In the north of India, encompassing four ranges of the Himalayas, lies Himachal Pradesh, a state guilty of stunning natural beauty, ranging from vast tracts of a high-altitude Himalayan desert to dense deodar forests, from apple orchards to cultivated terraces, and from snow-capped Himalayan ranges to glacial lakes and gushing rivers. It’s a truly wonderful getaway that attracts millions of national and international tourists every year.
But Himachal, oft dubbed the Land of Gods, is now trapped in a continuous cycle of flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides. Clips of entire mountainsides and bridges collapsing routinely do rounds of social media and TV news alerts. And the horror is real: since June 13 this year, 218 people have already lost their lives due to natural disasters and accidents in Himachal Pradesh, with a monetary loss of Rs 451 crore, Jal Shakti minister Mahender Singh Thakur recently informed the legislative assembly.
Early last month, a major landslide at Nigulsari in Kinnaur buried several vehicles, resulting in the death of 28 people, which increased the death toll so far to 246. Flash floods, landslides and cloud bursts wreaked havoc in Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur, Chamba and Kullu, and damaged property in Kangra, Shimla and Solan districts of Himachal Pradesh this year. Over 460 roads are blocked and a cloudburst in Lahaul—which is called a snow desert and is almost rainless—has been experienced for the first time, locals say. Sudarshan Jaspa, chairperson of Lahaul-Spiti Ekta Manch, comments, “I have never seen a cloud burst in Lahaul my entire lifetime. In the districts like Dharamshala and Kullu, which receive heavy rainfall, it used to happen, but in Lahaul, it is an unprecedented occurrence.”Environmentalists have identified uncontrolled tourism as one of the reasons for cloudbursts and flash floods. Photo by: DrunkenChimp/Shutterstock
The Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Plan on Climate Change has identified that the average mean surface temperature of the state has risen by about 1.6°C in the last century. This worsens hydro-meteorological hazards, increasing manifold the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events such as riverine and flash floods, droughts, avalanches, cloudbursts, landslides and forest fires. Rising temperatures have also been reported to affect the quality of the apple yield in the state, which is heavily dependent on its Rs 3,500-crore fruit economy.
Kulbhushan Upmanyu, an environmentalist associated with Himalaya Bachao Samiti in Himachal Pradesh, says, “Earlier, pleasant rain used to continue for a week, but now, the number of rainy days has decreased and the intensity of rain has gone up. Glaciers also melt at a rapid pace now. Water from glaciers joins with heavy rain, which is causing flash floods in the area.”
Upmanyu, who has been associated with conservation in the Himalayan region, explains that cloudbursts have become a new normal in Himachal Pradesh, so much so that the number of days and incidents of cloudburst are the same (30-40). This means, whenever it rains now in Himachal, there will be a cloudburst somewhere in the state. (If 10cm of rainfall is received at a station in one hour, the rain event is termed as a cloudburst).
“The intensity of rain has increased due to global warming. As the temperature increases, the atmosphere starts holding more moisture, creating huge clouds. Also, warm winds have increased, and they collide with huge cold clouds, resulting in moisture coming down very heavily as intense rainfall,” explains Upmanyu.
With cloudburst incidents, come flash floods and landslides, causing severe damage to infrastructure. In 2019, it amounted to Rs 1,200 crore. According to a landslide risk assessment report by the government of Himachal Pradesh, over 18,577 villages in the state are now at risk of landslides.
Simrit Kahlon from Panjab University contends that anthropogenic activity (road construction, expansion of settlements and other allied developmental activities, deforestation and changes in agricultural patterns) has heightened the vulnerability of geologically young and unstable steep slopes of Himachal in her 2014 academic paper, “Landslides in Himalayan Mountains: A Study of Himachal Pradesh.”
This is particularly concerning because landslides in Kinnaur, Chamba, Shimla, Kullu and Lahaul and Spiti districts are a result of large-scale road construction and widening to boost hydropower projects and transportation facilities, adds Kahlon.
