With its breathtaking beauty and fragile ecosystem, the Indian Himalayan region faces mounting pressure to find effective solutions for the growing waste crisis
The Indian Himalayan States of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ or the ‘Land of the Gods’ due to their religious significance. They are characterized by beautiful landscapes featuring several majestic peaks, wildlife sanctuaries with rich biodiversity, and many gleaming rivers. Two of the most important rivers in India, the Ganga and Yamuna, originate in the glaciers of Uttarakhand.
Due to their natural beauty, these places have become tourist hotspots in the last few decades. According to a report by the World Bank, tourism-related activities in the Indian Himalayan Region generate over five million MT of waste per annum. This is projected to increase rapidly over the next few years as the tourism boom continues. Local consumption patterns have also changed significantly, with increased use of single-use plastics, leading to an increase in non-biodegradable waste generation even in remote areas. Due to a lack of proper collection and processing systems, a conservative estimate is that over 60% of this waste is dumped or burnt in the open.
Impact on Wildlife
When waste is dumped in these eco-sensitive areas, it generally ends up in the forests or nearby water streams, impacting the various species of wildlife in the region.
A study by Wildlife SOS on the critically endangered Himalayan Brown Bear revealed that over 75% of the food bears consume comes from garbage dumps. Their natural diet of fresh plants, insects, and small mammals has been replaced by improperly disposed of high-calorie foods, like the famous Indian Biryani!
Another study published in The Journal for Nature Conservation reported the presence of plastics, glass, metal, rubber, and other human-made materials in elephant dung in the forests of Uttarakhand. Gitanjali Katlam the main author of the study says “It is an uncomfortable truth to face – that elephants ingest plastic along with food waste (discarded food often wrapped in plastic) and carry it deep into the forest. Once the plastic exits the elephant’s system, it can continue to be a danger to other animals in the forest as it gets passed up the food chain.”
Impact on Human Health & Climate Change
In the Himalayan states, one of the most popular waste disposal techniques is waste burning.
When waste is burnt in the open, it releases dioxins and furans, some of the most toxic and carcinogenic chemicals known to scientists. A study by the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India (LASI), has reported that Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (both Himalayan States) are two of the top three states in India for diagnosed cancer cases.
Waste burning also releases black carbon, a significant source of pollutants, leading to the blackening of snow and faster melting of the Himalayan glaciers and thereby reinforcing anthropogenic climate change.
As per the Hind Kush Himalaya Assessment research report, even if global warming is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius, warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region will likely be at least 0.3 degrees Celsius higher, and in the northwest Himalaya and Karakoram at least 0.7 degrees Celsius higher. Just in February 2023, the average temperatures in Uttarakhand increased by 5 degrees Celsius. Such large warming could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability – all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being in the HKH.
The Chamoli disaster in 2021, a mass avalanche, is a deadly reminder of the havoc that such disasters can create – with 200 people reported killed or missing, two hydro-power projects destroyed, and significant economic loss.
Marginalized communities in these eco-sensitive regions are the most vulnerable to the impacts of waste and climate change. IPCC research shows that even modest climate changes can push vulnerable communities into chronic poverty. Such shifts have already been observed among climate-sensitive livelihoods in high mountain environments. Yet mountain people rarely receive support for adaptation and are rarely involved in adaptation planning.
Human evolution has been a slow process, with the appearance of Homo Sapiens about 200,000 years ago. However, the indiscriminate use of plastics has created issues of unprecedented scale in just around 50 years of its existence. This is no longer a problem for only a handful of environmentalists to be concerned about. We are in the middle of a silent global pandemic of waste mismanagement. All of us are in this together, as the impacts of waste dumping and burning know no boundaries.
No magic bullet technology solution exists
Now that we have established an urgent need for solutions, our instinct is to look for technological solutions. Various technology solutions have been implemented with little to no success in the Himalayan region.
- Waste-to-energy plants have failed in India and the Himalayan Region because the mixed waste used as feedstock has a high percentage of bio-degradable waste, thereby lowering the overall calorific value of waste. (Calorific value is the heat produced while burning a particular fuel.)
- Sensor-based underground dustbins installed in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh & Dehradun, Uttarakhand have both been a big failure in the respective cities. There are steep and narrow roads, leading to difficulty accessing these bins. More waste is found around these bins than inside them.
- Many app-based startups have tried to develop an incentive-based approach to waste collection and failed due to an unsustainable business model and stiff competition from the informal sector. Many villages in the Himalayan Region do not have access to electricity or mobile towers so such app-based solutions may not be suitable for the local context.
- Mixed Waste Processing Plants: This is the most common way most cities and towns in the Himalayan region attempt to manage their waste. Mixed waste is brought in large volumes, segregated, and then laid in rows as a part of the windrow composting process. However, due to poor segregation of waste at the source, cold climatic conditions, and frequent rains in these regions, these plants generally end up in dumpsites with frequent protests by locals to close the plant.
