- - 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
Himachal Pradesh has a total of 271 lakes covering an area of 575 hectares in its 12 districts. Presently the state has three Ramsar convention wetlands – Pong Dam in Kangra district, Renuka Lake in Sirmaur, and Chandertal in Lahaul and Spiti. Along with these, the Himachal Pradesh State Wetland Authority under the Himachal Pradesh Council for Science, Technology & Environment has identified Rewalsar Lake in Mandi, Khajjiar Wetland in Chamba, Prashar Lake in Mandi, Serolsar Lake in Kullu, Surajtal Lake in Lahaul & Spiti, Bhrigu Lake in Kullu, Lama Dal Lake in Chamba, Manimahesh Lake in Chamba, and Nako Lake in Kinnaur as important wetlands of the state.One of the water bodies of Himachal, where Sangwan conducts regular cleanup drives is the Prashar Rishi Lake, located in the Mandi district. The lake, situated at an altitude of 2730 m, is a popular tourist destination. Like all wetlands of Himachal Pradesh, the lake has a mythological story – it is believed to have been formed when Sage Prashar struck a rod on the land. A temple dedicated to him, Rishi Prashar, is located beside the lake and the local community revers it. An interesting feature of the oval-shaped lake is a floating island situated in the middle. The circular island of 450 sq m, with dense reed, shifts positions annually.Sangwan conducts two clean-up drives to Prashar Lake each year – one in March-April and the other in October before snowfall. He mobilises the local communities to join him and his group in keeping the lake clean Vikas Kumar, a community volunteer who is a part of Sangwan’s clean-up drive, tells Mongabay-India, “Prashar Rishi lake is a popular destination. People have picnics and camps and leave their waste there like an unsolicited gift to the mountains. No one picks up the waste and the beauty of this holy spot is reduced.” He adds, “People often forget how other people will visit that spot later and evade their responsibility of keeping the spot clean. Himachal has a variety of alpine flowers. Imagine those beautiful flowers and a shiny chips packet or a plastic bottle between them. It is a dirty sight. When we clean an area, the natural beauty of the place comes out.”
Prashar is one of the most understudied wetlands of Himachal Pradesh. Owing to religious beliefs, the depth of the lake is unknown. In a 2012 paper by Pawan Kumar Attri and Virender Kumar Santvan, which was among the first times that the lake was studied scientifically, the findings note the presence of 38 species of common plants and trees found in the lake’s catchment area. Some of them include the West Himalayan fir (Abies pindrow royle), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Himalayan thimbleweed (Anemone obtusiloba), lady’s glove (Digitalis purpurea), and birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). Among the fauna, the study reveals the presence of six mammals namely jungle cat (Felis chaus), Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), Himalayan fox (Vulpes bengalensis), Goral (Nemorhaedus goral), rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), and Himalayan langur (Presbytis entellus). The study also notes the presence of 11 common birds specifically jungle fowl (Gallus gallus murghi), Impeyan pheasant (Lophophorus impejanus), Chakor (Alectoris graeca), gray partridge (Fancolinus pondicerianus), and whistling thrush (Myophoneus caerulens) among others.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Pawan Kumar Attri, one of the paper’s authors and a Senior Research Officer at the Institute of Integrated Himalayan Studies at Himachal Pradesh University, stated how there has not been much significant change to the lake in the current times. “What has changed is now that the area has a metalled road reaching there which was not present when we conducted the research. With the construction of the road, there is an increase in the number of tourists. While the effect is not evident now, it will show signs in the future,” said Attri.
Wetlands, in particular, notes Attri are crucial water sources. “Unlike the wetlands found in the plains, high altitude wetlands are fed by glaciers and melting ice. They are also known as glacier lakes. Since they are in high altitudes, there are no big trees around the wetland ecosystem. What prevails is only grasslands and meadows,” said Attri.
Getting the residents to join hands
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…