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Author Topic: Article about polution in the Karakorum: Rubbish ethics  (Read 4560 times)


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My friend Robert from South Africa, who was one of the climbers on our Chogolisa team has written an excellent article about pollution in mountain areas.

Rubbish Ethics
Towards treating foreign wilderness sanctuaries as we do our own !!

Most avid hikers and climbers would never consider throwing away or burning waste in their local mountains and wilderness areas. Would we South Africans consider burning our rubbish high up in our beloved Drakensberg or Cedarberg? Why then, are we prepared to alter these ethics when we visit other countries, especially in countries that have less sustainable practices in place?

Recently, I embarked on an expedition to the Karakorum Range in the remote northern parts of Pakistan, a truly stunning and pristine wilderness area. While starting the slog up to our base camp, my mind was occupied with thoughts of our upcoming climb, maintaining my energy levels and some of the most jaw-dropping mountain scenery I have experienced.

However, soon my senses, specifically nose and eyes, could no longer ignore the effect we humans were having on these breath-taking surroundings. There was, more or less, a trail of rubbish (burnt and unburnt) and human excrement from the start of the trail all the way up to the highest mountains. Some of the camps you could smell before seeing them. In Pakistan, and other mountain kingdoms like Nepal, the current government and tour operator policies and practices are clearly not adequate in dealing with waste. This forced another set of thoughts onto my mind:
•   Why, if we don’t condone these practices at home, do we as paying customers allow them elsewhere?
•   We, as customers, are the cause of this pollution. Should we as customers not take responsibility for the effects that our visits have on these areas?
•   Why, if we are prepared to pay 125 porters to carry our expedition gear up the mountain, are we not prepared to pay a few extra porters (an increase in porterage cost of 1 or 2%) to carry all our rubbish and unused kerosene out again?

The problem specifics
Even though the space here is vast, human traffic is highly concentrated. There is currently limited infrastructure for dealing with waste. Only in the lower Baltoro camps (Dumardo, Paiju and Urdukas) have waste bins and toilets been set up. But still, these facilities are often not used.

The cold environment exacerbates the problem: due to the cold, there is limited biological activity to process human bodily waste. Higher up the snow and ice also very effectively preserves waste (human and other) for visitors in future years to wrinkle their noses at. And of course very cold environments (as with very dry environments) have very fragile ecosystems, and need to be treated with extra care.

Tour operators have the practice of burning all ‘burnable’ waste, and carrying out the non-burnables. The reality though looks a little different. All trash (including non-burnables such as cans) is accumulated over days or weeks in individual heaps on the glacier. In the meantime, every breath of wind, scatters the lighter trash in a broad radius. Eventually, the heap is doused with paraffine (kerosene) and ‘burnt’. But clearly trying to burn anything on a glacier or snow is not that simple a task. Significant amounts of fuel seep into the snow and ice, and of course as the fire gets going it begins to melt the surrounding ice and snow with the result that the soggy rubbish only partially burns. This practice is usually performed in a rush, just as camp is broken down, reducing the amount of care that is taken in the process. Then, once the rubbish is burnt, the remaining ‘unburnables’ are carried out. I did, however, repeatedly see evidence that a lot of rubbish is not carried out at all.

I was so dismayed with this process, I eventually surreptitiously packed one of my personal duffle bags full of rubbish and had it carried out as ‘personal belongings’ (which it of course was) and eventually threw it away at our hotel in Skardu.

Porters by far make up the largest group of travellers up the glacier. Depending on the type of trekking or climbing expedition, between 4 and 15 porters are required per customer. After sleeping in their shelters, porters would leave plastic bottles, tins, and other waste lying around. They also rarely seem to use toilet facilities (where available). In some camps no toilet facilities (simple long-drops) had been set up for porters. Tour operators seem to make little effort in setting up incentive systems to encourage a change in these habits. Despite discussing it several times with our guide, little effort was made in cleaning up after the porters, or to encourage a change in the porter’s behaviour.

Human excrement – actually, lets talk dirty and call it by its common name – human MrHanky and toilet paper are a huge problem on the glacier, as nothing decomposes. MrHanky is something that is difficult to deal with and carry out. Maybe we should consider carrying it out – just as one does on some of the long routes in Yosemite! Where ever possible, long-drop toilets should be created (preferably off the glacier) to at least concentrate human waste, and toilet paper should be carried out. Stones or snow balls (actually quite soothing after all the curried cooking) can be used as they are by many locals – although some pampered bums would probably shudder at the thought. On this trip I have also finally started doing what my friend Bill Tucker has been advocating for years: that is to carry a small zip-lock plastic bag in which all used toilet paper is accumulated for later disposal in an established waste treatment system. It works! It is little effort and also encourages you to use less toilet paper! Another habit Bill advocates is to smear your faeces, whether on rock, soil or ice. This speeds up the oxidation and decomposition process. Tour operators should encourage these practices.

I was also surprised to see travellers bring standard washing powders and soaps, as opposed to biodegradeable ones, to wash their clothes and themselves. While even biodegradeable products are not ideal, they are somewhat better; containing fewer phosphates, petrochemicals, brighteners and fragrances, and their use should be encouraged.

So, I feel that in the face of failing policies and practices, it is up to the customer and the tour operator to promote better practices. Or maybe it is arrogant to encourage the use of ‘our’ practices in a host country? Surely every country has the right to its own way of dealing with matters! But, we are the consumers of these pollution-causing services and are thus the catalyst of the problem. Should we then not also be the catalyst for improving the situation? As paying customers, we have a right to shape the manner in which a service is provided to us.

There is also the argument that this pollution is infinitesimal in relation to the pollution we create at home in our urban environments and that we generate in getting to these wilderness areas. But does this in any way condone the current practices? These are pristine and reasonably untouched wilderness areas. Would it not be nice to leave it that way? Or should we spread our pollution to these as well? I think it is a matter of principle that we should leave some of these remote areas as untouched as possible. That, in any case, is what we try do at home in our own treasured mountains.

So what can be done about this problem?
I believe there are a number of things that travellers can do. Below are a number of suggestions that travellers can consider when negotiating a package with tour operators:
1.   Insist that none of the rubbish is burnt, and that all rubbish is carried out. This will imply a small additional cost to customers. In our case it probably would have meant an increase of 1% or 2% in porterage costs.
2.   Get tour operators to agree to actively encourage porters to collect all rubbish generated by them during the night and to provide collection bags for this purpose. It would be useful if these bags are provided to porters in the evening, so that rubbish is collected as it is generated.
3.   Agree with tour operators to every morning (prior to porter loads being assigned), as a means of reinforcing the message, to talk to porters to encourage them to not discard rubbish along the way, to collect all their rubbish created while camping, and to use communal toilet facilities. Where toilet facilities do not exist, tour operators should work together with porters to build temporary long-drop toilets, just as they have been created for customers.
4.   Customers may even consider hiring an additional porter to collect rubbish that was generated by prior expeditions.
5.   Customers should proactively, during the process of negotiating their package, obtain a description of the local waste management practices, which allow them to make a more informed assessment of the situation.

It would be beneficial if tour operators become more involved in cleaning up the area, and should work together with the authorities and customers in this regard. Tour operators may consider proactively providing a choice of waste management options to customers.

The MCSA also urgently requires an environmental code that encourages its members to adhere to a commonly accepted set of such principles, whether they are hiking locally or overseas. Apparently the MCSA is working on such a code, and I hope it addresses these issues and allows us to work towards a globalised rubbish management ethic.

There are probably many other suggestions in terms of what can be done. I would love to hear your suggestions:  raz2 @ pobox.com

"He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
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