Unplanned infra projects to climate crisis: What ails fragile Himachal, Uttarakhand

ByJayashree Nandi
Jul 14, 2023 05:23 AM IST

Experts attribute the recent floods in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and New Delhi to the climate crisis, active geology of the region, and infra projects.

The devastating floods, landslides, mudslides in Himachal Pradesh followed by Uttarakhand and now, the downstream impact on the national Capital, which has been flooded for the first time in 45 years may be unprecedented , but experts say they are the natural outcome of three factors: the climate crisis; a young mountain range that is still geologically active ; and mindless infrastructure projects.

A view of the damaged road depicting an aftermath of the flood occurred by the incessant monsoon rains, in Manali, Himachal Pradesh on Wednesday. (ANI)
A view of the damaged road depicting an aftermath of the flood occurred by the incessant monsoon rains, in Manali, Himachal Pradesh on Wednesday. (ANI)

Also read: How rain in hills is flooding Delhi

The combination, they add, will continue to cause damage every time there is extreme weather. Several scientific institutions and experts warned both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh of this, but neither state took heed.

The facts, by themselves, should have forced the act.

The average temperature over the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) between 1951 to 2014 was 1.3 degrees C oas compared to 0.7 degree C over the entire Indian region according to a 2020 assessment by the union ministry of earth sciences. Several areas of HKH have experienced a declining trend in snowfall and also retreat of glaciers in recent decades. By the end of the 21st century, the annual mean surface temperature over HKH is projected to increase by about 5.2 degrees C under a high emission scenario. The warming over the Himalayan region may be even higher now in the past few years but an assessment is pending.

River basins originating in the Western Himalayas are predominantly fed by snow and glacial melt with rainfall largely coming from wintertime western disturbances but with the rise in extreme rainfall events and various man-made obstructions thanks to construction and the dumping of debris, the behaviour of Himalayan rivers have become unpredictable.

“Rivers rise in response to heavy rainfall as we have seen this week but if they are obstructed then they will flood any low-lying areas and areas downstream. River water has to find ways to move and drain. It’s a natural process,” explained Kalachand Sain, director of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.

Finally, the Himalayas are still forming. They started forming about 50 million years ago but are still fairly young compared to other ranges. The Western Ghats, for instance started forming around 150 million years ago.

“The Himalayas are a very young mountain range and there are a lot of subsurface and surface activities going on here. There is erosion going on due to heavy rainfall events and snowfall; there is exhumation of rocks; there is plate tectonics. It is geo-dynamically extremely active due to these ongoing processes,” Sain added.

“Developmental projects such as roads, ropeways etc will have to be constructed based on scientific assessments from a geological point of view,” he said.

And this will have to pretty much outweigh all else. For instance, the Supreme Court effectively signed off on the wider roads for the Char Dham project after the government took the position that this was critical for national security. While that may be a factual position, the threat that the roads now face from the crumbling hills around it may well render the project useless.

“Proper land use planning, design of infrastructure is critical to minimize loss and damage. We must learn from our past experiences and ensure that development in the mountains is sustainable as such events are going to be on the rise due to climate change and socioeconomic changes,” said Mandira Singh Shrestha, Senior Water Resources Specialist at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

It’s also important to understand that Himalayas respond strongly to temperature rise, experts said. “The average temperature over the Himalayas is rising faster than the rest of the country. This is called the elevation effect, the higher you go the temperature rise will be higher. With the rise in temperature, the air’s capacity to hold water also increases. This can cause very heavy rainfall events,” said Anil Kulkarni, glaciologist and visiting scientist at the Divecha Center for Climate Change in IISc.

Unfortunately, the Himalayas are also fragile, a function of their composition and age. “The Himalayas particularly the Western Himalayas are fragile also because they mainly have metamorphic rock which are fractured in nature, not as strong as say rocks in the Western Ghats. With heavy forest cover, the soil and rocks are protected to an extent but deforestation can make this region significantly susceptible,” added Kulkarni.

And that is exactly what infrastructure projects have done. “For example, you want to make the Chandigarh-Manali highway a four-lane one from the current two. Along with loss of forest cover, slopes will become unstable which will again take decades to stabilise. The debris from construction and landslides obstruct the flow of rivers creating an unpredictable flood situation,” he explained.

The Himalayas face another problem -- receding glaciers. A study by Kathmandu based ICIMOD in 2019 found that even the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century would lead to the melting of one-third of the region’s glaciers, a critical water source to some 250 million mountain dwellers and the 1.65 billion others living in the river valleys below. “Snowmelt is very high over the glaciers when there is extreme rainfall which can add to the problem. Rainfall adds energy to the snowpack leading to accelerated melting. Moraines (usually soil and rock) can also fall and create lakes which can then burst and cause flooding and damage,” Kulkarni said.

And all of this, affects not just the Himalayan states, but downstream regions -- such as Delhi, which, on Thursday, was dealing with an unprecedented situation which could worsen with more rainfall upstream. “The surprising thing this time is that the peak volume of water being discharged from upstream is comparatively lower than previous years. But Delhi and Haryana’s catchment areas recorded heavy rain and encroachments on the river bed and floodplains have increased constricting the river’s flow. There are several flyovers and bridges which impact the flow and concretisation has also increased. Silt and muck accumulation in the river has also caused it to flood,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

Experts also said that environmental oversight on large infrastructure projects is lacking. In the case of the 880 km Char Dham pariyojana, the project bypassed environment impact appraisal altogether. In an affidavit, the Union environment ministry informed the National Green Tribunal in 2018 that under EIA notification 2006, only new national highways and expansion of highways that are longer than 100 km need prior environmental clearance.

But char dham pariyojana had in fact been broken in to several small stretches separated by 16 bypasses.

Also read: Union home minister Amit Shah assures Himachal government of more help

“This was warned time and again that increasing the width of Char Dham road would automatically lead to an increase in carrying capacity or footfalls. More pilgrims or tourists visiting the state would also mean many more people will be at risk from disasters. This is why the high-powered committee on char dham roads had recommended intermediate road width. Along with this, construction of hydropower projects like Vishnugad Pipalkoti near Joshimath is continuing; there is helicopter tourism which is on the rise and tourism in general is not regulated. The two lessons from 2013 flood disaster that tourism needs to be carefully regulated and there should be no obstructions on rivers have not been implemented. So, the state is in a precarious state and extremely vulnerable during every monsoon,” Mallika Bhanot, Member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum had said in June.

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