Climate Change, Melting Glaciers, Urbanization Triggering More Landslides In Himachal

Manali: Change in climate patterns leading to cloudbursts and flash floods in recent years has become a regular feature across the eco-sensitive Himalayan zone. However, loss of life caused by natural calamities can be mainly attributed to increasing human interference in the fragile environment.

Environmentalists hold that since the mountain ranges in Himachal Pradesh are part of young fold Himalayan range they are fragile in nature, with cracks and fractures in the rock formation that can and do widen or cave in abruptly under heavy rain conditions or when an earthquake occurs.

On 27-28 July, seven people died when exceptionally heavy rainfall fell across the cold desert region of Lahaul-Spiti. In Keylong and Udaipur subdivision alone there were 12 incidents of flash flood after a cloudburst in which the Tozing Nallah impact was devastating. Few days before this disaster, nine people were killed by a landslide in Kinnaur district as boulders fell and hit the vehicle they were travelling in.

Both Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur fall in the Himalayan zones known for geological and ecological vulnerability. This monsoon the heavy rains also caused major landslides in the state’s Kangra district, claiming 10 lives. Terrifying videos capturing massive landslides in Sirmaur district were widely viewed and shared over social media.

Why flooding and landslides are common in hill regions,  Vinod Larjea, president ,of Tandi Baandh Sangarsh Samiti says that in the first stance, construction of mega hydro-projects should be avoided.

About road construction, Vinod says, “construction of roads should be done with all scientific techniques. Presently, we see that roads are being made or widened without taking proper measures such as no slope stability, lack of good quality retaining wall and rock bolting. All these measures can restrict the damage done by landslides up to some extent.”

Citing a huge gap between planning and implementation, Larjea said for instance rainfall patterns are changing; temperatures have been increasing along with extreme weather events.

Vikram Kotach, environmentalist and general secretary of Tandi Baandh Sangarsh Samiti  claims the state’s policy of promoting mega hydropower projects is being implemented in fragile and eco-sensitive zone, without an appreciation of the cumulative impact of the works. He said more than 140 hydropower projects have been allocated in the Sutlej basin and disasters like the ones in Chamoli and Kedarnath are in the making.

He demanded a moratorium on the construction of all new hydropower projects located in the Sutlej, Chander Baga and Chenab river basins until a study on the cumulative impact of the projects on the fragile ecology and livelihoods is done.

He said urbanisation has led to a decrease in soil infiltration capacity, resulting in floods. Himalayan systems are very young and fragile, making them unstable. The rain which was earlier recorded during the span of several days now pours within a couple of days only. This has led to an increase in the incidence of flash flooding and landslides, making the region very vulnerable to natural disasters. If the landslide comes down to the river stream, it increases the chances of floods.”

Manoj Kumar, President of Manali Naggar Parishad said the higher Himalayas were once home to a lot of glaciers, which have now retreated owing to global warming and climate change. Glacier is a moving mass of ice, soil and rocks and thus, it consists of lots of loose sediments. The retreating glaciers have left behind unlimited sediments that consist of an unstable mix of earth and rocks in the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

He added “Over high mountains in Asia which include the Himalayas, snow cover has reduced since the early 21st century, and glaciers have thinned, retreated, and lost mass since the 1970s,”

Katoch says that the local people have been speaking up against hydropower development for more than a decade now. And now the youth are also actively demanding a halt on these projects.

“It is high time the government listens to people’s voices because the constitution grants tribals (of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur) the right to say ‘no’ to any development that threatens their existence and survival,” he said.

“Apart from being a geological and ecologically fragile region, Kinnaur is a strategically sensitive area. And most importantly this is a scheduled V area with a majority tribal population. It has a thriving apple economy which should be protected,” said Katoch.

Sanjay Dutta, an engineer by qualification but is a journalist by choice. He has worked for the premier new agency Press Trust of India and leading English daily Indian Express. With more than a decade of experience, he has been highlighting issues related to environment, tourism and other aspects affecting mountain ecology. Sanjay Dutta lives in a village close to Manali in Kullu valley of Himachal.

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