Factoring in the risk: on development of mountain areas

Development of mountain areas over the years has upset the ecological balance

August 23, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:25 pm IST

Monsoon rainfall over India is 8% more than what is usual for this time of the year. While this might bode well for agriculture in some regions, it also means floods and concentrated downpours with devastating consequences. At least 25 people were killed over the weekend as torrential rains triggered flash floods and landslips in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Several arterial roads were blocked by debris, as currents washed away bridges and vehicles. The toll was higher in Himachal Pradesh with 21 killed and 12 injured. At least six are missing due to chaos following the downpour. Mandi, Kangra and Chamba were the worst-affected districts in the State. While death and damage to property are the surface manifestation of these rains, there are a range of secondary effects with long-term downstream impact. Schools and transport facilities, for instance, are immediately put out of action, leading to loss of productive hours. Cattle and saplings are left to perish, which in turn destroys livelihoods, debilitates family finances and strains the finances of the state exchequer. The monsoon compresses around 75% of India’s annual rainfall into four months and unevenly waters the country’s highly diverse terrain. It is, therefore, inevitable that some spots are far more vulnerable and bear a disproportionate impact of climate fury. A recent report released by Himachal Pradesh’s Department of Environment, Science and Technology underlines that mountain areas are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, where development over the years has compounded the problem by upsetting the ecological balance of various physical processes.

While hill States such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have certain unique challenges, the threats from the vagaries of climate are not unique to them. Monsoon rain patterns are being disrupted leading to a rise in cloudburst-like events as well as a rise in the frequency of high-energy cyclones and droughts. One strategy adopted by the government has been to improve the system of early warning forecasts. The India Meteorological Department now provides fortnightly, weekly and even three-hourly weather forecasts to districts. Within these are integrated warnings about flash floods and lightning. Not all of these are accurate and often, they are not provided early enough for authorities to prepare themselves. In recent years, improvements in early warnings for incoming cyclones have helped state agencies evacuate and rehabilitate the most vulnerable, but such success has not been observed for floods. While the inherent risks of infrastructure development in hills and unstable terrain is well understood, these are often elided by authorities in the name of balancing the demands of the people for better infrastructure and services. The increased risk and cost to such projects and infrastructure should be factored in when they are tendered out by the government, and scientific advice regarding development ought to be strictly adhered to.

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