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Mindless concretisation behind Himachal Pradesh’s flash floods, landslides

By, , , New Delhi/shimla/dharamshala
Jul 13, 2023 04:13 AM IST

Experts said that the high impact of the rains was due to several factors such as proliferation of hydel projects, infrastructure development.

It was already raining heavily on Monday morning when Ram Sharma opened his small grocery shop in Thunag market in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. Soon after, he received a call from a relative living in the upper hills of Thunag about a cloudburst; water was gushing down, he was told. Sharma yelled out a warning to others in the market, closed his shop, and rushed with his family to the first floor of the three-storey building.

Destruction in the Thunag area of Mandi district. (HT PHOTO)

Read here: class="manualbacklink" target="_blank" href="https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/chandigarh-news/devastating-cloudburst-and-flash-floods-in-himachal-pradesh-unplanned-development-and-climate-change-to-blame-101689190799169.html">Floods in Himachal leave trail of destruction

They made it just in time. A torrent of water and mud and rocks, carrying tonnes of Deodar logs, came barrelling down the narrow market lane, demolishing all that stood in its way. Videos of the event went viral on social media, taking images of nature’s fury to a national audience. Still recovering from the natural onslaught, 62-year-old Sharma said on Wednesday: “I have never seen such a thing in my life... I felt the water would consume me.” He shared images of the sludge entering his shops. “Nothing remains,” he said, as a pall of devastation gripped Thunag town.

Residents of Thunag said most of the logs were dumped in a local stream when a road was constructed to connect the villages during the tenure of former chief minister Jairam Thakur (2017-2022). Thakur’s village, Thandi, is just uphill from Thunag town, the administrative centre of the Seraj assembly segment, which saw unprecedented development works during his tenure. “Hundreds of illegally felled trees and muck was dumped in a seasonal stream . We are bearing the brunt of so-called development,” said a local resident, who was not willing to be named. Thakur, now in the Opposition, visited Thunag on Wednesday.

Lalit Kumar, another shop owner, blamed local authorities saying no warning was given of the cloudburst or heavy rains. He is angry because a low-intensity cloudburst hit Thunag in 2022 and authorities assured residents at the time that they would put in place a mechanism to alert them. “We were left to fend for ourselves. No help came,” Kumar said. Another resident, Chaman Lal, said they have “suffered unprecedented losses” which would be difficult to recover in a long time. Himachal chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has estimated the damage at 4,000 crore.

Extreme events

Recent events are the latest chapter in a story of cloudbursts. Mandi district, which is the worst affected, has witnessed at least three major cloudbursts since July 1, one each in Thunag, Pundoh and Seraj, demonstrating what climate scientists have been warning of for years — an increase in the frequency and intensity of cloudbursts on account of the climate crisis and local anthropogenic reasons. Several places such as Sainj in Kullu district, which neighbours Kasauli , Kasauli and Parwanoo in Solan district, and Rohru in Shimla district, have witnessed flash floods this monsoon due to localised cloudbursts. Surender Paul, director of the India Meteorological Department’s Shimla centre, said that at least 29 flash flood incidents have been reported in the state since the onset of the monsoon on June 24 — and at least 50% of these occurred between July 8 and July 10.

Overall, Himachal Pradesh has received 249.6 mm of average rainfall between July 1 and July 11 compared to normal of 76.6mm, the highest for a 12-day period since 2005. Solan received four times the normal, Shimla 3.6 times, Bilaspur 3.2 times, and Mandi twice the normal. As a result of these extreme weather events, the state has seen 72 deaths since June 1, of which 40 were reported between July 1 and July 11.

The rains have caused all major rivers in Himachal Pradesh to overflow with the flooding of the Beas that passes through Kullu, Mandi and Bilaspur districts, breaking all records. For the first time in the history of 146-year-old Victoria Bridge in Mandi town, the Beas flowed over the bridge and nearly submerged the historic Panchvaktra (Lord Shiva) temple. “The two withstood the fury of Beas but the newly constructed four-lane Mandi-Manali highway gave in at several places. In fact, the river recovered its water flow area which the engineers had encroached on while widening the highway,” said Puroshattam Sharma, a Mandi-based ecologist.

Mansi Asher, who has published several papers on changing climatology of Himachal Pradesh, said, “There is enough data from the department of science and technology of Himachal government to suggest that frequency of cloudbursts has increased and so has that of landslides. The maximum impact was seen near infrastructure projects which disturb the hills.” While the projects do not cause the flooding or cloudbursts, they encroach on natural water flow and drainage channels, cut into hill sides, often destabilising or weakening them, and fell trees that can act as natural barriers to landslides.

A landslide risk assessment report by the Himachal government in 2022 said all 77 blocks, with 18,577 villages, are now prone to landslides. Experts say this is because of the replacement of old stone and clay houses with concrete ones and unprecedented destruction of forests for proliferation of apple orchards and other horticulture crops. A report by the state’s department of science and technology said that the monsoon flow of water in the Satluj and Beas rivers has been increasing over the years, indicating an increase in high intensity monsoon rainfall, even though winter water flow has reduced.

