Guarding the Devbhoomi: Towards a climate-resilient Uttarakhand
Coordination with the Central government as well as with neighbouring states would also be crucial to the success because climate change is not a problem any one state can take on alone
This year’s monsoon has been among the heaviest in the recent history of Uttarakhand. It has left in its wake a trail of destruction, sparing neither lives nor infrastructure. The unprecedented rainfall, accompanied by cloudbursts, consequent flash floods and landslides have led to approximately a hundred deaths already in addition to affecting nearly 45,000 families. These are indeed sobering statistics. But more than this, they are a call to action. It is time for a multi-pronged action plan based on scientific data, both hydrological and geophysical, to be implemented in mission mode in the state.
That climate change is a reality and is being driven by man-made global warming is an indisputable fact. To deny or downplay this serves no purpose, especially when its ill-effects are staring us in the face. This is all the more true in the case of Uttarakhand, which is no stranger to the consequences of climate change. The 2013 Kedarnath cloudburst, the 2021 floods in Chamoli and multiple instances of land subsidence are cases in point. The takeaway is clear: the hill state needs a comprehensive, multi-dimensional and flexible climate plan if such disasters are to be prevented and their impact is to be mitigated in the future.
Any plan, in order to be effective, must be a data-driven exercise. It must begin by identifying priority areas where immediate action is required. This can be done by preparing a climate vulnerability map covering the different regions and all districts of the state. Such mapping would serve to identify which regions are at greater risk of different kinds of hazards. This would also be of use in identifying the sensitive regions. Thereafter, appropriate interventions tailored to each issue can be formulated and implemented.
For instance, a major contributor to landslides is rapid depletion of green cover. Illegal felling of trees needs to be checked following Uttarakhand’s historical tradition of community participation in such efforts. When new roads are cut into hillsides or existing ones widened, cement-concrete retaining walls are constructed for slope stabilisation. Often, these actions have counterproductive results of accelerating landslides. A more sustainable solution may be to create green belts and bioengineering solutions along the hillside. The roots of the trees and shrubs planted in these belts would better serve to hold the soil together and mitigate the effect of landslides.
The mapping exercise must not be a one-time affair. Climate change is an evolving challenge and hence the response to it must be equally dynamic. Therefore, any such vulnerability map would have to be updated periodically to keep pace with changes in the threat profiles of different regions of the state.
Any plan is only as good as its enforcement. It would be necessary for the state government to identify a single agency or ministry which would be responsible for implementing this action plan, ensuring that the map is kept updated and that the government’s ground-level interventions are carried through to completion. The role of women’s self-help groups and local communities in implementation and monitoring will remain of utmost importance.
Coordination with the Central government as also with neighbouring states would also be crucial to the success of such a plan because climate change is not a problem any one state can take on alone. The spirit of cooperative federalism is needed to meet this challenge. To that end, the Himalayan State Regional Council must be strengthened and NITI Aayog should play a proactive role in ensuring its functioning.
Quick restoration of physical infrastructure destroyed by natural disasters must remain a priority. The experience of the last two years has shown that the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has not only promptly deployed eco-friendly engineering solutions to restore roads and bridges, but has also displayed the ability to fully utilise its budgetary allocations. Therefore, the Central government may consider enhancing its monetary support to the BRO to build its capacity in the Himalayan states in view of their unique vulnerability to climate change.
Let us rise to the challenge and let the wounded Devbhoomi heal itself through government and community action.
Khanduri is the Speaker of the Uttarakhand Assembly