30 PM IST

- - With varied topography, Himachal Pradesh has a number of wetlands spread across various ecological zones. Around 271 lakes are located across the state’s 12 districts.

- - Local communities in Himachal Pradesh have a spiritual bond with lakes in the state and most of the water bodies are considered sacred. Increasing tourism and irresponsible disposal of plastic waste are among the threats to these wetlands.

- - Pradeep Sangwan leads an organisation that has been actively cleaning up the wetlands in the region through clean-up treks and waste management activities.

Living in Haryana, the hills of Himachal Pradesh were a distant dream for young Pradeep Sangwan. He attended a military school in Ajmer, Rajasthan where he lived a disciplined life with his eyes set on joining the armed forces. But due to personal reasons, he could not sit for the interviews and had to give this dream up. Sangwan then moved to Punjab for further studies where he started travelling and trekking to the Himalayas with his friends. During these trips, he explored the upper Himalayan region. Here, he felt connected with the local communities and the culture of Himachal Pradesh and in 2016, he made the state his home.


Today Sangwan leads the Healing Himalayas, an organisation that conducts  ‘clean up treks’ along the most popular trek routes in Himachal Pradesh. Tourists and sometimes local community members join these treks, cleaning up trash as they go along.

Situated in the lap of the Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh hosts rich biodiversity and climate varying from tropic to semi-arctic conditions. Owing to its varied topography, the state houses a wide variety of wetlands spread across various ecological zones. The local communities in Himachal Pradesh have a spiritual bond with all the wetlands here. These wetlands are dedicated to different Hindu religious deities and attract tourists. The state too has several temples where people come on religious pilgrimages. In 2019, more than 17 million tourists (including religious tourists) visited Himachal Pradesh – almost three times the local population which stands at around 6 million (according to the 2011 census). The growing footfall in the fragile Himalayan regions has led to the problem of waste management and disposal.

During his initial days of trekking, Sangwan started connecting with the local communities of Himachal Pradesh. He saw the local culture through them. It was in 2014, he found himself connected to a shepherd community- known as the Gaddi community in the local language. He saw their difficult lifestyle at 5000m altitude. He observed how that community would trek for months with their herds and leave a minimal carbon footprint. “I feel the time they crossed roads with their herds was the only time their carbon footprint might have increased,” said Sangwan. This prompted him to educate young trekkers about sustainable trekking.

When Sangwan moved to the Himalayas, he was concerned when he saw the trash thrown by visitors on the popular trek routes. He saw people travelling to the hills without a purpose and wanted to change that. He joined hands with a friend to start “travelling with a purpose”. On their first trek, the duo also picked up waste lying on the trek route. They got back four bags of waste down. “The weight was less but the volume was more. The major waste we picked up was plastic waste,” said Sangwan.

In 2016 he started the Healing Himalayas Foundation with the aim of sensitising people on the protection of the Himalayas, promoting ethical travel and preserving the environment of the sacred Himalayan region. The team usually conducts 40-50 cleanup treks a year. To date, almost 7000 people have joined them on ground and a community of 1.5 lakh people support their work on social media.

Sangwan and his team have cleaned the trek routes of Kheerganga (a popular summer trek), Shrikhand Mahadev, Hadimba Temple and Jogini Waterfalls. Along with this, they have conducted clean-up drives in the villages of Chitkul, Rakcham, Bathseri, Kinnaur, Kangra Valley, and Hampta.

“River bodies are found around trek routes. People throw their waste while trekking on these routes. This waste eventually lands up in the rivers and disturbs aquatic life too,” notes Sangwan, talking about how littering on trek routes can have an impact on the region’s water bodies. “While waste will flow along with the river, it may not impact the flowing river. The problem comes up when the waste starts to stagnate in a particular place, especially in rivers that flow in plains. This problem can be seen in Ganga and Yamuna rivers, for example,” noted Sangwan.

