NEW DELHI: It was not just the humongous monsoon rainfall that wreaked havoc in Himachal Pradesh this year; it was facilitated by a man-made component, say experts. They point to the poorly planned infrastructure activities that generated huge volumes of muck.
The debris was randomly dumped into natural streams, blocking their path and reducing their capacity to evacuate water downstream. The result: Monsoon showers triggered flash floods in riverside towns and highways in July and August and caused massive loss of life and property.
Three spells of extreme rainfall in July and August (8 to 11 July, 14 to 15 August, and 22 to 23 August) brought Himachal Pradesh to its knees. According to the state government’s data, there were 163 identified landslides and 72 flash floods. It left over 404 people dead, 38 missing and 377 injured. Besides, 10,140 livestock perished and 5,644 cowsheds were destroyed.
As many as 2,546 houses and 317 shops were completely damaged and 10,853 other houses were partially damaged. Kullu, Mandi, Shimla, Sirmaur, Solan and Chamba were among the worst-affected districts. Many hydropower projects and transmission lines, too, were damaged or rendered non-operational. Forest land and vegetation were gravely affected by the landslides. The Himachal government quantified the economic loss at over Rs 12,000 crore.
Cause behind the disaster
Over the past few decades, the state has been witnessing infrastructure development on a massive scale. Roads and tunnel construction, setting up of hydropower plants, unplanned urbanisation, deforestation and tourism went on at an unsustainable level. Infrastructure development and deforestation are interlinked.
Commercial felling of trees has been banned in the state since the 1980s but construction of local roads, national highways, four-lane highways, hydropower and other commercial projects are the major activities that are causing deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Experts say the recent flood in the Beas River basin was man-made. “One major factor behind such high flood impact could be the temporary blockage of load carried by floodwaters including muck dumped from road and tunnel construction, trees washed away from slides along the banks and mid-channel bars, and its subsequent bursting,” says Guman Singh of Him Niti Abhiyan (HNA), a Himachal Pradesh based non-profit advocating the conservation of the Himalayan ecosystem.
The HNA did a preliminary analysis of the monsoon disaster in consultation with multi-disciplinary experts, including Dr Ravi Chopra, Chairman Ravi Chopra Committee on 2013 floods in Uttarakhand; Dr Navin Juyal, expert in Quaternary Geomorphology and Paleo-Climate; Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network of Dam, River, and People; Avay Shukla, former Additional Chief Secretary and Head of the 2009 Shukla Committee constituted for hydropower sector assessment.
Their report says the bursting of blocked channels led to the scouring of banks and the crumbling of embankments, which further led to the diversion of rivers into towns and on roads and highways. Developmental activities narrowed the river and acted as force multipliers for flash floods in towns. Moreover, tourism led to the encroachment of riverbeds and flood plains across the Sutlej and Beas River basins for commercial purposes.
The report recommends the need for a river-wise micro-scaled scientific study for strict demarcation of flood zones. The experts demand a complete relook at the urbanisation approach in cities like Shimla. The 2041 Shimla Developmental Plan opened 17 green belt areas for fresh construction. Though the National Green Tribunal struck it down in 2018, unfortunately, the state government is still contesting the order.
The report recommends an immediate moratorium on large infrastructure projects, including dams and hydropower projects, roads, construction of multi-storey buildings and resettling of the affected people. One of the major recommendations is to bring in strong legislation to protect land use change.