A submerged idol of Lord Shiva stands in the flooded River Ganga, in Rishikesh. Climate change and
ill-planned human intervention have increased vulnerability to disasters in fragile Himalayan mountain range, according to experts. (PTI/File photo)
By Gaurav Saini :
CLIMATE change and ill-planned human interventions in the Himalayas have accentuated the vulnerability of the hills to disasters, resulting in a manifold increase in loss of property and human lives, experts say. Recently, flash floods obliterated a base camp site near the Amarnath cave shrine in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pahalgam, killing 15 pilgrims. In the North-East, the sixth most earthquake-prone belt in the world, a colossal landslide killed 56 people, including Territorial Army soldiers, railway workers and villagers in Manipur’s Noney district on June 30. Several key roads are currently blocked due to landslides triggered by heavy rain in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the North-East. The Himalayas are inherently vulnerable to heavy rains, flash floods, landslides etc, as these are new mountains which are still growing and are seismically very active.
“Climate change has added another layer of vulnerability. It is acting as a force multiplier and making landslides, flash floods and cloudbursts more disastrous,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). The fragility of the mountains has increased due ill-thought human interventions – dams, hydropower projects, highways, mining, deforestation, buildings, unregulated tourism and pilgrimage.
“We do not do any honest environmental impact assessment, nor do we keep in mind the carrying capacity of the mountains. We do not even have a credible disaster management system in place for the Himalayas,” Thakkar said. Food security is at risk in the hills, with landslides, flash floods and soil erosion affecting agricultural land. “Earlier, we had dense forests in catchment areas which helped rainwater percolate into the ground which would become available after the monsoon as springs. Now, the rainwater just runs off due to denuding forests. Therefore, springs are disappearing which in-turn is reducing the availability of water for irrigation,” he said. According to a report released by NITI Aayog in August 2018, around 50 per cent of the springs in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) are drying up. There are five million springs across India, of which nearly three million are in the IHR alone. Over 200 million people in India depend on springs, of which 50 million people reside in the 12 States of the region, the report said. Hemant Dhyani, a member of the Supreme court-appointed high-powered committee on Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand, said the Himalayas, the youngest mountain range in the world, are naturally primed for calamities. “More forest fires are being reported due to the dip in moisture as springs are drying up,” he said.
According to a 2020 study by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Science and Technology, black carbon concentrations near the Gangotri glacier rises by 400 times in summer due to forest fires and burning of agricultural waste, which can trigger glacial melt because of the light-absorbing nature of black carbon. “There is a need to maintain green cover up to 100-150 km downstream of glaciers. These areas should be declared as eco-sensitive zones. Rich, dense forest will act as buffer zones and store water from the glaciers,” Dhyani said. Climate change is aggravating the outcomes of unplanned construction projects and unregulated tourism, he said. Agencies are making deep cuts into mountains to construct wide roads. This destabilises the slopes and triggers landslides, Dhyani said. With hydropower projects clogging the river basins, the February 2021 Rishi Ganga disaster was waiting to happen, he said.