To give a long-term solution to the problem, Sangwan and his team have recently started a project building small-scale collection centres, to manage waste effectively so that it doesn’t end up in water bodies, landfills or open-air burning. At their first waste centre in Rakcham village, they anticipate at least 72,000 kgs of non-biodegradable waste will be recycled annually. By 2025, they aim to have around 10 such waste collection centres.

Cleaning the holy wetland

Sangwan, along with the local communities, has cleaned the Chandra Taal lake and Suraj Tal lake in Lahaul and Spiti, sections of Chandrabhaga also known as the Chenab river, and the Baspa river along trek routes, he says.

Before conducting a clean-up drive in any village, he travels to the village and conducts awareness programs for the residents. “Whenever we visit a village, we make it a point to work there on a long-term basis. We do not go there and lecture them. Rather we get hands-on into the work with them.” He adds how community participation depends on the mores of the village. “Some villages have only men participating, while in others, the Mahila Mandal (women’s organisation) holds the reins. Other villages have a mixed crowd joining in.” Speaking about how many residents have joined him, Sangwanstates that “if a village has 100 people, 60-70 people definitely join in. All this is possible because the community knows that we do good work. It has helped us establish our credibility which was not possible earlier.” Kumar added that from his village in Manali “approximately 40-50 people definitely join in.”

The ubiquitous issue of plastic waste

Even though plastic has been banned in Himachal Pradesh, the majority of waste collected by Sangwan remains plastic (one-time packaging plastics, food wrappers), glass and tin (alcohol bottles, canned drinks, etc). “Plastic (waste) hinders underground water recharge and becomes a reason for flood eventually. Till last year, the team had collected more than 800,000 kgs of waste.”

In a study conducted by IIT Mandi, to explore the feasibility of improving waste management at trekking routes in Himachal Pradesh, the findings revealed that, “Scattered litter along Himachal Pradesh’s trails has become a problem partly due to increased tourism, but can also be attributed to the explosion of single-use packaging and snack wrappers from portable foods. These kinds of products are a departure from traditional containers originally carried by pilgrims or shepherd communities.” The study also made a heat map for the presence of waste around Prashar Lake. The heat map showed that within 100 meters of each trash can, there was below-average waste accumulation but the waste accumulation increased further away from the trash cans.

To give a long-term solution to this, Sangwan came up with the idea of waste collection centres to facilitate a material recovery facility and create a “waste economy”. Mobilising the local community, Sangwan has formed a waste collection centre at Rakcham village. He chose that spot “because the area has a good tourist footfall. The location was chosen because Rakcham can handle waste from three villages.” Through these centres, the local community will manage their problem of solid waste disposal as well as have a livelihood option in their village. He plans to form similar solutions in Barshaini, Kullu and also in Kinnaur which is a “popular tourist destination and also has army personnel stationed there.”

Travelling with a purpose and a step towards sustainable tourism

In a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, a policy think tank of the Government of India, sustainable tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) was promoted. The report mentions how “tourism development and promotion in the IHR should therefore be built around the principles of sustainable tourism as opposed to mass tourism.” Nearly 50 million people reside in the IHR alone. The report also suggests measures such as the introduction of a “green cess”, a convergence of tourism with different sectors, spreading awareness and sensitization about the IHR to state a few.

Sustainable tourism, eco-tourism,  Attri feels, can bring changes. He says that “the local government is trying its best by investing in conservation but it should come naturally even from the tourists and the local bodies”. Tourist spots are “opened for hardly four months but the influx of tourists at that time is too much for the government to handle.”

Kumar also echoes this sentiment and feels that “tourism should be controlled according to the capacity of the place. Excessive exploitation is the cause for pollution in a lot of Himalayan areas.” Both state that even local communities should also be proactive.

Sangwan mentions how it will take him years to revive wetlands that have been dirtied through the ages. “A lot needs to be done; we are just scratching the surface as of now.”

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it…

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