Urban sprawl, mining and tourism are adding
to the litter problem in mountains, but a new UN report shows way out
December 12, 2016- The 2015 Nepal earthquake produced 11 years-worth of debris in a single day
- 140,000 kilograms of trash remain in Mt. Everest region following decades of tourism
- Over a quarter of people in mountainous regions now live in cities
The expansion of cities, pollution from mining and tourism are exacerbating challenges for waste management in mountain regions - but a new report led by UN Environment shows how policymakers can prevent it.
Mountain cities in developing countries are often expanding into areas vulnerable to natural disasters such as steep hills or riverbanks, finds the study, titled 'Waste Management Outlook for mountain regions - sources and solutions' launched in Vienna on the occasion of the International Mountain Day.
The resulting waste generation can be staggering. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015 produced nearly four million tons of debris in the Kathmandu valley. This was equivalent to nearly 11 years of waste being generated in a single day, overwhelming sanitary landfill sites, which were in place in only five out of 191 municipalities.
In the specific case of natural disasters, immediate waste management is essential to prevent disease and limit impact on the environment. Disaster waste management plans should also be drawn-up before they are required to make best use of scarce resources.
"Urbanisation is increasing across the world, and this includes cities located in mountainous areas. And while mountain ecosystems are naturally vital to local communities they are also important to those living in downstream regions. Since inadequate treatment or disposal of waste in mountains has such far-reaching impact, sound waste management must be a priority," said UN Environment Chief Erik Solheim.
Rising income levels in developing countries lead to changing consumption habits that are adding to this challenge by increasing the proportion of non-organic, recyclable waste.
Need to dig deeper to clean up mining
Mining remains the most common heavy industry for mountain regions in developing states - leading to a heavy toll on species and forests, the report finds.
Contaminants from extraction activities can be found over 1,000 kilometres downstream from their source. For example, the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea has affected up to 30,000 people, harmed fish stocks and killed off forest by releasing copper and other pollutants into the river.
Security funds large enough to cover environmental liabilities for remediation should also be set up at each mine site, the report recommends. Transparency and access to information also creates incentives for all stakeholders to respect mining regulations - which civil society can help monitor.
"I myself grew up in the Austrian mountains and was taught to leave them as clean as I had found them. Today the waste pollution is becoming so severe that we need to leave them cleaner, not only in the Alps but also other mountain regions that we visit as tourists." says Mr. Andrä Rupprechter, Federal Minister of Environment of Austria.
Tourism is often a double-edged sword for mountain areas. For example, the number of visitors to the Mount Everest region ballooned from 20 in 1964 to about 26,000 in 2012. This brought in much-needed income, but also left behind over 140,000 kilograms of solid waste.
Good practices to avoid waste overwhelming local infrastructure include bring-your-waste-back policies, camping and national park fees channelled into bins, eco-labels and community-based initiatives. The report also recommends promoting waste management within the mountaineering community, including through global bodies such as the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation and the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, as well as national mountaineering organizations.
Ups and downs of altitude
The weather and atmospheric conditions at high altitudes mean that less mosquitos and flies are likely to thrive there and spread disease from trash.
However, it is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the world's waste burnt in the open air and up to 29 per cent of small particulate matter originates from trash fires.
With less oxygen in the air at high altitudes, more incomplete combustion occurs - meaning greater quantities of soot from waste remain in the air. In certain mountain cities, the effects of altitude may be underestimated in air quality standards, the report finds -pointing to the rising prevalence of asthma in mountain cities of Latin America.
Globally, achieving economies of scale for waste collection is far harder in mountainous regions due to higher costs and transport difficulties in remote areas - including in the pan-European region - meaning measures to prevent and manage waste sustainably are even more important.
International Mountain Day is celebrated annually on 11 December and seeks to raise awareness of the services the landscapes provide to species and humans, both at high altitude and at lowlands. 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
Some 91 per cent of people living in mountainous regions are from developing countries. according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Of these, more than 25 per cent now live in urban areas or cities and the rate is on the rise.
The report forms part of a series of regional and thematic Outlooks focusing on solid waste management and builds on the Global Waste Management Outlook (2015).
Austria currently holds the presidency of the Alpine Convention, the first mountain convention devoted to environmental protection and sustainable development of the Alps.