“Warming of the hills in recent decades due to anthropogenic factors such as huge unplanned infrastructure development and loss of forest cover has also made monsoon more erratic,” said Renu Lata, a scientist at GB Pant Research Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development. Suresh Attri, principal scientist and climate change expert at the state’s department of science, technology and climate change, said the temperature in hill stations such as Shimla has risen by over one degree Celsius in the past three decades and its impact is visible on an increase in extreme rain events, even though the overall monsoon rainfall has not increased.

Onkar Sharma, principal secretary (forests and disaster management), who is monitoring rescue and relief efforts, admitted that extreme weather events are on the rise in the region . “Our data shows that damage and impact of to extreme weather events is increasing. The intensity of extreme weather events is increasing and its impact is getting widespread,” Sharma said.

Devastation and impact

Himachal, in recent years, has witnessed unprecedented infrastructure development with the government converting several two-lane highways into four-lane ones for faster connectivity, including linking Shimla and Manali, the state’s two most popular tourist destinations, to Chandigarh.

Both highways were the epicentre of landslides in July with close to 100 reported between Mandi and Manali since July 1; and a part of the highway near Mandi town being washed away by an overflowing Beas. Over 60 landslides were reported on the Shimla-Chandigarh highway in the same period. Both highways were closed for a couple of days. “There has not been single monsoon when Shimla-Chandigarh highway was not blocked since the unscientific widening of the road started five years ago,” said Jasmeet Singh, a frequent traveller between Shimla and Chandigarh.

In all, close to 1,200 roads in the state were blocked because of landslides since July 1 with Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC), a state’s travel lifeline, suspending services on 1,700 of the total 2,500 routes its buses run on. “Massive widening of roads in Himachal has happened in the past few years with trees been cut and muck and debris thrown into small streams. With heavy rains, all this flowed into the main rivers,” said a state government official who asked not to be named. The state government had estimated that close to 20,000 tourists and trekkers were stranded all different locations with 13,000 of them being evacuated till Wednesday. “The inconvenience and hardship caused to locals cannot be estimated,” said an official of state disaster management authority (SDMA) who asked not to be named.

The rains also damaged 1,369 water schemes, leading to Shimla having no supply for four days and Mandi town for three. Large parts of the state were also without electricity, with 1,956 transformers getting damaged, according to a government statement. Chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu said efforts were underway to restore power supply in the districts. “Once the power is restored, the drinking water schemes will also be made functional,” he told reporters on Tuesday, adding that restoration work will take time due to the magnitude of the disaster.

Unplanned development

Experts said that the high impact of the rains was due to several factors such as proliferation of hydel projects, infrastructure development, unregulated construction including building of hotels, and rampant river-bed mining.

The damage a hydel project can cause during extreme weather event was evident in Pandoh town in Mandi district on July 3 after a cloudburst, the second in less than a month. “The water was dammed for the project uphill. When the cloudburst happened, tonnes of water were released without any warning causing huge loss to us,” said Amit Sharma, a local shopkeeper whose vehicle got swept in the water released from the project.

Himachal has 813 dams with power generation capacity of 10,264MW. The state plans to increase this to 27,436 MW; of that, 24,000 MW of power is planned from five major three basins of the state — Satluj, Ravi and Beas. “We have seen what has happened in the past 11 days because of rivers not being allowed free flow. If all these hydel projects get commissioned, ecology of the state will be doomed,” Asher said.

Himachal urban planning department officials were appalled at the construction of a three-storey hotel on banks of Beas in Manali, which got swept away by the swollen river on July 8. Rules do not allow construction within 100 metres of river bank. Stating that construction of the hotel was a matter of investigation, Himachal’s town and country planning department head, KK Saroch, said they don’t allow construction at any cost within 25 metres of a river. “If someone violates it, we cancel the permission,” he said, without explaining the reasons for proliferation of hotels and homestays on river bank in places such as Manali. It isn’t clear why the state has not enforced the 100m rule.

Mohinder Seth, the president of the Himachal Pradesh Hotels and Tourism Stakeholders Association, admitted that norms are violated regularly. DC Rana, director of the SDMA, said there is an urgent need to discourage construction near waterways and promised to review the existing structures. “SDMA has been warning individuals and departments about the risk, particularly due to the unpredictability of flash floods,” he said, adding that there is a need for guidelines similar to Coastal Zone Regulation (which prohibit development near the coast) for development along the rivers.

SDMA officials also said rampant sand mining on river banks and beds has damaged the river ecology. “Smaller rivers in hills have changed their course because of unregulated sand mining,” an official aware of the development said.

Review needed

Experts said massive devastation happened in the areas that witnessed the development of infrastructure, such as hydel projects, or wide (and poorly planned) hill roads. Asher, who runs a non-government organisation, Himdhara, said: “Various studies show that the state is now gripped in continuous cycle of cloudbursts, landslides and deaths, because of haphazard development, sometimes totally unregulated.”

Government official Onkar Sharma admitted that the hills have been destabilised due to cutting and blasting for infrastructure projects and construction. “We witness record-breaking downpour and see its impact in the form of flash floods, flooding and hills coming crumbling down, which have been destabilised due to cutting and blasting for construction work.”

Sukhu, who described the rains as the “heaviest” in 50 years, promised a review of the infrastructure development with an eye on ecological imperatives. “We will also come up with a plan to deal with impacts of extreme weather events,” said Himachal government spokesperson Naresh Chauhan.

That’s been said before. And will probably be said again.

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