Economic changes and population increases are threatening the ecology of the Himalayas. In recent years, deforestation in the foothills and the Middle Himalayas and overgrazing on the high pastures has led to soil erosion and other environmental problems. Deforestation is a particular concern in the western Himalayas, where increased demand for firewood, extensive tree trimming in order to feed livestock, and construction of roads in the border regions have increased the destruction rate of forests and the number of landslides.
Rapid population growth has accelerated pollution, and Himalayan streams that were once clear are now polluted with refuse and sewage. Hill people who use the water for drinking suffer from dysentery; cholera and typhoid epidemics are also common. Large lakes like Dal in Kashmir and Naini Lake (Nainital) have also become polluted.
Regional variations in environmental degradation exist in the Himalayas. Conditions range from a critical situation in the Himalayas of Nepal, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Kashmir to a moderately serious situation in Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas. If rapid development continues in Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas without due regard for conservation, the problems there may assume critical proportions in the near future. The governments of India, Nepal, and Bhutan are aware of the dangers of environmental degradation in the Himalayas, and environmental management concerns are being integrated in development projects in this region.
Hard as it may sound to those overcome by the sheer magnificence of this mountain chain, the majestic Himalayas are surprisingly vulnerable to both natural processes and man-made ones. The mountain chain is young and, as has been proved in recent years, it is still geologically active. The Indian landmass continues to move towards the Eurasian landmass as a result of which the Himalayas rise by a few millimeters every year. Due to this, the Himalayas are still structurally unstable.
The Himalayas also feature a fragile ecosystem. For centuries, this ecosystem has remained delicately balanced, and has been responsible for the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayas. Only in recent years has the ecosystem been disturbed in various parts due to processes both man-made and natural.
Man has also been responsible to a large extent for some of the environmental problems faced by the mountains. As he strives for industrialization, modernization and the so-called higher standard of living, man has disturbed the natural ecosystems of many parts of the world. The Himalayas have been no exception. Over the centuries, pilgrims and explorers have visited the mountains. However, in the past their numbers were few and the Himalayan ecosystem, fragile as it is, was able to cope with the effects of human exploration in the areas.
But today, the story is different. In the last few decades, an intricate network of roads has been built into the mountains, which have made some of the most remote areas more easily accessible. This has translated into a tremendous increase in the numbers of people who visit the mountains every year. The Himalayas are now being exploited, to the hilt in many areas, to provide materials for the growing number of forest-based industries. Thus, it is not a surprise that environmental problems have emerged in the Himalayan region.