Climate change and ill-planned human interventions in the Himalayas have heightened the hills’ vulnerability to disasters, leading to a multiple increase in loss of property and lives, experts say.
Recently, flash floods wiped out a base camp site near the Amarnath Cave Sanctuary at Pahalgam in Jammu and Kashmir, killing 15 pilgrims.
In the northeast, 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 30th.
Several key roads are currently blocked due to landslides caused by heavy rains in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the northeast.
The Himalayas are inherently vulnerable to heavy rains, flash floods, landslides, etc., as they are new mountains that continue to grow and are seismically very active.
Climate change has added another layer of vulnerability. It acts as a force multiplier and makes landslides, flash floods and waterspouts more disastrous, said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP ).
The fragility of the mountains has increased due to reckless human interventions, dams, hydroelectric projects, highways, mining, deforestation, constructions, unregulated tourism and pilgrimage.
“We don’t do any honest environmental impact assessments, and we don’t keep the carrying capacity of the mountains in mind. We don’t even have a credible disaster management system in place for the Himalayas,” Thakkar said.
Food security is threatened in the hills, with landslides, flash floods and soil erosion affecting agricultural land.
Previously, we had dense forests in the watersheds which allowed rainwater to infiltrate into the ground which would become available after the monsoon in the form of springs. Now the rainwater runs off because of the denudation of the forests. Consequently, springs disappear, which in turn reduces the availability of water for irrigation, he said.
According to a report published by NITI Aayog in August 2018, around 50% of springs in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) are drying up.
There are five million sources across India, with nearly three million of them in the RSI alone. More than 200 million people in India depend on the springs, of which 50 million people reside in the 12 states of the region, according to the report.
Hemant Dhyani, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed high-level committee on the Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand, said the Himalayas, the world’s youngest mountain range, are naturally prone to calamities.
More wildfires are being reported due to lower humidity as springs dry up, he said.
According to a 2020 study by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Science and Technology, black carbon concentrations near the Gangotri Glacier increase 400 times in summer due to forest fires and the burning of agricultural waste, which can trigger glaciation. melt due to the light absorbing nature of carbon black.
It is necessary to maintain green cover up to 100-150 km downstream from the glaciers. These areas must be declared environmentally sensitive areas. Rich, dense forest will act as buffer zones and store water from glaciers, Dhyani said.
Climate change is worsening the outcomes of unplanned construction projects and unregulated tourism, he said.
Agencies cut deep into the mountains to build wide roads. This destabilizes slopes and triggers landslides, Dhyani said.
With hydroelectric projects clogging river basins, the Rishi Ganga disaster of February 2021 was waiting to happen, he said.
According to government data, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins are home to about 36 operational hydropower projects.
A report by the National Institute for Disaster Management in 2015 said dam construction is one of the reasons for increased flash floods in the region.
A glacial outburst had flooded the Rishiganga River, causing extensive damage to hydel projects in the area.
A total of more than 200 people from the Rishiganga project site in Raini and the Tapovan-Vishnugad project site in Tapovan were missing in the tragedy. In total, the bodies of more than 80 victims were found.
The glacier’s burst can be attributed to climate change, but “criminal negligence” by governments and project developers turned it into a disaster, Dhyani said.
Indiscriminate blasting of mountains to build roads and other infrastructure has worsened landslides in already fragile areas, he added.
Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizens’ forum, said that since the Himalayas develop mountains, the ground is loose. On top of that, you’re cutting down forests to build roads, dams, and other infrastructure.
Glaciers are retreating due to global warming. As they recede, they leave behind a lot of sediment that rushes down during heavy rains.
The sediment raises the level of the river bed, further increasing the flow of already roaring rivers during the monsoon, she said.
A report released by the Ministry of Earth Sciences in 2020 indicates that the annual average surface air temperature in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) has been increasing at a rate of about 0.1 degrees Celsius per decade in the during the period 1901-2014, with a faster warming rate of about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade between 1951 and 2014, which is attributable to anthropogenic climate change.
Several regions in the HKH have shown decreasing trends in snowfall and receding glaciers over the past decades. Parts of the high-altitude Karakoram Himalayas, on the other hand, experienced increased winter rainfall in association with increased amplitude variations of western synoptic disturbances, he said.