Himalayan plunder: increasing landslides in Himachal result of ‘development work’

Himachal Pradesh is very vulnerable to natural calamities and every year hundreds of people lose their lives due to landslides. Environmentalists warn of Joshimath-like fate, say stop power projects in the state.

Of the total area of 55,673 square kilometres of Himachal Pradesh, 38,249 sq km area comes under high risk and 4,461 square km area comes under very high-risk area for landslides.  Image: Gerd Eichmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

All projects proposed or in progress in the Himalayan region should be immediately stopped to avoid any further ecological damage to the eco-sensitive area, according to environmentalists. Else, Himachal Pradesh might face a similar fate as Joshimath in Uttarakhand, they warned. 

Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayan region are extremely eco-sensitive. The latter is very vulnerable to natural calamities and every year, hundreds of people lose their lives due to landslides along with destruction worth crores of rupees. 

The development model for these eco-sensitive states needs to be reworked, keeping in mind the local needs, said Mansi Ashar, founder of the environment group Himdhara.

“The frequency of natural calamities like landslides in the Himalayan region has increased manifold due to massive ecological destruction carried out in the name of development work,” she said. 

Himachal Pradesh falls in high-risk seismic zones IV and V, which are high-damage risk and very high-damage-risk areas, respectively. The five most populous districts — Chamba, Kangra, Hamirpur, Kullu and Mandi — also fall in these zones. 

Of the total area of 55,673 square kilometres of Himachal Pradesh, 38,249 sq km area comes under high risk and 4,461 square km area comes under very high-risk area for landslides.

There has been a huge increase in the number of national highway projects, power plants and hotels in the state and indiscriminate construction has taken its toll on the environment. 

The number of landslides has increased wildly following the construction of Chandigarh–Shimla Expressway, Kiratpur-Manali project and other national highways and dozens of people have also lost their lives in these incidents. 

We cannot ignore the effects of development on the environment. Before starting any infrastructure development project in the future, environmental impact assessment needs to be properly and thoroughly conducted, else Himachal may witness the same fate as Uttarakhand.

Smriti Kahlon, professor, Panjab University

“More than 80 thousand trees have been cut for the highways in Himachal,” said Ashar. “The carrying capacity of the area is getting reduced due to the increasing construction in the tourism sector.”

A 115,000-megawatt power project has been planned in the Himalayan region, extending from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, he said. “All such plans must be dropped immediately,” she added. 

Urni village in Kinnaur has been sinking continuously since 2009 and its cracks are increasing year by year, resident Ramanand Negi told Down To Earth. The village was hit by a landslide in December 2022. 

“Dozens of people lost their homes after the village collapse, many lost their apple orchards and even today people are living under the shadow of fear,” Negi said. 

More than 3,000 MW hydropower projects are currently in the works in Kinnaur district, said Jia Lal, president of environmental group Him Lok Jagruti Manch. “Due to the impact of these power projects, cracks have appeared in people’s houses, there has been an increase in natural calamities and water sources have dried up. Residents have not even received compensation for the loss of their land,” Lal said.

The region is trans-Himalayan, so stones and boulders fall even if the wind blows too strongly, said Lal. “Imagine the impact of building power projects in such sensitive areas. That’s why now we are strongly opposing any power project to be built here in the future,” he said.

The state is geologically susceptible to landslides, according to professor Smriti Kahlon, department of geography, Panjab University, Chandigarh, who has done research on landslides in Himachal Pradesh. 

“Himachal falls right between the vast Himalayas and the plains that witness frequent movement of tectonic plates,” said Kahlon. “The Himalayas are continuously growing due to the continuous movement of geological plates. Infrastructure development plans in this area are not free from risk.” 

Hydropower projects are also sensitive to the geography of the region, she added. A large amount of water is collected at one place, which increases both the humidity and the pressure in that area. Due to increasing humidity, the risk of landslides remains constant. 

“We cannot ignore the effects of development on the environment. Before starting any infrastructure development project in the future, environmental impact assessment needs to be properly and thoroughly conducted, else Himachal may witness the same fate as Uttarakhand,” Kahlon said. 

Ashar concurred with Kahlon over the need for environmental impact assessments. “Widening of roads, big power projects and other developmental activities have made the Himalayan region very unstable,” she said. “As a result, even small accidents were resulting in huge losses.”

Himachal Pradesh has a total built-up area of 866.14 sq km, according to the 2015 Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment report for the state by think tank Taru Leading Edge. Geographic Information System and visuals showed that most of the built up area comes under high risk area. 

Of the total 1,628 km of national highway roads in the state, 993 km are in highly sensitive areas and 514 km of roads are in the low risk areas. Further, 10 sq km of roads are in very sensitive areas. 

Apart from this, out of 2,178 km of roads in the state highway, 1,111 km are in high risk areas and 873 km are in low risk.

Himachal Pradesh is a tourist destination, with Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala drawing large crowds.

The hydropower sector is also under threat, the 2015 report by Taru found. Out of 118 big power projects ranging from 101 to 1,500 MW in Himachal, 67 come under hazard risk and 10 mega power projects fall in the medium and high category for landslides.

It may be noted that the state’s biggest power projects — 1,190 MW Karchham Wangtu, 1,500 MW Nathpa Jhakri and 1,325 MW Bhakra —are also in sensitive regions.

Around 40 per cent of the area in Himachal falls in the highly sensitive category and 32 per cent in the highly sensitive category, found a report by the Building Material and Technology Promotion Council.

“Opinions of hydrologists and geologists are unheeded during construction work for the power and national highway projects,” Tikendra Panwar, research fellow, Impact and Policy Research Institute, told DTE. “This has increased landslide incidents. Policy implementation also has several flaws in Himachal.” 

The state also lacks a proper sewerage system in hilly areas, said AK Mahajan, a member of the high-level committee constituted by the Himachal government for identification and risk management of landslide-prone areas and head of the Environment Department of the Central University. 

This is increasing moisture in the soil and reducing frictional power. Excessive rain or moisture is immediately leading to landslides, Mahajan said. “Proper drainage and sewerage systems will reduce landslides in the region,” he said. 

Coordination between the Centre and the states is important to reduce the hazards of landslides, a 2019 report on National Landslides Risk Management Strategy submitted to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs said. 

The report gave suggestions and a detailed strategy for making various stakeholders aware, including preparation and monitoring of early warning systems, creation of user-friendly landslide hazard maps. 

It particularly emphasised on the mountainous areas to improve their policies and regulations and to create special purpose vehicles to help reduce the effects of these disasters.

Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu said an early warning dissemination system would be developed in Himachal Pradesh to reduce the damage caused by natural calamities and special attention would be paid to environmental aspects of development works. 

Apart from this, the CM has also ordered identification of landslide-prone places, increasing emergency response capacity and developing an early warning dissemination system. 

This story was originally published on Down to Earth.

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