A week is a long time in the Himalaya. In the late 1980s, I visited Arunachal Pradesh as a young researcher, with a keen interest in photography. I walked into the middle of the Dibang river, hop skipping over boulders, until my local tribal guide ordered me to return immediately. He smiled and said, “Sir, these mountain rivers are like daughters, you never know how quickly they grow up.” I was humbled by his knowledge and haven’t forgotten the lesson.
Back to the present. During a just-concluded 10-day visit to the Bhagirathi valley, our research team witnessed telltale signs of a catastrophe ready to strike. At Uttarkashi, we viewed the destruction caused by the Assi Nadi (a tributary of the Bhagirathi) a couple of years ago. We noticed the river’s waters flow strongly against a number of houses and cheap hotel buildings, precariously perched on its weak banks.
The next day we left for Gangotri, but couldn’t go beyond Maneri village because a massive landslide had washed away the road about six to eight kilometres upstream. As a result, there was a long line of stranded buses, cars and trucks. Fortunately, the Garrison Reserve Engineer Force (GREF), an arm of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the police worked overtime and made sure there was little chaos on the road as it opened. Harsil was biting cold and the rain incessant. We returned to Uttarkashi the same evening and to the safer Dun valley the next day.
On the television, news of the devastation in Uttarkashi had started pouring in. It was painful to see the buildings, photographed only the previous day, being washed away like toys by the Bhagirathi.
There is little doubt that the present Himalayan disaster has been triggered by natural events, but the catastrophe is man-made. Let us address the various man-induced drivers. One, there is ample scientific evidence that the Himalayan watersheds have witnessed unprecedented deforestation over a long period. Deforestation as a commercial activity began during the British Raj and has continued unabated after independence. While official estimates say forest cover has increased in the Himalaya, a number of credible independent studies have found significant discrepancies in this claim. The fact is that forests have been diverted for a host of land use activities such as agriculture, human settlements and urbanisation. Massive infrastructure development such as hydropower construction and road building has taken place. Scientific studies indicate that at the current rates of deforestation, the total forest cover in the Indian Himalaya will be reduced from 84.9 per cent (of the value in 1970) in 2000 to no more than 52.8 per cent in 2100. Dense forest areas, on which many forest taxa (groups of species) critically depend, would decline from 75.4 per cent of the total forest area in 2000 to just 34 per cent in 2100, which is estimated to result in the extinction of 23.6 per cent of taxa restricted to the dense Himalayan forests.
Vegetative cover slows the speed of falling rain and prevents soil erosion and gully formation — the precursors to landslides and floods. Dense vegetation, by evapotranspiration, also stops nearly 30-40 per cent of rainwater from falling to the ground, thereby significantly reducing run-off. Besides holding the soil together, forests and soil soak water from the rain, release it slowly and prevent water flowing as run-off. So, deforestation brings about slope destabilisation, landslides and floods. Given that the Himalayan range is geologically young and still rising, it makes the area vulnerable to erosion and instability. Therefore, it is all the more necessary to take land use change more seriously.
Two, there is mounting evidence that global warming is fast catching up with the Himalaya. In a recent study, we reported that Himalayan ecosystems have experienced faster rates of warming in the last 100 years and more than the European Alps or other mountain ranges of the world. In such a scenario, we expect faster melting of glaciers causing higher water discharges in the Himalayan rivers.
Three, expanding human settlements and urbanisation which, besides bringing about land use changes offer themselves as easy targets to the fury of natural forces. While it is important to appreciate the aspirations of the local people and their economic activities, there cannot be a lack of enforcement of land use control laws on the part of local governments and officials. Huge building construction, cheap hotels and individual dwellings at Uttarkashi, on the banks of the Assi and Bhagirathi rivers have been allowed. There is little buffer between the river and the human settlements.
Four, large-scale dam building in recent years has caused massive land use changes with ensuing problems in the Himalayan watersheds. Hydropower and allied construction activities are potential sources of slope weakening and destabilisation. Massive intervention in the Himalayan ecosystems through manipulation of rivers and their hydrology, is linked to what we are witnessing today. Most downstream damage in otherwise flood-free areas is caused by dams and barrages, which release large volumes of water to safeguard engineering structures. Dam operators often release more water during rains than the carrying capacity of downstream areas, causing floods.
Five, neo-religious movements, linked to changing socio-political developments in India, are responsible for significant human movement into the Himalaya beyond the region’s carrying capacity, whether it is Amarnath in Jammu & Kashmir, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Hemkund in Uttarakhand.
The heavy pilgrim population has also resulted in the mushrooming of shanty towns, cheap accommodation and numerous ramshackle buildings along river banks.
What is the road ahead? There needs to be an integrated policy on the Himalayan environment and development. Enough information is available in the public domain, which only needs to be put together and looked at in a cohesive manner. Himalayan State governments need to consider imposing high environmental tax on visitors, particularly during summer and monsoon months. Heavily sizing down pilgrim numbers in fragile areas must begin. All vulnerable buildings need to be either secured or relocated away from rivers. Governments must impose penalties on building structures within 200 metres of river banks. Hydropower policy must consider building fewer dams and prioritise those that have the least environmental and social costs. Independent and serious monitoring of the catchment area treatment plans proposed by Forest Departments with funds from hydropower companies needs to be carried out and reported to the Green Tribunal.
(Maharaj K. Pandit is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, and professor, University of Delhi.)