Nature’s agony at play in Joshimath’s situation
By: Dr.Satyawan Saurabh
The looming crisis in Joshimath speaks of our collective failure to respect the special and distinctive features and characteristics of the fragile Himalayan mountain system while planning and executing developmental projects. Over 600 houses have reportedly developed cracks in this Uttarakhand city, putting the lives of at least 3,000 people at risk. The subsidence in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath is mainly due to the TapovanVishnugarh Hydro Electric Project of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and is a very serious warning that people are playing with the environment to such an extent that the old situation is getting worse. It would be difficult to restore. He said that large-scale infrastructure development without any planning is making the Himalayan ecosystem more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The situation in Joshimath is a very serious warning that people are playing with the environment to such an extent that it will be difficult to restore the old condition. There are two sides to the Joshimath problem. The first is massive infrastructure development, which is happening in a very fragile ecosystem like the Himalayas, without any planning process where we can protect the environment. On the flip side, climate change is a major factor. The effects of climate change are visible in some hilly states of India. For example, 2021 and 2022 have been disaster years for Uttarakhand. We must first understand that these regions are very fragile and small changes or disturbances in the ecosystem will lead to severe disasters, which we are seeing in Joshimath.
The government has learned nothing from the 2013 Kedarnath disaster and the 2021 Rishi Ganga floods. The Himalayas are a very delicate ecosystem. Most parts of Uttarakhand lie either in seismic zone five or four, where earthquake risk is high. We need to make some strong rules and their timely implementation. We are not against development, but doing so at the cost of disasters is not right. The present crisis in Joshimath is mainly due to anthropogenic activities. The population has increased manifold. Infrastructure development is happening in an uncontrolled manner. Tunnels for hydroelectric projects are being constructed through blasting, which leads to earthquakes, ground subsidence, and cracks.
The development of hydropower is important as it provides the country with a renewable source of energy and is a revenue source for the state. However, due to the number and poor construction of hydroelectric projects, the effect of floods is further increased. For example- the Rishi Ganga project in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Mountains have their micro climate. Its unique fauna and flora have short breeding periods and are sensitive to disturbance. As such, unsustainable and unscientific tourism, and rampant growth of hotels and lodges, are already affecting this natural balance. Unsustainable economic and population growth coupled with deforestation, overgrazing by livestock, and marginal soil cultivation leads to environmental degradation in the mountains due to many factors such as soil erosion, landslides, and rapid loss of habitat and genetic diversity.
Melting ice due to climate change creates new glacial lakes. This also increases the number of existing ones. Due to this, the risk of flood due to the bursting of glacier-lake can increase. Of the 8,800 glacial lakes in the Himalayas, more than 200 are classified as dangerous. The cities of the Himalayas are developing and have started showing roots like the cities of the plains. The accumulation of garbage and plastics, untreated sewage, unplanned urban development, and local air pollution are hurting the fragile ecosystem.
The construction and design of towns in the Himalayan region should reflect the local ecosystem and should also include seismic sensitivity and aesthetics. For example, the Mishra Committee Report of 1976 clearly stated that Joshimath is situated in an old landslide zone and could be eroded if development continued in an uncontrolled manner.
Building a forest-based economy: The standing forests of the Himalayan region, an important reservoir of biodiversity, protect against soil erosion and increased flooding. Developing a strategy to “pay” for these ecosystem services of the region’s permanent forests and ensuring that the proceeds are shared with local communities would be one way forward. It may be noted that the 12th and 13th Finance Commissions have included the concept of compensation to states for standing forests in their reports.
Hydropower projects need to take care of energy needs and ecological balance, requiring a careful analysis of hydro-based energy policy in this area. Such a policy should set mandatory ecological flow provisions (at least 50% in lean season), a distance criterion (5 km), as well as strict enforcement measures and penalties, to ensure that the project fails. Construction should not harm the stability of the mountain or local water systems. Local organic agriculture has to be promoted so that each Himalayan state tries to use the unique products of its region as its economic strength. But these states are finding it difficult to harness their unique strengths due to various constraints such as difficulties in certification and even forest laws. There is a need to pay attention to this.
Because of the continuous urbanization in hilly areas, the municipal bye-laws in hilly cities should make provisions for banning construction activity in areas that fall in hazardous areas or areas close to rivers, streams, and watersheds of the town. Although in many cases these provisions are present in the bye-laws, they are not strictly enforced. There is a need to enact a zero-tolerance policy on these matters. Although the above issues are not new, what is new is the need to respond more urgently to the changes that have begun to appear in this climate-sensitive region. Activities that conserve biological diversity, and reduce habitat fragmentation and degradation, will enhance the ability of Himalayan mountain ecosystems to resist anthropogenic environmental stresses.
The writer is a poet, freelance journalist and columnist, All India Radio and TV panellist.