‘Human waste and trash accumulating on the glaciers’
Steve Swenson, 56, is president of the American Alpine Club. He is currently working on a book documenting his 30 years of climbing in Kashmir in the Karakoram mountains of India, Pakistan, and China. Swenson spoke to Sudeshna Chatterjee on the threats that mountain ecosystems face:
What’s the impact of mountaineering and high altitude tourism on mountain ecosystems?
Probably the greatest impact on the sensitive mountain environment in the Karakoram mountains between India and Pakistan in Kashmir is the result of the ongoing military conflict there. Human waste and trash is accumulating on the glaciers. These don’t degrade in cold and frozen places. Abandoned military equipment and fuel spills also contribute to the problem. An international peace park has been proposed in Siachen glacier so that each army can pull back from their high altitude posts and, thereby, reduce casualties and damage to environment.
High altitude mountaineering and tourism creates problems like improper disposal of trash and human waste. Trash should be separated into material that can be burned, bio-degradable materials that can be buried such as vegetable and fruit waste, and materials
that must be transported out of the mountains to a proper location for disposal such as metal cans and glass. Human waste can be properly disposed of in an earthen pit of sufficient depth, but this is a problem on glaciers. Tourists would not want to visit areas that have been heavily impacted by improper disposal of trash and human waste. Deforestation leads to soil erosion which can be quite severe given the steep topography of these areas.
What steps do you think must be taken to protect mountain ecosystems, particularly the Himalayas?
A system of monitoring and enforcement of existing regulations must be created. Countries like India, Pakistan and China already have regulations prohibiting improper disposal of trash and human waste. These problems still persist because the governments have not funded a system of monitoring or for enforcing regulations. Many of the expeditions are required to have a liaison officer, but this system is not effective in enforcing regulations as the officer often leaves the expedition early or is not trained to manage an expedition with the intention to preserve the sensitive mountain ecosystem.
You are currently working on a book documenting your years of climbing in Kashmir. How do you see the conflict there?
The situation in the Karakoram mountains along the Line of Control (LoC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) is very difficult for both the Indian and Pakistani armies. Many of the outposts are at over 6,000 metres and are manned throughout the year. The winter temperatures can be as low as minus 50 degrees C and both sides suffer casualties due to frostbite, avalanches and crevasse falls, and high altitude ailments such as cerebral and pulmonary edema. Local people get caught in the conflict and are cut off from relatives who are on the other side of the LoC or AGPL. This is a complex situation that India and Pakistan needs to resolve.
Implementing ideas such as the SiaIchen peace park may provide some relief. If these ideas can be successfully negotiated, they might serve as a first step towards building the trust required for a broader settlement. We hope that leaders on both sides have the courage and long-term commitment to reach such agreements.