Even as Himachal Pradesh recorded a 25 per cent rise in forest cover between 1991 and 2015, 2020 reports by the State Centre on Climate Change state that it is currently declining. In Kinnaur, which saw tourists being killed due to a landslide this year, the forest cover has decreased by 39 per cent, according to the report.
Manshi Asher, co-founder of Himdhara Collective, is quick to remind us that the hills in Himachal Pradesh are still very young. They are still forming and not yet hard. The loss of forest cover on their surface loosens the grip of soil, causing landslides. Another reason is unplanned development.
She explains, “Big hydro projects, four-way road projects are [coming up] in Himachal Pradesh. There is no mindful approach involved in such infrastructure development. These hills cannot take such heavy projects. The grinding of hills and using big machines in such a fragile environment have changed the ecological balance.”
“Furthermore, this leftover debris (after cutting hills) and wide concrete roads stop the streams of water from uphill to the rivers. When, earlier, the whole hill was used as drainage, now there are a few points left. So, the already loosened hills can’t take the load of high-intensity rain and collapse in the form of landslides,” Asher adds.
The popularity of Himachal Pradesh among tourists is uncontested; the state hosted around 16.83 million domestic tourists and 3,83,000 international tourists in 2019. Himachal saw the biggest boom in tourism after the mid-1980s and ‘90s. The locals got employment opportunities from tourism. The sector of Himachal Pradesh contributes seven per cent to the state GDP. But now, the fragile ecology is giving way before the belligerence of unchecked infrastructure development geared towards tourism.
“Tourism is fine but things became worse when the state started farming its development and economic policies around tourism itself,” opines Asher. “Every place in the Himalayas has a load-carrying capacity. Some are not even fit for vehicles. But the state tourism board, despite limiting the tourists, gave a free hand which disturbed the entire ecology of Himachal.”
The massive development in terms of hotels, cafés and roads in the past few years, to support tourism, is concerning, feels Asher. “They are constantly cutting trees and hills to cater to visitors’ needs. Tourists also don’t behave responsibly. They openly dump plastic waste, which is impacting soil stability and strength.”
The search for unexplored, ‘uncorrupted’ places has intensified of late, laments Upmanyu. “After finding these places, they ruin them as well because they don’t know the fragility, demography and ecology of the place. Tourists come to Himachal and ask for five-star facilities. This means increasing modernisation in fragile regions. They should understand that they are visiting Himachal, and should stay and behave like locals.”
While Thakur accepted the role of global warming in heavy rains, the Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, squarely struck down experts’ estimation that cloudbursts have to do with climate change, citing a lack of studies linking the two.
Experts believe that this dismissive stance has Himachal Pradesh now staring at an uncertain future. “In 2012, the state disaster board had warned that floods, landslides and cloudbursts would increase if the effects of climate change were not mitigated. The average temperature in Himachal is likely to increase by 3°C by 2100, which will make it difficult to live in the state,” says Upmanyu.
Asher expresses worry that if the status quo continues, the state will cease to be a place to live, much less explore or travel in. “If you monitor it closely, the destruction is increasing every year. More lives are lost, more economic losses, and more destruction. A Kedarnath-like tragedy may take place in Himachal in the next three to five years.”
The environmental activist fears the appearance of ghost villages in the state, like in Uttarakhand, where an RTI reply earlier this year revealed the number of the abandoned settlements to be 734. Over five lakh people have migrated from the state in the past decade.
“The youth will migrate to save their lives. There will be either flood or drought not only in Himachal but in the plains as well, as the entire waterways of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan are managed by Himachal Pradesh,” she concludes.
Impact of floods, heavy rainfall and landslides
2018: 50 people and 1,285 animals dead; 28,424 people in 226 villages of 6 districts were affected
2019: 52 people and 587 animals dead
2020: 161 people and 500 animals dead
2021: 236 people and 438 animals dead so far
Courtesy: Disaster Management Division, Himachal Pradesh
Recommended forest cover for Himachal Pradesh: 67% of total area of state
Current forest cover in Himachal Pradesh: 27.2% of total area of state (9.33% open forests, 12.80% moderately dense forest and only 5.3% very dense forest)
Courtesy: Indian State of Forest Report, 2019