Climate change wreaks havoc in Uttarakhand’s mountainous terrain

 Indiscriminate road building and hydropower projects are increasing the vulnerability of the mountainous areas of Uttarakhand to the impact of climate change that is manifesting in the form of cloud bursts and flash floods in recent years. With every passing year,  both frequency and magnitude of the disasters is getting more severe.

An example of how this is affecting the lives of people on the ground comes from Joshimath, in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, which witnessed a major calamity on February 7 last year due to a glacial burst which triggered floods that destroyed two hydropower projects near the Naina Devi National Park[1]. The incident claimed 74 lives and several workers who were trapped in a tunnel near the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project were rescued but many bodies were found days later.

Experts believe that the construction of hydel power projects, which involves stone quarrying, blasting of mountains and digging of tunnels in the base of a mountain system could have led to the disaster.

Over a year later, the land is still unstable and local residents have been complaining of their houses developing cracks  or,  premises and roads caving in at random places.


“The road beneath our village has caved in. The iconic statue of Gaura Devi, who led the famous Chipko Movement  had to be shifted from the centre of the road. Many houses have developed wide cracks and can crumble anytime. People have no other option but to take  shelter in  the nearby forest area whenever it rains heavily,” said Chander Singh Rana, grandson of Gaura Devi and resident of Raini village. The village was closest to the origin of a flash flood  disaster that hit the area last year.

Following last year’s flash floods, on behest of the state government, noted geologists -Saraswati Prakash Sati, Shubhra Sharma and Navin Juyal- conducted a study on the fragility of Joshimath and suggested measures to avert or mitigate catastrophic consequences  for this fragile area in future.

According to the report, the very first observation by renowned geologists  Heim and Gansser (1939) that the Joshimath town is situated on an old landslide deposit itself speaks about how fragile the slopes are.

However, ignoring the geological fragility of its location, the town began to grow rapidly after 1960. It was only during the late 60’s that the concern about the safety and stability of the town became an issue. The then government set up  a body, named as   the Mishra Committee,  in 1976. The recommendations of this committee are still relevant today.

The committee recommended that as an immediate measure, there should not be any excavation activities particularly of the precariously balanced crystalline boulders. Further construction in the area should be made only after examining the stability of the site and restrictions should be placed on excavation on slopes.

Secondly, no boulders should be removed either by digging or blasting and no tree should be cut in the landslide zone. Extensive plantation work should be launched in the area particularly between Marwari and Joshimath and the cracks, which have developed on the slopes, should be sealed. Thirdly and most importantly, hanging boulders on the foothills should be provided with appropriate support and anti-erosion measures should be taken up. It was also emphasized that there should be a blanket ban on collecting constructional material from a radius of 5 km of the Joshimath town.

However none of the Mishra Committee recommendations have ever been adopted in the government’s policies  or implemented on the ground.

Ravi Chopra, renowned expert on matters related to river ecology and hydro power projects  said, “The way the Rishi Ganga hydro project got smashed and, Tapovan Vishnugad hydro project was severely damaged in last year’s flash flood in Joshimath, suggests no homework was done before the site selection or project viability. Besides incurring monumental economic losses, the debris of the project structures also added to the volume of the flood  and magnitude of the havoc , which also led to  reactivation of stabilized landslides in this region.”

The recent report by the noted geologists also mentions that Uttarakhand Himalaya is witnessing an unprecedented spree of infrastructural developmental activities. As a consequence, the precariously stabilized, debris-laden slopes become extremely sensitive towards both natural (extreme hydro-meteorological events) and anthropogenic interventions. The latter includes attempts to  harness the hydropower potential of the glacial fed rivers, excavation of slopes for road networking and most importantly the unplanned proliferation of urban towns. Severity of the crises can be ascertained from the fact that during the monsoon, some region or the other in the Central Himalaya experiences a catastrophic disaster.

COVID Response Watch LogoGeologists in the report  rued the fact that least consideration is given  for the slope stability and disposal of domestic wastewater. Chopra said, “The road widening work has created many new landslide zones which give trouble to local people every monsoon. Many people have been injured or died as the debris came tumbling down from the slopes, which were randomly cut and not treated as per norms after the road widening works were completed.”

In the report , geologists suggest that the road engineers must find ways to provide stability to the areas prone to subsidence by providing state-of-the-art slope treatment methods as observed at some locations along the NH-58.

Unfortunately, despite persistent efforts of officials of the Uttarakhand  Climate Change Centre to make every state government department  incorporate climate change concerns in their policies and allocation of budget, their advice has not made much difference.

Dr. Anjal Prakash, research Director and adjunct associate professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad said, “The IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) reports that climate change has altered the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards. We do not have the data now to give you information on what has caused the avalanche in the Joshimath but what we know, prima facie, is that this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming. The impact of global warming on glacial retreat is well documented. The recent assessment report called the HI-MAP report facilitated by ICIMOD has also pointed these out. The report shows that temperatures are rising in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region and the rise in global temperature will have more impact in the Himalayan region due to elevation-dependent warming.”

He further added, “ I would request the government to spend more resources in monitoring the region better so that we have more information about the change process. The result would be that we are more aware and could develop better adaptation practices.” “. Prakash was Coordinating Lead Author of the special report on Oceans and Cryosphere, 2018 and Lead Author of the  6th Assessment report of IPCC.

It is  indeed the local people, who are living  in disaster prone areas, who are  bearing the brunt. The state government has failed to provide them any relief. The relocation or rehabilitation policy is full of loopholes. There are thousands who are still awaiting to be rehabilitated  to safer places for many years.

Sharad Singh Negi, vice chairman of  Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission said, “There is no need to clear the forests to create new safer places for relocation of  people of  disaster affected villages. The state has some 1000 villages that are lying abandoned or are thinly populated with vacant houses because of migration of the inhabitants. After improvement in infrastructure, these villages can be used for rehabilitation. “

According to  Migration Commission , between the 2011 Census and 2017, 734 villages were completely vacated by their inhabitants, while in another 565, the population fell by 50 per cent in the state.

Atul Sati, Joshimath based activist said , “There are  glaring loopholes in the state rehabilitation policy, which provide for compensation of Rs. 360,000 and an allocation of 100 sq ft of land to a family without adequate land for agriculture, livestock grazing etc. This is the reason, people who have been relocated to newer places have been going back to their old disaster prone native villages to take care of their agrarian land.”

Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh based freelance journalist who writes about environment, climate change, human rights and gender issues . She tweets at seema_ env



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