Flowing lands & gushing waters
Turning of natural processes like landslides and floods into disasters concurrently across the globe suggests a common causal thread and calls for collaborative solutions
The Earth replenishes itself through a variety of cycles — giving away the worn-out features and structures to bear the new ones, afresh. These cycles keep the earth going forward, changing every single moment yet remaining the same intrinsically. These cycles form part of what we call natural processes. When these vital cycles are obstructed by humans, nature suffers damage but not without reciprocating the same on humans. Very often, these obstructions result in scaling of disasters. Landslides are one such process through which the earth has been remodelling its structure over time. The disturbing part is that the need and greed of humans have dragged them to operate in sensitive zones — ultimately becoming the victims of natural disasters.
Natural disasters are making headlines each day — more frequently than ever before. Countries from across the continents — east to west and north to south — now face common types of threats concurrently. Landslides, flash floods, heavy downpours, and their cascading effects are claiming lives, endangering species and engulfing settlements.
Landslides and flash floods are presenting altogether different sorts of challenges that require specific planning. The approach with which we have been progressing until now is in want of change — because the climate is changing like never before. It is time to retrospect and figure out what changes are impending. Landslides and floods cannot be stopped from occurring — we need to take stock of our existing resources and capabilities and make optimum utilization of the same to mitigate the threats.
The diversity in topographical features of India lends it the natural beauty which is acknowledged across the world. The same features, in case of natural disasters, lay the country vulnerable to harrowing death and destruction. Landslides are one of these natural disasters. These are movements of large masses of rocks, mud or earth debris down a slope. Slopes are dominantly present in the Himalayan Range, Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats.
Landslides in the Himalayan Range mainly result due to the interplay of several factors — the movement of tectonic plates, the balance between friction and gravitation, discontinuity in rock surfaces etc. Of course, heavy rainfalls also play a part in providing the needed lubrication. It is known that the Himalayas are the youngest of the mountain ranges, and tectonic movements are quite obvious there.
Landslides in the Western Ghats — ranging from the Tapti River basin to Nilgiri Hill in the south — are more to be blamed upon anthropogenic factors like mining and quarrying. These mountain ranges are comparatively more consolidated and stable as they are formed of igneous rocks. Landslides are less common in the Eastern Ghats where average elevation is 600 m against the 900-1600 m in the Western Ghats.
A global threat
Several states of India are currently featuring themselves in gloomy headlines announcing death and destruction. At the time of writing this article, nearly 200 people remain stranded in the Udaipur subdivision of Lahaul-Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh due to a landslide. At the same time, a landslide in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir has disrupted transport facilities. These come at a time when Maharashtra has still not recovered from its massive death toll — touching above 200 due to incessant heavy downpour and resulting landslides in various regions. The ripples are felt in the northern parts of India, including Delhi which has recorded unusually high rainfall this month.
Karnataka and Kerala are the other two states that have been affected during the past few weeks. Even in 2018, the Kerala floods equalled the magnitude of destruction caused by the 1924 floods — popularly known as the 'deluge of 99'. Landslides in districts like Malappuram, Wayanad, Idukki caused around 373 deaths. It is not just about India. Incidents of such grave magnitude are not sparing countries worldwide.
Two weeks before, China was struggling with massive floods in Henan central province — the agricultural area has been a regular target of nature. This time around, the situation has gotten worse than any time in modern history, affecting more than 11 million and killing scores of people.
Going south-west among African nations — Peru and Mozambique — had seen massive landslides last year. Peru is a small nation that is accustomed to massive flooding and landslides. But the deluge it saw in February last year left the country in shock — killing hundreds of people and displacing many more. Mozambique too saw rainfall-triggered landfill collapse last year.
A few weeks ago, several European countries were also badly hit by massive floods, but for Germany, the damage was unprecedented in the century. More than a hundred people died in Germany. In the United States, a weather forecasting agency estimated that nearly 88 people die each year on an average. In the Australia-New Zealand region, landslides swallowed up an entire village in Papua New Guinea in December last year.
These are only a handful of mishaps from different regions of the world — the bottom line being the same: Floods and landslides are annual/seasonal occurrences in these regions but the rise in their frequency and intensity has been phenomenal during the past few years.
One of the most frightening aspects of a disaster is that it is not standalone but gives birth to another set of mishaps. The extent of devastation caused by landslides and flash floods is unmatched. The only thing it leaves behind is debris in which men and material are lost.
The worst part of landslides and flash floods is that these give no time for preparation. Human life is indeed the most precious thing that has to be saved from such disasters. But what if the saved humans return back from the rehabilitation centre just to find out all she had earned in her life is lost in the stroke of a single moment — livestock, jewellery, all her savings and the home are gone.
