Climate change, fragile ecology make Kinnaur a ticking time bomb: Experts
Experts say that Kinnaur, which is a tribal district, is bearing the brunt of large devastation brought by hydropower projects built in the Sutlej River valley, which has disturbed its ecology.
With another landslide claiming multiple lives at Negulsari in Kinnaur district, the fragility of the ecology of the Himalayan region, which is at increasing risk due to climate change, has come to the forefront.
Kinnaur, which is one of the remotest parts of Himachal, sits on a ticking time bomb as climate change compounded with a fragile ecology has increased the incidence of landslides in the region.
Experts say that the tribal district is bearing the brunt of large devastation brought by hydropower projects built in the Sutlej River valley, which has disturbed its ecology.
A study conducted in Kinnaur between 2012 and 2016 found that hydropower proliferation in the name of ‘clean energy’ has brought rapid land-use changes adversely impacting local terrestrial ecosystems and the communities inhabiting them.
Increase in hydroelectric projects a factor
It found that 90% of the area of ‘forest land’ diverted to non-forest activities between 1980 and 2014 was transferred for hydro-electric projects (HEP) and transmission lines (TL), leading to change in land-use, fragmentation of forests and loss of biodiversity in the Kinnaur region, while the ‘compensatory afforestation’, carried out as a ‘mitigation’ measure for loss of forests and a mandatory condition for forest clearance for the forest diversion has not able to fulfil its stated objective.
Manshi Asher of Himdhara Collective, an environment group based in Himachal, said a fragile ecology, climate change and unplanned development make Kinnaur vulnerable to climate disasters.
“Kinnaur, which is located in the greater Himalayas, is inheritably fragile. Due to a lot of tectonic movement the region is highly sensitive seismically and geologically,” said Asher, adding that climate change has further aggravated the problem.
“Global warming has resulted in change in rainfall pattern and areas, such as Kinnaur, that used to get less rainfall have been witnessing high rainfall, increasing incidence of landslide, while the third and most vital issue is haphazard construction taking place in the mountains,” she said.
Asher said, “Tunneling, excavation and blasting is being carried out for large hydropower projects that have been executed or planned in Kinnaur district, which makes the fragile landscapes feebler. Transmission lines are also coming up, for which the land use has been changed and trees have been cut.”
She said Negulsari, the site of the latest disaster, is also in close proximity of one of the largest hydropower projects -Nathpa Jhakri. Professor Ambrish Kumar Mahajan of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, also agrees. “Himachal falls in a high-risk seismic zone and Kinnaur is fragile due to its highly-jointed and fractured geology,” he said, adding that a lot of developmental activities are taking place on steep slopes, which “clubbed together, have made Kinnaur a hub of landslide disasters.”
Mahajan says that not just Kinnaur but Himachal as a whole is prone to such disasters, which have been evidenced recently. Disturbingly, Himachal has witnessed a two-fold increase in landslide incidents this year. The state saw over 35 major landslide incidents in July alone as compared to 16 landslides during monsoon last year.
Earlier this year, 10 people had died after a landslide swept away half-a-dozen houses in Rulehar village of Shahpur subdivision in Kangra district and on July 25, a mini bus ferrying tourists was hit by a massive landslide at Batseri in Kinnaur, leaving nine people dead and two injured.
Scientists’ warnings ignored
Though scientists have issued multiple warnings, the state government has not done much to mitigate such disasters. The environment department of the Himachal Pradesh government, in its State Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, had warned that there may be floods, landslides, glacial lake bursts, excess rainfall, excess snowfall and unseasonal rains in 2012.
It had said that the state could experience a difference of 1-5 °C in minimum temperature and 0.5-2.5 °C in maximum temperature by 2030.It claimed that monsoon in Himachal would increase by 5-10 days by 2030.
As per the document, high-altitude areas of Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, Chamba and Kullu, which usually receive heavy snowfall are now witnessing more rain.