The reason behind the recent damage to buildings and other structures in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath is yet to be ascertained, whether it is land subsidence or land slide. It has led to dangerous cracks in over 863 houses of the around 4500 buildings the houses in the Himalayan town of India, since October 2021. At least 181 of the buildings have been placed in the unsafe zone, and 275 families have been moved out to safer areas.
The vulnerable nature of the natural habitat combined with over development have played havoc.
The town which was built on an ancient landslide debris, being landslide prone and vulnerable, combined with the pressure of development, have triggered the havoc. It is yet another example of over exploitation of the natural and vulnerable resources. Thousands of pilgrims stay in Joshimath – known as the gateway to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib pilgrimage sites – as they halt in the town on their way to Badrinath
Also, there was February 2021 floods in Uttarakhand that resulted in over 200 dead and missing due to an avalanche that dropped about 27 million cubic metres of rock and glacier ice from the nearby Ronti mountain.
National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in their concluding report on Uttarakhand floods stated, “In India, this is a unique, unprecedented and first reported incident of glacier ice and rock having a cascading impact on debris flow. But, similar types of rock falls and glaciered ice avalanche events took place in European Alps, the Russian Caucasus, Canada, and Nepal in the past. The effect of climate change and global warming are evident in Himalayan glaciers and mountains. Therefore, it is urgently needed to share and learn from the best practices available nationally and internationally to minimize the impact of future hazards and risks in the Indian Himalayan regions. It is also recommended that existing and future HEPs (Hydro-Electric Power Project) must follow recommendations/ suggestions and implement all necessary safety measures during all phases of activities including planning, feasibility studies, construction, and operation.”.
Infact, there are several other regions in the Himalayas facing a similar situation. Take for example, Rudraprayag’s Marora village, about 100 kms from Joshimath, also developed cracks in the houses in the year 2021. And as a result, out of 43 families of the village, 13 have shifted and the locals blame these cracks on the 125km long Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail project. While there are cracks reported from Karnprayag and Mussoorie as well.
“Unlike many mountain chains in the world, the Himalayas are the youngest and most unstable and are prone to natural disasters. Moreover they have a much lower carrying capacity than plains and thus cannot sustain more human pressure. Himalayas should stop copying the plains – wider roads, high-rise buildings and big infrastructure projects”, says Chandra Bhushan, CEO, International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST).
“Switch to sustainable tourism, follow the example of Bhutan, which has capped the number of travellers by imposing a sustainable development fee of $200 per day. A part of this fee goes into environmental protection and enhancing livelihood for local residents. Create jobs in the environment sector- biodiversity conservation, high-value organic farming, sustainable forestry, glacier and water body protection, etc. And they can be incentivised by the rest of the country to do this. This is because they are major water sources that sustain the plains and their glaciers, forests and biodiversity are essential for country’s ecological security. While some progress has been made on payments for ecosystem services, a lot more needs to be done so that these states can develop and prosper without destroying themselves”, adds Bhushan.
There is no doubt that ecology and environment need to be protected for future generations, at the same time, development projects cannot be stalled, which are necessary not only for development, but at times for safety of citizens as well.
Half the Himalayan population at risk of multiple natural disasters
A study published in January 2022 by researchers in India, Canada and the US found that human settlements in the Himalayas are disproportionately concentrated in areas where the risk of hazards like landslides, floods and wildfires is high. Low-risk regions, in contrast are disproportionately unpopulated. Nearly half the population in the Himalayas lives in areas that face the risk of more than one type of hazard. The study found that areas that are susceptible to multiple hazards are also major corridors for migration and urban development, which are contributing to the rising risk of living in these regions.
Source: “Multi-hazard susceptibility and exposure assessment of the Hindu Kush Himalaya” by Jack Rusk et al, published in Science of The Total Environment