Where one frets upon the loss of petty things, what could explain the mental stress and trauma that the survivor goes through! It is true that the crackling sound of the disaster has faded, but what about the groaning silence that surrounds everything that is left behind — the debris, the mud, tiring spells of displacement, and the haunting memories of the 'beautiful' past which wouldn't fade away, how hard one tries. The bottom line is that the cost is enormous and imperfectly accounted for.
To offset or minimise this cost, the least that one could expect is appropriate funding and its optimum utilization.
We have National Disaster Relief Fund and State Disaster Relief Fund. State Disaster Relief Fund can be considered the mainstay of financial devolution for responding to immediate relief requirements. The fund is contributed by both the Centre and the states. The Centre contributes 90 per cent of the total funds and the rest is contributed by states.
The Centre's share is transferred by the Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance in two instalments — first one in June and the second in November each year, upon recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs. SDRF is supported by the National Disaster Relief Fund in case the gravity of the disaster is very pronounced. NDRF is made up of cess collected through National Calamity Contingency Duty (NCCD) on tobacco products, petroleum crude oil (mobile phones and vehicles were excluded from the list with the advent of GST regime) as per rates specified in the Seventh Schedule of the Finance Act, 2001. The notable thing here is that the funds are meant for just immediate relief, rescue and rehabilitation.
Even after a decade and a half of the passing of the Disaster Management Act, implementation remains a problem. The date of raising the SDRF in some states has been as late as 2020 — a decade and a half after the institution of the fund under the Disaster Management Act. As the threat of natural disasters is only increasing day by day, there is a need to relook into the funding patterns. The exclusion of items from NCCD has led to a significant reduction in collections made under it from Rs 5,690 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 2,500 crore in 2018-19. The existing disaster funding mechanism is plagued by several other issues including the states' failure to provide utilisation certificates, friction between Centre and states etc.
Landslides are natural processes through which nature replenishes itself. They are not a problem in themselves. The major cause of destruction is that we allow hugely invested destructible assets to be implanted in areas that are more likely to have high-frequency disasters. So, the process of mitigation starts with the identification of the vulnerable zones, followed by avoidance of the same for construction and settlement.
We have a dedicated nodal agency with the name Geological Survey of India (GSI) which carries out National Landslide Susceptibility Mapping. To date, the GSI has completed 85 per cent of its NLSM project, mapping across India. The GSI studies the pattern of landslides across the country.
Based on its studies, it provides for two types of disaster mitigation efforts — structural and non-structural. Structural is about building infrastructure that could make the effects of the landslides milder. Non-structural efforts are of more complex nature as it involves getting the society to adhere to the avoidance principle in areas identified at higher risk.
Considering everything about the GSI, two extremely important aspects arise: 1) Identifying the role of independent researchers and even students from a technical background in coming out with more innovative and localised mapping systems; 2) Mobilization of local people at the community level to ensure energetic and fruitful implementation of non-structural measures.
Further, obvious measures like a stricter approach towards mining, quarrying, deforestation need to be made on an urgent basis.
Better planning needed
The disasters that our cities and towns have been facing are partly attributable to the haphazard planning for keeping pace with growing urbanisation and industrialisation. In this profit-oriented scenario, possible climatic consequences were perhaps overlooked, which need to be fixed at this point in time.
It is commonly understood that unscientific construction across the states surrounding the Himalayan range and Western ghats could be dangerous. What appears to be a common wisdom, that the same building regulations cannot be applied across all the cities, has been overlooked to date. The 2019 National Landslide Risk Management Strategy Existing reaffirms the same: "Building regulations enforced in Indian hill towns are mostly inspired from Delhi Master Plan(s), which are not appropriate to the context of hill towns".
It is beyond logic how the topography, land use patterns and climate within a state can be ignored while planning infrastructure development in sensitive zones. The GSI mapping of regions into different levels according to different risk levels requires to be urgently referred to while planning development projects. Why should massive investments be allowed in regions that will very likely destroy the same?
Whether or not climate change is responsible for the devastating waves of natural disasters, one thing is certain — the lifestyle of humans at both the individual and organisational level is responsible for turning the natural processes more disastrous. We need to reconfigure human's relationship with nature to ensure that development and safety go hand in hand.
Again, to achieve so, we do have dedicated nodal agencies to study the impact and pattern of specific disasters like landslides, and a spirited team of rescue and rehabilitation forces who have proved their mettle time and again, supported by the defence forces in times of greater crisis. Apart from this, we have a plethora of expertise and budding talents whose mapping models can be incorporated into the mainframe to devise an extensive mapping system. Collaboration within and beyond the country is the pressing need of the hour. We have common fears, let's fight them together.
Views expressed are personal