The Long-Term Impact of Global Mountain Deforestation on the Fresh Water Cycle
The important role that mountains and Healthy Indigenous mountain Forests play in the Global Fresh Water Cycle is not generally known about. Considering how important fresh water is for all life on Earth; it is surprising how little people generally know about how it is formed, what factors it is dependant upon and how to preserve it. It is even more surprising that among those who have some responsibility and have been well informed, that this issue is not given more recognition and urgent attention.
"The results of mountain ecosystem degradation through clear-cuts, unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices are tremendous and costly to downstream water users. They include drier aquifers and wells, siltation of hydropower and irrigation reservoirs through hillside erosion, and less water in the dry season." (Bishkek Global Mountain Summit 2002)
Research has shown that the environment of the Tibetan plateau, at an average altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level; which is the highest plateau on Earth, affects the global jet streams. These in turn affect Pacific typhoons, the El Nino (warm ocean current) phenomenon and monsoon patterns. These patterns affect all of Earth's weather systems and climates. (Elmer Reiter) Recent scientific knowledge reveals that the ice and snows of the high Himalayas regulate the climate of the entire Northern Hemisphere.
During the last 60 years the deforestation of the indigenous forest on the Tibetan Plateau has been enormous. In 1945 ancient forests covered 221,800 square kilometres of the high Tibetan plateau, which is 25 million sq. km, whereas by 1985 they had been reduced to134, 000 square kilometres (Tibetan Bulletin). They have undoubtedly been reduced even more since then. This is an enormous loss of high altitude forests and yet it is only a fraction of what has been happening globally. This is not the fault of the local Tibetan people. The Tibetan people had great respect for their natural environments and prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet it was a country of pristine beauty and healthy conserved environments. As mountain forests disappear, less rain falls and less snow is made. Also the land erodes and drains more quickly, rivers dry up and soil temperatures rise.
Without sufficient indigenous forest here to make the fresh snows and maintain the glaciers, all of life on Earth is in danger. Already the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau and throughout the Himalayas have retreated at an alarming rate and are still doing so. These glaciers are a major part in the cooling system of our planet. The loss of the Himalayan snows and glaciers do not just affect the billion or so people and all the wildlife in Asia. They affect the climate and ability to support life for the whole planet.
A group called ‘Mountain Forum’ speaks of protecting the remaining 25% of high altitude forest. This suggests that mountain regions could have been deforested by as much as 75% on a global scale.
This is an enormous loss and surely adds to the problems of climate change, when considering that these forests are the natural mechanism, which would normally be making the mountain snows. They would also be normally feeding the waters into the underground aquifers and absorbing carbons. The stability of Earth’s fresh water system depends upon maintaining the integrity of watersheds. These, in turn depend upon the health of the high altitude indigenous mountain forests. To sustain these important mechanisms, Earth’s mountain regions need to be reforested fast. To effectively do this, it is vital that remaining forests are protected and sustained and that action is taken to restore as much as is possible of the natural biodiversity promptly.
A vital point that needs to be remembered when approaching any kind of environmentally sustainable reforestation program is that monoculture is not an option. Within the last 100 years pine has been used as a fast monoculture cash crop throughout mountain regions. Many of the problems that have resulted from this are now being felt in erosion, flooding and ‘Climate Change’.
The idea of the mass planting a single species of fast growing trees may in theory seem like a good idea. However when looked at in practice, it is clear that it generally causes a lot of harm. The two species of tree most commonly used for monoculture are Alpine Pine and Eucalyptus. Both of these drain a lot of nutrients out of the soil and do not put much back. These are both very greedy for water and will destroy habitats for most other plant life and their inherent insects, birds and animals.
It is very disturbing to see massive areas of land that from a distance look green and lush, yet when studied at close quarters it is clear that the land is bare and parched and almost dead. There is also the fact that after only a short period of time of this kind of monoculture scheme being implemented the land is so acidified and drained of nutrients, that it cannot support much life. To introduce new growth and biodiversity back into such depleted areas a lot of effort needs to be spent on soil regeneration. Fortunately there are certain plants, which have great phytoremediation qualities, which could be used to clean the acids and toxins from the land. This would make it possible to reintroduce and encourage the natural biodiversity back into an area.
The huge extent of deforestation throughout Earths’ mountain regions; has not been caused simply by the local mountain communities. This scale of land desertification is generally the result of unregulated, large scale, commercial deforestation. It needs to be recognised that this environmental deterioration began during the time of the industrial revolution and that it has reduced these mountain communities to an impoverished state. Linked with this, they are forced to deplete even further the scarce forest resources that remain. Yet they are often the ones blamed for the problems. Very little of the riches gained from draining these mountain resources ever went to or goes to the indigenous mountain people. Hence they have become and stay one of the poorest peoples on Earth.
“Mountain peoples, many with thousands of years of experience living and working in their rugged environments, are overlooked stewards of fragile landscapes that support over 10% of the Earth's population, and protect the watersheds that ensure freshwater for more than half of humanity. The high variability of mountain ecosystems makes them home to irreplaceable global treasures of biological diversity -- a diversity that is protected by mountain communities whose traditional lifestyles depend on intimate knowledge and sustainable use of their natural environment. However, there is a marked "vertical gradient of poverty" in mountains that makes them home to some of the poorest people in the world. Their poverty is increasing in most places, as development investments either ignore or exploit them.” (Owen J. Lynch and Gregory F. Maggio Center for International Environmental Law Washington, USA)
The Himalayas form the top of the 'Roof of the World'. As with any roof, if the top part is broken and not repaired properly the rest of the roof becomes ineffective and the whole house is lost. Can we really afford to ignore repairing the roof of our world and lose the natural environments of Earth? This is the only home we have and there is nowhere else for us to move to. This work needs to be done recognizing the severity of the situation and the huge loss that will be suffered if it is not effectively done. It needs to involve governments, scientists and equally importantly, the mountain people and all communities. Hence the methods used need to fit with the needs and traditions of these different social groups. If a method is not used that involves these different groups, then there is not a chance of effective re-forestation on the scale that is needed. Some traditional and modern methods used together could provide us with the needed solutions.
Downstream communities are learning that investing in watershed protection provides environmental necessities such as fresh clean water, along with direct economic benefits (Owen J. Lynch and Gregory F. Maggio Center for International Environmental Law Washington, USA). The system of payment for environmental services (PES) in mountain regions is being explored and promoted by the United Nations for the protection of watersheds. Mountain regions cover approximately 25% of the land surface of Earth. This makes all life existing on the other 75% downstream communities. We should all be aware of this and consider it in any future plans. In order to protect Earths’ forests, biodiversity and water tables for long-term environmental sustainability the protection and regeneration of mountain forests is of paramount importance.
Working together collectively with a common goal for Long-term Environmental Sustainability; it is still possible that we can make enormous positive differences for all of life on Earth. However this work needs to be done promptly before the scanty remaining soil on mountain slopes is lost and the reintroduction of mixed forest plants becomes impossible.
Here is a message from the deeply inspiring and influential Richard St. Barbe Baker. During his life time he was a true champion for forests and humanity. All through his life he pioneered forest protection initiatives and travelled around the world persuading governments and many people of the importance of trees. One of the many initiatives that he founded was called ‘Men of the Trees’. His work still continues to inspire and help many and his impact on Earth can still be seen from space, it has made the world a greener world.