Himachal Pradesh will remember the year 2021 for the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that took a heavy toll on the hilly state.
But what will continue to cast a dark shadow on the ecologically fragile land in the upcoming year is the spate of natural disasters that left a trail of death and destruction across the hills and valleys of the state.
Flash floods, landslides and glacial lake bursts—Himachal Pradesh saw all in 2020. The impact of climate change as per scientists is evident in the state with the increasing frequency of natural disasters.
The neighbouring state, Uttarakhand too witnessed major natural disasters, which took heavy toll on human lives. Over 200 people were either killed or lost in the single incident at Chamoli in the vicinity of Nanda Devi National Park—UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rock-and-ice avalanche that hit Rishiganga river was the most horrifying tragedy in Uttarakhand in recent years, and has exposed the ecological risks of building mega dams and other projects, unsustainable in the fragile environs of mountains.
Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, known for its ancient glaciers—the storehouse of water that spur development and prosperity in its lower catchments—is no longer a safe zone. Some of the highly-misplaced development priorities and human interference with nature has become the biggest contributing factor to disasters, experts say.
“We keep shouting from rooftops about climate change or global warming being a factor for turning the Himalayas into a potential hazard zone. But there is also a need to count anthropological interference that has added pressure, leading to these disasters becoming more frequent,” says Anand Sharma, former director of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) at Dehradun.
The local communities in hazard-prone districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti say that the model of development being followed by successive governments, during the past three decades has put a question mark on their very survival. Now there are collective voices against setting-up new hydel projects and dams. At least 16 project have been already proposed in the two districts.
A two-day conference on climate change, held this week in Shimla, raised concerns about receding glaciers, glacial lake bursts, glacier lake formations and mountain crack-ups that are causing major landslides. Six natural disasters have occurred in Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti and Mandi districts. In Kinnaur, a natural tragedy claimed more than 40 lives.
The vulnerability of the geologically young and not-so-stable steep slopes in various Himalayan ranges has been increasing at a rapid rate in the recent decade due to human interference including deforestation, road cutting, blasting to make tunnels, building dams and dumping of debris, the experts said.
They believe this has resulted in the drying up of water sources, crop failures and the vanishing of rare fauna and flora.
Dr Suresh Attri, a climate change scientist at the Himachal Pradesh Department of Environment, Science and Technology says, “The impact of climate change is becoming increasingly visible in the mountains and geological formations. The rocks have turned unstable and when disturbed through human activities, machines or digging of tunnels or dams, landslides occur.”
The opening of the world’s longest tunnel at Rohtang at a height of 10,000 feet has been hailed as the biggest event in the history of the mountainous state, providing all-weather connectivity to the tribals in Lahaul-Spiti, and also Leh.
The region is likely to bear the brunt of biggest human interference, mobility of vehicles and tourist influx.
However, this increasing human interference is also the biggest worry which experts believe would haunt this ecologically fragile valley, due to reckless exploitation of its resources, particularly its rivers and unplanned constructions.
Here too, the local communities are asking for adopting the ‘Bhutan model’ for tourism and banning all new hydel projects—on Tandi, Rashil, Bardang, Miyar, Selli and Jispa—which they fear could spell doom for the region, and disturb the flow of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers in the Chenab basin,” says environmental activist Sudershan Jaspa.
The way forward, feels Kunal Satyarthi, joint secretary of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), is to set up a multi-hazard early warning system for disaster reduction with a robust resilience and effective response to climate change risks.