- Plastic Waste Management Units: Under the national Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) in India (or the Clean India Mission – Rural), each block in every district is allocated a budget for the construction of a Plastic Waste Management Unit. However, we see in many instances in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh that these facilities have been constructed without proper capacity planning or operational plan, therefore, are generally dysfunctional.
Engagement with Four Key Stakeholders
While designing and implementing solutions, one must build a relationship through persistent engagement with four key stakeholders through a bottom-up approach.
- Local Governments
- Providing waste management services is primarily the duty of the local governments as per the Indian Constitution. In the Himalayan context, this becomes complicated as the region has a very high forest cover (over 60%), more than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and witnesses a very large number of floating population both for religious and leisure purposes with many temples, trekking routes, and popular tourist attractions.
- Therefore, any solution design will need to establish convergence between various government departments like the Rural Development Department, Urban Development Department, Forest Department, and Tourism Department, as well as officials at the state, district, block, and village levels. In 2018. Uttarakhand ranked the lowest for waste management systems as per a Pollution Control Board report. One of the main reasons is the critical lack of infrastructure for waste processing i.e. Material Recovery Facilities for non-biodegradable waste and Composting/Bio-gas units for bio-degradable waste. Allocating land for setting up waste processing facilities is a tedious process, and operational costs to keep these plants functional are exceptionally high due to the terrain. There is a need to work closely with the local administration to help them overcome on-field issues in setting up infrastructure and to enable them access to more institutional sources of funding for meeting operational costs.
- Waste Warriors for example works in Sahasthradhara, a popular tourist area near the capital city of Dehradun to engage with the District Tourism Officer for permission to initiate waste collection services in the main market area.
- Communities: Role of Citizens
- When people experience poor public service delivery, most complain or pass the buck. However, there are always active citizens who engage constructively to be part of the solution. One needs to identify, encourage and promote the work of these Warriors from within the community.
- Another example of active citizen engagement is tour operators. Inside the Govind Wildlife Sanctuary, Waste Warriors trained these operators on the importance of waste management in and around trekking routes which has led to tour operators deciding to store and transport their waste better, with the help of our Material Recovery Facility.
- Local Entrepreneurs: Women, Informal Sector, and Waste Pickers
- Women Self-Help Groups
- On the outskirts of the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve, over 25 women from upper and lower castes have come together as ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’ (or Women Friends of the Environment). These women have had to overcome various social stigmas associated with waste to offer door-to-door waste collection services in rural areas through a battery-operated vehicle. With the help of Waste Warriors, they collect user charges from each household every month, segregate waste at waste banks, and sell the recyclable waste to local scrap dealers to earn their livelihoods.
- Local Waste Haulers
- In Muni-Ki-Reti, a Ganga city in Uttarakhand, we work closely with the local waste haulers – who have the mandate of collecting segregated waste from households. However, they lack technical know-how, and the kind of team required for implementing behavior change campaigns. Waste Warriors, executes Information, Education, and Communications campaigns, including door-to-door engagement, street plays, movie screenings, student engagement activities, etc. to create awareness in the city and is supported by the supervisors of the haulers, and the local administration therefore, collaboration becomes critical for success.
- Waste Workers Upliftment
- Marginalized by caste, gender, and migrant status, waste pickers find it difficult to access even basic civic amenities in cities. They do not have access to protective equipment or the benefits of government schemes and are generally harassed by local cops and thugs due to a lack of identity. Organizations such as Waste Warriors work with these communities to improve their access to government schemes, permanent housing, health camps, and education for their children and to support them during natural disasters. Recently, four of our Green Workers in Dharamshala received a credit of Rs. 1 lakh each, to be able to access the benefits of the government housing scheme and moved into permanent housing for the first time in their lives.
- Policymakers, Think Tanks & Global Collaborations
- The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, which govern the solid waste management sector in India has only two paragraphs dedicated to the hilly regions. For example, Swachh Bharat Mission, India’s flagship Cleanliness Campaign, has a provision for a per capita budget (of Rs. 62 per capita) for solid waste management, which is insufficient for the sparsely populated hilly areas where operational costs are higher than in the plains. This further aggravates the challenge for local governments to meet the high operational costs of waste management in the region. Another example is that of sanitary waste which is generated in large volumes in urban, rural, and tourist areas. Due to the eco-sensitive nature of the region, it is hard to get approvals to set up large-scale incinerator plants required to dispose of sanitary waste. Therefore, this waste is currently being dumped and burned in the open leading to air and water pollution.
As majestic as the Himalayas might be, they face immense pressure from the burgeoning size of the waste problem. There is a need for more studies to accurately assess the environmental impacts of waste burning and dumping in these sacred mountains and the eco-sensitive Himalayan regions and to mobilize collective consciousness for more urgent global, national, and local action.
Anyone seriously looking to solve such complex problems will need to develop a deep understanding of the local context, and engage with all key stakeholders for sustained long-term impacts.