Joshimath Crisis: Causes and Solutions – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

The town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand is witnessing an unprecedented crisis. Wide Cracks have appeared on the roads and on hundreds of residential and commercial buildings in the town. Many structures have been declared unsafe, and the residents have been asked to vacate them. The Authorities have declared Joshimath as a landslide and subsidence-hit zone. The whole town is sinking. While the town is situated in a geologically unstable region, the major reason for sinking is being attributed to large-scale development projects being undertaken in the region. The Government and its agencies have responded to the crisis through various measures, yet they are rightly being criticized for long ignoring the warnings given by various environmental activists and geological experts about uncontrolled development being undertaken in the region.

About Joshimath

Joshimath, is a town situated in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. It is located in the Middle Himalayas at an altitude of ~1875 m. Joshimath is a religious and tourist place, and is situated near holy shrine of Badrinath (one of the Char Dhams in Uttarakhand). It is also proximal to Valley of Flowers National Park and Shri Hemkund Sahib (a holy shrine in Sikhism).

Location of Joshimath UPSC

Source: The Times of India

The Town is situated in a geologically unstable region (Seismic Zone V). It is situated north of Main Central Thrust (of Himalayas) nearby Tapovan Fault. (Vaikrita Thrust and Panduksehwar Thrusts are very close to Joshimath). Its location nearby a fault is one of the reasons making it susceptible to subsidence.

Location near Tapovan Fault Joshimath Crisis UPSC

What is Land Subsidence?

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Land subsidence is sinking of the ground because of underground material movement. Subsidence can be caused by gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface.

Subsidence is generally caused by: (a) Resource Extraction: The removal of water, oil, natural gas, or mineral resources out of the ground by pumping, fracking, or mining etc.; (b) Natural Causes: Natural events such as earthquakes, soil compaction, glacial isostatic adjustment, erosion, sinkhole formation, and adding water to fine soils; (c) Infrastructural Load: High load exceeding load-carrying capacity of the underlying soil.

Causes of Land Subsidence

Source: Earth Observatory of Singapore

What are the reasons for Joshimath Crisis?
Anthropogenic

Development Projects: Various development projects are being undertaken nearby the sinking region. These include NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydro Power Project and widening of roads under the Char Dham Project. While NTPC has denied the role of the power project, earlier incidents related to the project indicate the possibility that the project may have a role to play in the current crisis. A tunnel being bore under the town of Auli (near Joshimath) had punctured an aquifer in 2009 leading to large-scale seepage and drying-up of water resources in nearby regions. Water has been seen pouring out from cracks in several locations in the present crisis. 6-km Helang-Marwari bypass (under Char Dham Project) may have weakened slopes and further destabilising the local topography. Studies are being undertaken, but experts have blamed these large-scale projects for the current crisis.

Tourism: Joshimath has become overnight stopover for pilgrims and tourists visiting Badrinath, Shri Hemkund Sahib or Valley of Flowers. Skiing resort of Auli is located nearby. As such large number of hotels have come up in the town. The underlying soil may lack the load-carrying capacity of the ever-expanding infrastructure.

Unplanned Urbanisation: Most of the buildings have been constructed without proper studies about the underlying soil.

Water Withdrawal: Subsidence occurs when large amounts of groundwater are withdrawn from specific types of rocks, such as fine-grained sediments. The rock compacts because the water helps to keep the ground in place. When the water is removed, the rocks collapse in on themselves. Increased withdrawal of water due to rising population (tourism) may have contributed to sinking.

Absence of Proper Drainage: It leads to landslides. The existence of soak pits, which allow water to slowly soak into the ground, is responsible for the creation of cavities between the soil and the boulders. This leads to water seepage and soil erosion.

Natural

First, Joshimath is located in seismic zone V which is more prone to earthquakes besides gradual weathering and water percolation which reduce the cohesive strength of the rocks over time.

Second, The Mishra Committee Report states that Joshimath is situated on a sand and stone deposit. A majority of the town has been constructed on the debris of landslides, leading to smooth and eroded rocks and loose soil on the surface. These slopes can be destabilised even by slight triggers. Hence such slopes are not suitable for a township.

