Himachal floods: a man-made disaster?

Source– The post is based on the article “Himachal floods: a man-made disaster?” published in “The Hindu” on 26th July 2023.

Syllabus: GS3- Disaster management. GS1- Geography

Relevance: Floods in mountains

News- Flash floods during this year’s monsoon season have caused unprecedented damage to both lives and assets in Himachal Pradesh.

How climate change is contributing to disaster?

As per IPCC VI report, the impact of climate change on Himalayas and coastal regions of India will be high. In the Himalayas, there is a noticeable pattern of increased precipitation occurring in shorter periods of time.

How anthropogenic factors have also significantly contributed to the disaster?

The State implemented its own development model after 1971.The focus of the model was land reforms, robust state-led investment in social welfare, and a strong emphasis on human resources.

However, things changed after liberalisation. Central government advocated for stringent fiscal reforms. It forced the mountain States to generate their own resources for fiscal management.

This led to the rapid construction of hydropower projects, widening of roads without proper geological and engineering assessments, expansion of cement plants, and a shift in agricultural practices to cash crop economies.

What are the impacts of hydropower generation?

Prior to 2000, multilateral agencies were opposed to financing large hydropower projects. But,they started providing funding for such ventures, making finance readily available for these projects.

These hydropower projects are one of the main reasons for the devastating impact of floods in the region.

The dams are based on “run of the river” technology. Water is diverted through tunnels burrowed into the mountains. The excavated material is disposed of along the riverbed

During periods of higher precipitation or cloudbursts, the water returns to the river. The dumped material is carried along with it.

Moreover, long tunnels have been commissioned on the Sutlej river. These are responsible for significant harm to the entire ecosystem.

Currently, there are 168 hydropower projects in operation. As per projections; by 2030, 1,088 hydropower projects will be commissioned to harness 22,640 MW of energy.

What are the impacts of tourism?

The development-driven road expansion is aimed at promoting tourism.

This development model follows a PPP approach. There is focus on completing these projects rapidly. Essential geological studies and mountain engineering skills are bypassed.

Traditionally, mountainous regions are not cut with vertical slits. They are terraced. It minimises  the damage to the environment.

Unfortunately, vertical cutting of mountains has been done in case of four-lane projects in Manali and Shimla. It is leading to massive landslides and damage to existing roads.

How change in crop patterns is contributing to disasters?

Many farmers are now opting for cash crops instead of traditional cereal farming. It poses challenges in transporting these perishable crops to markets.

In response to this demand, roads are being hastily constructed without considering necessary factors like land cutting and gradient requirements.

Modern excavators are used in the construction process, but proper drainage systems and designated areas for muck disposal are not created.

It is important to note that while the total designated road length in the state is approximately 1,753 km, the total length of all roads, including link and village roads, exceeds 40,000 km.

Way forward-

An Inquiry Commission should be established to engage the main stakeholders for addressing both policy framework shortcomings and specific aspects of the undertaken projects.

A new approach is necessary to empower local communities and grant them control over their assets.

Losses incurred in culverts, village drains, small bridges, schools, and other social infrastructure must be compensated. It can be achieved through insuring the assets and entrusting their care to local communities.

It is essential for humans to take responsible actions in infrastructure planning to prevent the disasters witnessed by the State since June.

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