Explained | Himachal floods: a man-made disaster?

Why is climate change alone not to blame for unprecedented rain and floods in the State? What are the anthropogenic reasons? Should the development model be relooked? How have changes in the way dams are being built, shift in crop patterns, rush of tourism added to the problem?

Updated - July 30, 2023 11:45 am IST

Published - July 25, 2023 10:54 pm IST

People walk through a bridge across River Beas swollen due to heavy rains in Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh on July 10.

People walk through a bridge across River Beas swollen due to heavy rains in Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh on July 10. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Flash floods during this year’s monsoon season have caused unprecedented damage to both lives and assets in Himachal Pradesh. The death toll has crossed 150, and the estimated total loss amounts to ₹10,000 crore. Although climate change is expected to have played a hand in causing the high precipitation leading to these flash floods, human induced disasters resulting from planned development have played a significant role in causing such colossal losses. In the last five years (before 2022), 1,550 people lost their lives and nearly 12,444 houses were damaged.

Is climate change the only reason for the rain and floods?

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) VI report has clearly stated that the Himalayas and coastal regions of India will be the hardest hit by climate change. In the Himalayas, there is a noticeable pattern of increased precipitation occurring in shorter periods of time. The India Meteorological Department data shows that the normal rainfall during this period is expected to be between 720mm and 750 mm. However, in certain instances, it has exceeded 888 mm in 2010 and 926.9 mm in 2018. This year, the precipitation so far has been attributed to the combined effect of the south-west monsoon with western disturbances. The total rainfall from June to date was 511 mm.

Should the development model be reworked?

Apart from climate change, anthropogenic factors have also significantly contributed to the disaster. The State’s development model initiated after it came into being in 1971 had been successful in transforming Himachal Pradesh into an exemplar of development for mountain States. This model, known as the Dr. Parmar model (named after the founding Chief Minister, Dr. Y.S. Parmar), focused on exemplary land reforms, robust state-led investment in social welfare, and a strong emphasis on human resources. These efforts resulted in Himachal Pradesh ranking second in social development indices. By the 1980s, electricity had reached every household, there was improved connectivity in remote areas through health care centres, many schools came up, there were major advancements in agriculture, and a shift towards the apple and off-season vegetable economies fostered both economic and social vibrancy.

However, the advent of liberalisation led to significant changes, with the Central government demanding stringent fiscal reforms and mountain States being forced to generate their own resources for fiscal management. What were these resources? The exploitation of natural resources, including forests, water, tourism, and cement production, became a major focus for development. This led to the rapid construction of hydropower projects, often causing damage to rivers and their ecosystems, widening of roads without proper geological and engineering assessments, expansion of cement plants altering land use patters, and a shift in agricultural practices to cash crop economies that affected the landscape and river systems.

Is building hydropower projects wrong?

The pursuit of hydropower projects became a dominant focus for hill States, with their capacity measured in terms of megawatts (MW) to attract investments. Notably, there was a significant shift in funding priorities of multilateral agencies. Prior to 2000, these agencies were opposed to financing large hydropower projects, but they changed their stance and started providing funding for such ventures, making finance readily available for these projects.

One of the main reasons for the devastating impact of floods in the region is the uncontrolled construction of these hydropower projects, which have essentially transformed mountain rivers into mere streams. The technology employed, known as “run of the river” dams, diverts water through tunnels burrowed into the mountains, and the excavated material (muck) is often disposed of along the riverbeds. During periods of higher precipitation or cloudbursts, the water returns to the river, carrying the dumped muck along with it. This destructive process is evident in rivers like Parvati, Beas and Sutlej, as well as many other small hydropower dams. Moreover, long tunnels spanning 150 km have been planned or commissioned on the Sutlej river causing significant harm to the entire ecosystem.

Currently, there are 168 hydropower projects in operation, generating 10,848 MW of electricity. Looking ahead, it is projected that by 2030, 1,088 hydropower projects will be commissioned to harness 22,640 MW of energy. This surge in hydropower projects raises concerns about the inevitability of impending disasters in the region.

What about tourism?

The development-driven road expansion is aimed at promoting tourism and attracting a large number of visitors. The road-widening projects, often carried out by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), involve transforming two-lane roads into four-lane roads and single lanes into two- lane roads. The development model follows a public-private-partnership (PPP) approach, emphasising the need to complete these projects rapidly. However, this has resulted in bypassing essential geological studies and mountain engineering skills.

Traditionally, mountainous regions are not cut with vertical slits but are terraced, minimising the damage to the environment. Unfortunately, in both the four-lane projects in Manali and Shimla, the mountains have been cut vertically, leading to massive landslides and damage to existing roads. Restoring these roads after such disasters is a time-consuming process, often taking months or even years. The consequences of such road expansions are evident during even normal rainfall, as it leads to slips and slides, amplifying the magnitude of the destruction during heavy rain or floods.

How have cement plants harmed the environment?

The establishment of massive cement plants and extensive cutting of mountains in districts like Bilaspur, Solan, Chamba have resulted in significant land use changes that contribute to flash floods during rainfall. The cement plants alter the natural landscape, and the removal of vegetation leads to reduced capacity of land to absorb water.

How have crop patterns changed?

A silent transformation is occurring in agriculture and horticulture patterns, leading to significant shift in both landholdings and produce. More farmers are now embracing a cash crop economy over traditional cereal farming. However, this shift has implications for the transportation of these crops to markets within a short timeframe owing to their perishable nature.

In response to this need, roads are being constructed hastily without considering essential land cutting and gradient requirements. Modern excavators are employed in construction, but without creating proper drains or designated areas for dumping muck. Consequently, when it rains, the water finds its own path, carrying the dumped muck along with it and depositing it into the river ecosystem. As a result, even during normal rainfall, rivulets and rivers experience rapid swelling. It is worth noting that although the total designated road length in the State is around 1,753 km, the total length of all roads including the link and village roads is more than 40,000 km.

What is the way out?

A Commission of Inquiry must be instituted to bring the major stakeholders — the people — on board and discuss both the policy framework failures, as well as the peculiar aspects of the projects undertaken.

A new architecture is required to empower local communities over their assets. The losses faced in the forms of culverts, village drains, small bridges, schools, other social infrastructure must be compensated; and this can be done if the assets are insured and the custodians are local communities. This will help to rebuild the assets quicker. With climate change a reality, humans should not add to the problem, but make adequate changes in infrastructure planning to avert disasters that the State has been witnessing since June.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, and an urban specialist.

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