Third, The Mishra Committee Report has also pointed out that subsidence in Joshimath might have been triggered by the reactivation of a geographic fault where the Indian Plate has pushed under the Eurasian Plate along the Himalayas.

Fourth, Undercutting by Alaknanda and Dhauliganga river currents is also contributing to landslides in the region.

What were the major recommendations of the Mishra Committee in the context of Joshimath Crisis?

Joshimath has been sinking for a long time. The Union Government had appointed MC Mishra (Collector of Garhwal at that time) to find out the reasons for sinking. The 18-member Committee had submitted the report in 1976.

The Report had pointed out several factors for sinking like location on ancient landslide, erosion of river banks by Dhauliganga and Alaknanda, increased construction activities, lack of proper drainage facilities (water seepage and soil erosion) etc.

The Committee had given several recommendations:

First, The most important preventive measure suggested was restriction on heavy construction in the region.

Second, Construction should only begin after the soil’s weight-bearing capacity and site stability have been assessed. It’s also important not to dig too deep into slopes.

Third, When repairing roads or building structures, it was recommended that the boulders not be removed by digging or blasting the hillsides. In landslide areas, stones and boulders should not be removed from the bottom of the hill because this would remove toe support, increasing the likelihood of landslides.

Fourth, It is necessary to fill in any cracks that have appeared on the slopes.

Fifth, It has also recommended that extensive plantation work be done in the area, particularly between Marwari and Joshimath, to conserve soil and water resources, and has cautioned against cutting trees in the landslide zone.

Sixth, there should be strict regulations on tree cutting for the township’s timber and firewood needs, and that the locals would be required to have access to alternative fuels.

Seventh, It is imperative that slopes not be used for agricultural purposes.

Eighth, Water seepage is abundant in the area. To prevent future landslides, open rain water seepage must be stopped through the construction of a pucca drainage system. Water should not be allowed to accumulate in any depression; instead, drains should be built to transport it to safe areas.

Ninth, Roads should be metalled and free of scuppers, which drain water from the road surface.

Tenth, Cement blocks should be positioned in areas of the river bank that are susceptible to erosion in order to stop the bank from eroding.

Eleventh, In order to prevent erosion and train rivers, measures should be taken, and the hanging boulders at foothills should be given the appropriate support they need. (River training is the construction of structures to direct the flow of a river).

What steps have been taken to address the Joshimath Crisis?

First, the Government has halted all construction activities in the region.

Second, An expert panel consisting of 8 people has made the recommendation that homes in the area that sustained the most damage be demolished, that areas that have become inhabitable be identified, and that people be moved to safer areas as a matter of priority. The Government has already declared certain buildings as unfit for inhabitation. People are being relocated. Interim compensation has been provided to the affected families.

Third, controlled demolition of most vulnerable buildings is being undertaken.

Fourth, A group of specialists from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), the Geological Survey of India (GSI), the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (IITR), the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, the National Institute of Hydrology, and the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) will investigate the situation and offer their recommendations.

What should be the approach going ahead?

First, There is need to balance development needs of the region with the protection of the environment. Development is necessary but not at the cost of local environment or population. Ensuring sustainability should be the top priority.

Second, The natural assets of the Himalayas, such as biodiversity, local ecology and environmental balance should be at the centre of any development plan for the area.

Third, Instead of focusing on massive dam construction, attention should be given to smaller projects that can help meet the energy needs of the community.

Fourth, Taking precautions to protect people’s well-being ought to be the top priority right now. The State government ought to set up a communication channel that is both transparent and continuous with the individuals who have been impacted.

Fifth, Mishra Committee Recommendations should be implemented for all development projects. No activity should be undertaken on unstable slopes unless structural stability can be ensured.

Conclusion

The Joshimath Crisis brings out harmful impacts of uncontrolled development in geologically unstable and environmentally sensitive region. The multiple crisis in the region (Kedarnath 2013, Chamoli 2021) necessitate a relook at the present development model. An immediate adjustment is imperative that puts sustainability as the top priority. Otherwise, such crisis will become more frequent and disastrous.

Syllabus: GS III, Conservation; Environmental Degradation; Disaster and Disaster Management.

Source: Indian Express, The Hindu, The Times of India, MoneyControl

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