The Indian Himalayas consists of the three highest mountain ranges in the world and one small mountain range. Because of the beautiful scenario in the region, over two million people visit the region annually with an agenda of hiking, climbing the ranges for fun and religion matters or just viewing the tranquil scenery, Molnar (1986). The escalating figures of frequent visitors to the area, has led to adverse effects to the environment and this has negative impacts on the residents. Campsites and roads are a common scene, substituting the beautiful forest cover that was existing there before.
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Human beings have contributed in a great deal to soil erosion in the Himalayan region and also some human activities have paved way for natural factors to deplete the soil off its fundamentals for agriculture. Soil erosion transpires when soil is constantly taken away by gravity down the ranges causing soil to crack, creep downhill and slump. The human activities which have taken away the vegetation cover paves way for soil to be easily carried off. Rainfall has been top in the list of factors which cause soil erosion as it causes at first sheet wash which may develop to rills and subsequently gullies.
Soil erosion has very adverse effects and major among them is that soil looses the most important nutrients which are vital for farming. The long term effects include the land becoming unsuitable for construction of dams, roads and campsites.
Soil is a non-renewable natural resource and survey has shown that one sixth of the world’s soil has already been depleted by water and wind. Mankind is not doing anything to reverse the situation but accelerating the rate at an alarming speed. Soil erosion has two major impacts; one is the reduced ability of the soil to produce quality crops and considering the case study of the Himalayans who depend on subsistence farming. The surface soil is the one which harbors essential nutrients for crop growth and if taken away then whatever that remains can’t do much. Also there are micro-organisms which are very influential to improvement of soil aeration and drainage and the organisms are found n the surface, if they are taken away by moving water and wind then this paves way for a poor production. The depth of soil left behind cannot support agricultural production for crops and since the animals also consume crops, the effect is the same.
Secondly we have off-site pollution effects connected with whatever that has been eroded. The soil which is carried away, wherever that it gets deposited it welcomes undesirable effects. Siltation of dams creates a health hazard for the aquatic animals for example the pesticides sprayed to kill pests and then washed away and fertilizers will kill the aquatic world. Almost 45 % of the Himalayan land is faced by vehement soil erosion through gullies, shifting cultivation, cultivated waste lands, sandy areas, deserts and water logging.
Due to increased access to the global market, demand for natural resources in the Himalayan region has attracted immigration as well as movement of people within the region towards the hilly places. This has brought about an abnormal and uncontrollable population growth rate within the most productive ecosystems, which are the richest in biodiversity. This has called for extensive clearing of forests and grasslands leading to logging to get land for cultivation.
Logging occurs on steep slopes and this has really activated the rate of soil erosion.
Cultivation in the Himalayan region is of farm crops such as barley, potatoes and buckwheat at high elevations. The crops fore mentioned are preferred as they reach maturity stage early giving the inhabitants food always. The crops grown don’t cover the soil and in most times the soil is left bare and after a heavy downpour, due to the topography of the region, rainwater carries off soil easily. When there are droughts, a lot of strong wind currents are prevalent and wind carries off the surface soil easily since it is not protected.
Land for cultivation is often cleared in summer months and fire is what is used. This masquerades the clearing because during summer almost all the vegetation has dried and the fire will spread very fast to uncontrollable levels clearing forests which were not planned for. These fires also kill the microorganisms in the soil rendering the land unproductive for agriculture. The season for clearing is also untimely because during this time we have very strong wind currents which carry away the soil and immediately afterwards there is a heavy downpour, leading to sheet erosion.
Overgrazing by domesticated livestock and yak has overexploited the alpine ecosystem posing a threat of soil erosion. After overgrazing the land is normally open for wind erosion. Fuel collection for domestic consumption and for export has really also depreciated the forests. Political unrests which are very common in the form of insurgencies also is a menace to the veracity of some protected areas.
Poaching of animals for some of their body parts and for Chinese medicine has also an impact towards soil erosion, McGinley (2008). If the animals were to be present, then some land was to be set aside for the welfare of the animals hence no extensive degradation of the environment. Also some crops are uprooted for their medicinal value leaving no chance of recovery thereafter. The use of pesticides and fertilizers has risen to a level whereby they are being abused. Pesticides kill the pests responsible for pollination and also for the pests which stay in the soil they are very important in improving soil aeration and drainage, killing them therefore has negative impacts.
Evaluation of current sustainability strategies and solutions
Survey has shown that poverty is an escalating feature in the Himalayan region due to the peculiar biophysical characteristics, the remoteness of the region and the inaccessibility of the mountain regions. Unless the quality of life is addressed urgently, then the biophysical environment of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Mountains will face impenetrability. The negative effects are likely to impact on the lives of people who reside in the vast plains of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is geared alleviating poverty in mountainous areas Himalayan being one of them. The Indian government is member to this and they have tried their best to curb the escalating trend of deforestation which is a major factor behind soil erosion. The organization is also promoting mixed farming so that cover crops are introduced to cover soil from any form of erosion. Clearing of land through fire, has also been amended but the Indian parliament has not assented this to law. Once it becomes law, then the diverse effects from fires will be a thing of the past.
Other international development organizations have also been attracted by the poor standards of living off the Himalayans. For example most governments of the HKH have initiated poverty alleviation programs with funds from the national resources and the international development assistance. ICIMOD for example was started to act as a research centre with the competence to have a leading role in undertaking research issues.
Plan to reach sustainability
Pragmatic approaches need to be initiated to smother the problem of poverty with the Himalayans. Most of the scarce land is used to raise maize, rice and wheat. The government should look to it that the cereals are produced from plains where land is abundant and not prone to erosion and then imported to the mountainous regions, and then the mountain regions will produce high- value crops which are friendly to the environment. They will then export the products in exchange for the cereal crops. This will create a surplus in their production at the same time taking note of environmental degradation.
Technology has gone a notch higher and in developed countries we have fast growing trees for fuel wood and fodder to facilitate stall-feeding of livestock. In addition to the same we have high quality cattle for the alpine areas which can produce10-20 times more milk than indigenous ones, McGinley (2008). This is likely to reduce the problem as it will reduce the number of cows reared, forest cover will be increased decreasing erosion and lastly the fodder crops to be introduced are cover crops and are likely to reduce the rate of deforestation.
Initiatives to empower Himalayan women are normally thwarted by the women’s lack of education and skills and low self esteem brought about by socio-cultural taboos which marginalize them. There is need for incentives to motivate women to participate in biodiversity conservation initiatives. All the meetings are normally attended by men as shown below in figure three and women are not given any chance.
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