Mon, Oct 09, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Pressure grows for closure of Everest

THE OBSERVER , KATHMANDU

It has been described as the highest junkyard in the world. Covered in discarded mountaineering detritus and suffering under thousands of tourists' boots every year, environmental groups are to launch a push for a radical solution -- the temporary closure of the world's highest mountain.

Warnings that an ecological disaster is imminent in the area around the mountain have largely been ignored amid years of turmoil in Nepal. But conservationists think that growing political stability in the Himalayan kingdom means that the time has come.

Maoist rebels declared a ceasefire with Nepal's government in April after a decade-long insurgency. The Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) said that the relative calm has removed an obstacle in its efforts to persuade the authorities that a temporary closure of the mountain is the only solution to help it repair itself.

"The Maoist insurgency presented conservation organizations in Nepal with serious challenges -- constraining programs, damaging infrastructure and threatening the security of staff. Now we are hoping for more open dialogue on conservation with the government, and resting Mount Everest for a number of years is at the top of our list," PT Sherpa, a spokesman for KEEP, said.

Campaigners warn that the price of tourism is discarded rubbish and medical waste and the colonization of the area by restaurants and Internet cafes.

"Providing enough electricity and water for the small communities surrounding Everest and the other Himalayan mountains becomes very challenging when there are tens of thousands of additional tourists and climbers in the region competing for these same resources," he said.

"Nepal is ravaged by water and air pollution caused by industrialization and increased tourism. Water supplies for local villages -- delivered through irrigation systems in the mountains -- are being critically depleted and urgent action needs to be taken," he added.

This year, a geological team sponsored by the UN Environment Program found signs that the landscape of Mount Everest has changed significantly since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the peak in 1953. A primary cause is the warming global climate, but the research party concluded that the growing effect of tourism was also critically taxing the region.

According to the survey, the glacier that once came close to Hillary and Norgay's first base camp has retreated 4.8km in the past two decades.

Hillary himself has become outspoken on a situation he believes is turning into an ecological scandal.

"I have suggested to the Nepal[ese] government that they should stop giving permission and give the mountain a rest for a few years," he said.

Elizabeth Hawley, a Kathmandu-based patron of The Himalaya Trust, an environmental charity founded and still run by Hillary, said that the pioneer remained utterly "appalled" at the levels and standards of tourism around Everest and the Khumba Valley.

"When Sir Edmund has said he wanted the mountain closed or visits limited, the last thing he wants is for the sherpas to lose their livelihoods, but we in the trust strongly believe that not just Everest but the whole of the Khumba Valley needs a sustained rest. These villages have become enormously wealthy by local standards, but along the trail towards Everest there are now restaurants and cyber cafes and bars, and this just doesn't seem right," she said.

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