Once upon a time, in an unknown part of the Himalayas, lay the meadow of Dayara Bugyal. Inhabited by frolicking bunnies, sheep and the occasional pastoralist, it was a children’s storybook fantasy. Until the twin forces of commerce and tourism struck, and changed everything.
Situated 3,000 meters above sea level, Dayara Bugyal (‘bugyal’ means “high-altitude meadow” in the local language) covers an area of 28 square km in the north-west part of Uttarakhand. Home to over 50 species of medicinal and aromatic plants, this high-altitude meadow offers panoramic views of the Greater Himalayan peaks Bandarpoonch and Kalanag. It is the origin of two important tributaries of Bhagirathi River, Papad Gad and Swari Gad. The bugyal is also a key habitat of important wildlife species like Musk Deer, Himalayan Brown Bear, Himalayan Thar and Monal.
But since the early 2000s, increased tourism and human activity started changing the topography of this pristine land. What was once a remote area with limited human exposure began to see annual tourist footfalls of 6,000-7,000, and local footfalls nearing 5,000, consisting of farmers and pilgrims. The increased activity started causing damage to the land, with soil erosion and cracked soil leading to formation of large gullies. This, in turn, led to loss of biodiversity. Climate change-induced factors like shorter winters, cloudbursts and flash floods further worsened the state of this once-perfect piece of land.
High-altitude Meadows: A Transitional Eco-system
Meadows consist primarily of grass, herbs and other non-wooded plants, and provide important ecosystem services like water, fodder for animals and flowers for pollination. In higher altitudes, meadows take on the role of a ‘transitional ecosystem’ between the snow-covered mountains above and forests below by providing food and protection for many animal species that cannot seek shelter in trees, such as rabbits and sheep. They absorb large quantities of water coming from the glaciers, acting as a buffer which reduces chances of natural disaster like floods in low-lying areas.
The Himalayas — home to some of the largest and most beautiful meadows in the world —are also critical to the local economy and communities living in these remote parts. Pastoralists use these pastures for grazing their livestock while harvesters collect medicinal and aromatic plants to sell them at high prices. The advent of nature-based and adventure tourism has offered a welcome new opportunity in these areas with limited sources of livelihood.
The Costly Footprint of Human Activity
Unfortunately, the flip side to escalating human and commercial activity is increased damage to the local ecosystem. Overgrazing by livestock reduces fodder availability for wild animals and disturbs the animal food chain, while over-harvesting of medicinal and aromatic plants disrupts their regeneration cycle. Unregulated tourism leads to degradation of natural habitats through soil erosion and pollution of water sources.
This has a domino effect on the large populations living in lower altitudes, as also flora and fauna. Decrease in plant species is affecting population of pollinators like bees and butterflies that are important for the horticulture industries like apple farming. Accelerated soil erosion and decreasing vegetation cover and water retention capacity of these areas has increased the risk of flash floods, which can cause immense damage to life and property downstream.
It is imperative to take immediate steps to restore the health of high-altitude Himalayan meadows such as Dayara Bugyal. Given the complexities of location and weather, solutions have to be local and collaborative between the administration and the local communities to ensure sustainable management of these fragile ecosystems.
When it came to Dayara Bugyal, traditional engineering methods to stop erosion, such as building concrete and cement-based embankments, could not be implemented as they were neither cost-effective nor ecologically-sustainable.
Geo-textiles to Counter Soil Erosion
The grim situation led the state forest department to explore innovative solutions, and finally decide on geo-textiles. Geo-textiles like mattresses made from coir (a fibre obtained from the husk of coconuts) and dried pine leaves (locally known as pirul) were supported by bamboo poles and then placed along eroded areas to check soil runoff.
The initiative was implemented by Sandeep Kumar, an officer of the Indian Forest Services, currently serving as the Divisional Forest Officer of Uttarkashi district. “Erosion is a complex problem in the meadows. It first starts as ‘sheet erosion’, where a layer of water flowing over the ground surface results in the removal of a uniform layer of topsoil from the surface. This usually happens when there is more rainfall than the ground can absorb. Then it develops into ‘rill erosion’, where water forms small channels into the soil, leading to accelerated erosion. If untreated, these water channels can quickly expand to form large water channels or ‘gullies’, leading to what is called ‘gully erosion’,” says Kumar. Over the years, large gullies had formed all across Dayara Bugyal, stripping many large sections off their vegetation.
“Given the ecologically-sensitive nature of the meadows, we decided not to use any concrete or cement, and rely upon eco-friendly materials to prepare check dams. The local community was closely involved with the construction work. In the coming years, we plan to replicate this solution in other affected meadows in the region,” he adds.
To reduce human footprint, night camping has been banned in the meadow since 2018. Grazing has also been brought under strict control in close coordination from the Biodiversity Management Committees established in the villages to monitor and conserve the biodiversity of the region.
The Himalayas are the green lungs of the country, with one of the highest forest cover in the subcontinent and largest reserves of freshwater after the polar regions. In recent years, climate change and unsustainable development have degraded natural ecosystems and also led to an increased frequency of natural disasters, causing damage to both life and properly.
But as this initiative has shown, with a little bit of ingenuity, we can turn things around. And restore some of its original pristine quality to this spectacular landscape.
The writers are part of SECURE Himalaya team at UNDP India.