Snow-covered mountains amid rains in land subsidence-hit Joshimath, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo | PTI)
Snow-covered mountains amid rains in land subsidence-hit Joshimath, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo | PTI)

Interview | Damage to Himalayas can have severe impact: Anjal Prakash

Environmental degradation can have far-reaching impacts on every aspect of life, says environmentalist Anjal Prakash 

Joshimath-like tragedy has a far-reaching impact on the environment, economies and mankind in different ways. Anjal Prakash, Research Director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (Hyderabad) believes that despite knowing the mounting crisis in the region, the administration had apparently turned blind eye to what was in the making for decades. In an interview with Parvez Sultan, the environmentalist spells out reasons contributing to the land subsidence and the impact of the phenomenon.   

When did the actual degradation in the Joshimath region begin? Reasons?
The actual degradation in the Joshimath region is likely to have started in the recent past, and the exact date is still being determined. The local reports of parts of Joshimath sinking started coming in 2018-19. The reasons for degradation in the region are likely to be multifaceted. According to locals, the hydropower development and its tunnelling process are one of the reasons for the sinking of the town. Apart from this, other factors also contribute to the present-day situation in Joshimath. They are:
Deforestation: Unsustainable logging practices and clearing forests for agriculture and other purposes have led to a loss of forest cover, contributing to soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and other environmental problems.

Climate change: Issues such as increased temperature and changes in precipitation patterns, has led to changes in the distribution of plant and animal species and disrupted ecosystems. It has acted as a force multiplier.

Unsustainable tourism: Unsustainable and unregulated tourism practices, such as the construction of large hotels and other infrastructure, has led to the degradation of the environment and natural resources in the region.

Waste management: Poor waste management practices have led to the accumulation of litter and other waste, including wastewater, negatively impacting the environment and public health.

Why didn’t the Government heed when the issue was flagged decades ago?
Political considerations, such as the need to address more pressing issues or prioritise initiatives that are seen as more politically advantageous, have taken precedence over addressing the region’s degradation issue.

Hydropower development has been sold as a development priority for the Himalayan region. It attracts large-scale investment and rent-seeking, one of the main reasons they are continued across political ideologies.

Who should all be held responsible for the disaster?
The degradation of the Joshimath region in India is a complex issue that is likely the result of multiple factors. Some possible actors who may be held responsible for the disaster include the local government officials responsible for enforcing environmental laws and regulations, protecting natural resources, and promoting sustainable development practices.

But the buck should stop at the political leadership, including the local MLA from the Joshimath region, who is the first person; should have known and acted to prevent the disaster, was in the making. The local media has reported these incidents for a couple of months which didn’t lead to the chief minister’s office taking note of this. 

Still, I feel that the hydropower development in the region has triggered the crisis. During the tunnelling process, a large groundwater body was punctured, which led to the water gushing out of the area, including travelling upward.

Has the fragility of Himalayas also acted as a catalyst?
Yes. The Himalayas are a fragile and sensitive ecosystem vulnerable to environmental stressors, such as deforestation, overgrazing, climate change, and unsustainable tourism practices. The region’s high elevation and rugged terrain also make it challenging to monitor and manage the impacts of these stressors.

How does this kind of occurrence affect a region, local population or administration? 
The impacts of environmental degradation in the Himalayas can be particularly severe, as the region is an important water source for large populations in South Asia.

Degradation of the forests and other ecosystems in the region can lead to decreased water quality and availability, which can have far-reaching consequences for the environment and human well-being.
Environmental degradation can lead to increased exposure to pollutants and other environmental hazards, negatively impacting public health. Degradation of the environment can lead to biodiversity loss, as plant and animal species cannot survive in a degraded environment. This can negatively impact the ecosystem and its services, such as pollination and pest control.

Environmental degradation negatively impacts local economies, as degraded lands are less productive and can lead to reduced agricultural yields, loss of tourism revenue, and other economic losses. This can also lead to increased conflict, and social tensions as communities compete for resources and access to land and water.

Measures to prevent further deterioration in Joshimath and other locations.
First, the hydropower project should be stopped till an independent assessment is done of the costs and benefits of such projects in the region. They need to be reassessed based on the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and scientific reports on changing climatic conditions in the region and their impact on the lives and livelihood of people. Apart from this, encouraging and promoting sustainable forestry practices, such as selective logging and reforestation, can help to protect the forests and prevent further environmental degradation.

I will suggest that we promote sustainable tourism practices, such as ecotourism and responsible waste management, which can help reduce tourism’s negative environmental impacts.

–Dr Anjal Prakash also contributes to the IPCC reports and has previously led research on glaciated rivers in the Himalayan region

The New Indian Express