Nepal’s Fragile Himalayan Ecosystem

Gokyo Lake, Nepal

The Himalayan mountains are an impressive part of the Nepal landscape. (Photo credit: Craig Kassover/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

Nepal is a top destination for trekking – nearly 43 percent of visitors to the country plan to partake in trekking activities. But what impact does trekking have on the country’s fragile Himalayan ecosystem?

Nepal’s most well-known feature is Mt. Everest. Known in Nepal as Sagarmāthā, this 29,029-foot (8,848 m) peak is the tallest mountain on Earth. It – along with the country’s picturesque Himalayan mountains and stunning scenery– is what draws over a 100,000 trekkers to the region every year. While trekking may be a significant contributor to the country’s economy, this onslaught of tourists does not come without an environmental toll.

The Himalayan mountain range is the highest mountain system in the world. The range stretches from Kashmir to the west to Burma in the east. One-third of Nepal is covered by the Himalayas. In total, 75 percent of Nepal’s terrain is made up of mountains and hills; the remainder of the country is composed of flat plains.

Compared to other mountainous countries, Nepal has one of the highest population densities. A visit to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, quickly overloads the senses through its maelstrom of sounds, smells, and constant activity. The country’s growing population puts a strain on the environment. Forests have declined due to the need for firewood and building sources. Forestland has also been cleared to make way for agricultural land to provide food for the growing population. Between 1964 and 1979, Nepal lost 400,000 acres of forestland. Forest acreage now accounts for 27 percent of land coverage in Nepal; experts suggest that the coverage should be at least 60 percent to maintain ecosystem stability.

Nepal opened to trekking in 1964 when the government allowed the first foreign visitors to make multi-day hiking tours within the country. Today, Nepal is a top destination for trekking – nearly 43 percent of visitors to the country plan to partake in trekking activities.

The construction of roads and other infrastructure to support the country’s burgeoning tourism industry has put a strain on the environment. The geologically-young Himalaya mountains are tectonically unstable, and the construction of improperly aligned or sited roads has led to landslides and significant soil erosion.

While yak dung is the primary source of heat in the high elevation zones, firewood is the predominant fuel source elsewhere throughout the country. Fuelwood accounts for 95 percent of the wood consumption in rural areas, and 87 percent of energy consumption throughout the rest of the country.

Because areas along the Himalayan trekking routes are remote, most items must be carried in by hand (or more accurately, on the back). It is not uncommon to see porters dwarfed by the giant loads of wood, bottles, or foodstuffs carried on their backs. Trash must be packed out or, more often, burned – a practice than can negatively impact air quality.

While drawing in visitors by the tens of thousands is a benefit to Nepal’s economy, it will take the sustainable development of infrastructure and the promotion of ecologically-sound trekking practices to ensure that the environment is protected from further degradation.

Country: Nepal

Location: Nepal is located in southern Asia between China and India.

Area: 147,181 sq km (land and water) (slightly larger than Arkansas)

Climate: The northern portion of Nepal has cool summers and harsh winters; the southern portion has subtropical summers and mild winters.

Terrain: The terrain of Nepal varies from flat river plains to rugged mountains, including Mount Everest (8,850 m).

Natural Resources: Cobalt, copper, iron ore, lignite, quartz, timber, water

Economics: $40.49 billion (est. 2012)

Environmental Issues: Environmental issues in Nepal include deforestation, water contamination, and wildlife conservation.

Source: CIA – The World Factbook


This article was originally published in EcoZine in September 2014.

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