Policies and People | Don't blame only the monsoons for landslides
With the monsoon entering the northern part of India, the season of landslides has started. But it would be unfair to blame heavy rains for these disasters. We are to blame too
It’s been just over a week since the southwest monsoon entered the Himalayan states, but the first signs of trouble are evident.
On Friday, the annual Amarnath Yatra encountered a disruption after overnight rains triggered fresh landslides and mudslides on the 270-km-long Jammu-Srinagar national highway in Ramban district.
According to Himachal Pradesh government data, there have been more than 10 major incidents of landslides, flash floods, and cloudbursts; 44 people have died, and 45 have been injured.
In Uttarakhand, heavy rain wreaked havoc in several parts of the Uttarkashi district on Wednesday, and a landslide affected the movement of traffic on several roads, including the Yamunotri National Highway and the Dehradun-Mussoorie Highway.
A week ago, more than 25 people died in Manipur’s Marangching mountainous range in the Noney district when a landslide, said to be the first of such magnitude in the state’s history, hit a railway construction site.
The Himalayan landscape was formed due to the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates. The northward movement of the former puts stress on the rocks, making them vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes. Add to this stress factor is the feverish pace of construction (which needs blasting of mountains and leads to accumulation of muck) of highways, buildings, and cascading hydropower projects. And there is the climate crisis-induced heavy rainfall. Scientists say more intense rainfall, will likely lead to increased landslides across the globe, especially in mountainous areas with snow and ice.
“The large-scale construction activities are generating a lot of muck. While there are scientific ways of disposing of them (for example, reuse), no contractor goes that extra mile to do that. In most of the projects, debris from road construction is being dumped directly into rivers or thrown into the forests as it is an easy way of disposal for the contractors,” Joshimath-based environmental engineer Nitish Bhatt (name changed on request because he is working on a government project) told me on Thursday. “The government doesn’t bother too. So, muck ends up blocking natural water channels and drains, and when heavy rainfall occurs, it's devastation. These are ticking time bombs and can spark flash floods any time”.
The degradation of the landscape leads to another problem: Water stops percolating, and with changes in vegetation patterns, the soil loses its holding capacity. This causes water to accumulate over the ground, loosening the soil, and leading to landslides and mudslides.
Unfortunately, smaller landslides often don’t get much attention at the state/national level. But at a local level, they create havoc, blocking traffic, killing/ injuring people, and upsetting the daily rhythm of life.
The National Disaster Management Authority’s National Landslide Risk Management Strategy talks about the need to strengthen and mainstream landslide disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and relief mechanism through mapping, early warning system (EWS), awareness generation, capacity building, formulation of mountain zone regulations/policies and mitigation of problematic landslides.
However, locals will tell you on the ground that haphazard development is the norm and there is very little regard for laws and even traditional norms even by the local people.
Others say that engineers who work with the government departments also need to be sensitised about environmental issues. “The public works department engineers are not sensitive to issues such as environmental degradation and the climate crisis. They just follow their mandate of constructing infrastructure, and often overlook the impact of such degradation on the area,” said Dehradun-based journalist, Trilochan Bhatt.
“If we are to develop the Himalayan region sustainably and ensure proper risk management, then a lot of background work is required. For example, we need good studies on the carrying capacity of the Himalayan region and hydrological studies, among other things. Unless we have such good basic information, it is very difficult to design development in these regions,” said Bhatt.
A new report by the Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, an autonomous institute under the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change, released on June 3, has warned that there is a need to pre-empt the disastrous effects of unregulated tourism and learn lessons from the over-exploited tourist destinations in the Himalayan region. The demand for tourism has increased pressure on hill stations and is becoming a major concern for change in land use and land cover, it added.
Much of the existing body of research, however, is skewed towards a specific part of the Himalayan region.
Earlier this month, science and environment magazine, Down To Earth, reported that a 2022 review of studies published across prominent journals found that the majority of 69% of the research conducted on landslides in India is concentrated in the Western Himalayan region, comprising Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Only 12% of research on India focuses on Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura, the hills of Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. However, the review said that the researchers’ bias towards the Western Himalayas stems from the high incidences of death due to landslides.
The Himalayan mountain range covers 16.2% of the country’s landmass and is a volatile zone. The area is seismically active and receives high precipitation. Of the 5,228 casualties recorded between 2007 and 2015, 83% occurred in the Western Himalayas in India, according to a 2019 assessment led by Duy Tân University in Vietnam.
Early warning system
India is developing an early warning system for landslides that would help save lives and prevent property damage, the government said in Parliament in 2022. The system — Landslide Early Warning System — is being tested by the Geological Survey of India, and is likely to be operational by 2025.
While EWS is a critical adaptive measure to tackle the climate crisis, it is also crucial that the government and the people don’t lose sight of the root cause of these recurring landslides — excessive anthropogenic activities.
The views expressed are personal