In Retrospect

Himalayan havoc

While climate change is an inevitable factor behind increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, the ongoing catastrophe in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand can also be attributed to reckless anthropogenic activities that have drastically exacerbated the problem

Himalayan havoc

A massive landslide in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu district on August 24 has destroyed several houses. Visuals of the landslide show many multi-storeyed buildings collapsing, leaving behind a massive trail of dust and debris. It is reported that emergency response teams, such as the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), have been deployed to rescue those who are feared trapped in the landslide. As per a report by NDTV, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued a red alert, warning of imminent heavy to very heavy rainfall in Himachal Pradesh for the next two days starting August 24.

Within four weeks of the onset of monsoon in Himachal Pradesh on June 24, the death toll reached 154, reports ANI. In August, the situation worsened further. As many as nine people died after a Shiv temple in Shimla collapsed due to heavy rain on August 14. Dozens were feared trapped in a landslide at the temple. In that week, days of relentless rain had killed at least 72 people, as a heavy monsoon triggered landslides, and flash floods submerged roads, washed away buildings and left residents scrambling for safety. Recently, on August 14-15, landslides have also happened in the districts of Baddi area, Mandi and Shimla. Homes in some districts were also washed away after a cloudburst.

Cloudbursts are defined as when more than 10 centimetres of rainfall occurs within 10 square kilometres in an hour. They are a common occurrence in Himalayan regions, where they have the potential to cause intense flooding and landslides, affecting thousands of people. Sukhu, the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, told the Press Trust of India (PTI) that it would take a year to rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the rains of this monsoon. “It’s a big challenge, a mountain-like challenge,” he said. A statement from Sukhu’s office informed that this monsoon season had seen the highest number of “cloudburst incidents,” or very sudden and destructive rainstorms, in the state over the past 50 years, reports CNN.

The Himachal Pradesh government had earlier declared the entire state “a natural calamity-affected area”. The state government has pegged the total damage to public infrastructure from the on-going rain havoc since June 24, when the monsoon arrived in the state, at Rs 8,014.61 crore, Quoting government sources, NDTV reported that 2,022 houses have been fully damaged and 9,615 partially damaged due to the unprecedented rain. The state has also recounted 113 landslides. In two months since June 24, the rain has claimed the lives of 224 people, with another 117 killed in rain-related accidents.

Heavy rains have also affected neighbouring Uttarakhand state. A massive flash flood, triggered by a cloudburst, washed a bridge away in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. It has been reported that the cloudburst happened in Chal village of Dharchula town in the district. As the bridge got washed away and debris accumulated, hundreds of locals were stranded, reports Outlook India.

Due to continuous rain in July, the Kedarnath Yatra was stopped at Uttarakhand’s Sonprayag and Gaurikund. Four state roads and 10 link roads are closed due to debris. Mandakini and Alaknanda rivers were in flood, Rediff quoted officials. Haldwani and Kotdwar were badly affected where torrential rain caused flooding and landslides on August 9, 2023.

Uttarakhand cabinet minister Satpal Maharaj said the state government has provided immediate assistance of over Rs 11 crore to flood-hit people in Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar districts, reports BQ Prime. The most recent landslides happened in Rudraprayag on August 16, 2023.

The pilgrimage to Gurdwara Sri Hemkund Sahib and Char Dham in Uttarakhand has been affected due to the monsoon fury. Around 1.43 lakh pilgrims have visited Gurdwara Sri Hemkund Sahib from May 20 to August 20 so far. Narinderjit Singh Bindra, chief, Gurdwara Sri Hemkund Sahib Management Trust, said there was a huge influx of pilgrims before the onset of monsoon. Due to flooding, the number of pilgrims have reduced considerably. At present, an average of 250 to 300 pilgrims from Northern India are arriving daily. Under normal circumstances, the daily average is around 1,500 pilgrims. “The snow surrounding the shrine located at 15,000 feet has melted,” he said.

Recurrence of floods

Unusual monsoon rains in the area of the Shivalik and lower- and mid-Himalayan ranges cause extensive floods during rainy seasons. In the upper reaches of the Beas and Satluj valleys, the main problems are flash floods and bank erosion because of the steep slopes of rivers and high river flows due to heavy rains. Some of the devastating floods, which caused heavy damage to Himachal Pradesh, include:

* July 8, 1973: A lake was formed by the blockage of Satluj river due to Nathpa rock fall, damaging Sanjay Power House, and causing an estimated loss of about Rs 45 million.

* January 19, 1975: In Satluj basin, two blockages were observed in Spiti valley due to landslides created by an earthquake. Blockage was 60 m in height and 150 m in length, creating a temporary lake. In March, this lake burst caused flash floods in Spiti valley.

* September 29, 1988 (2.30 am): A flash flood occurred due to cloudburst in Soldang Khad. It washed away 2 km of NH-22 across Soldan Khad. The lake was formed on the Satluj river. The blockage stopped the flow of Satluj river for about 30 minutes, and created a temporary lake which was about 6,000 m long, 200-250 m wide and 25-30 m deep, extending up to Wangtoo Bridge.

* September 4-5,1995: A flash flood occurred in Kullu valley, causing damages to the tune of Rs 759.8 million.

* July 31 and August 1, 2000: Flash floods in the Satluj valley resulted in an increase in the water levels of Satluj up to 60 feet above the normal level. Extensive damage to 200 km of NH-22 washed away 20 bridges, 22 Jhulas and badly damaged 12 bridges. 135 people and 1,673 cattle lost their lives. The total estimated loss was to the tune of Rs 1466.26 crore.

* June 26, 2005: Flash floods occurred in Satluj river due to a breach in the Parachoo lake in Tibetan catchment. Total loss estimated to the government as well as public property was some Rs 610 crore.

* 2021: At least 246 deaths were reported because of natural disasters and accidents during the monsoon season, as compared to 161 monsoon deaths in 2020. The state had already recorded 35 major landslides from the onset of monsoon on June 13 to July 30, 2021, which was double as compared to 16 landslide incidents in 2020. The cloudburst occurrences had also gone up by 121 per cent in the 2021 monsoon season compared to 2020. Flash floods too had increased, with 17 incidents reported in Himachal Pradesh in 2021, compared to nine in 2020, reports Mongabay.

In Uttarakhand also, disasters have become a recurring curse. Every year, Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region receives pilgrims in thousands for Chhota Char Dham yatra — Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. It also receives heavy rains and suffers floods. But the loss the region had suffered in 2013 was horrifying.

* In June 2013, a mid-day cloudburst occurred in Uttarakhand, causing devastating floods and landslides, becoming the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. According to the Char Dham control room records, there were 26,000 people in Kedar Valley on June 16. Records also show that 39,000 people had left the valley that day for Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Hemkunt Sahib. The government’s figure of about 800 total deaths was too conservative. The number, clearly, was in many thousands.

* On February 7, 2021, massive flash floods ravaged Raini village, following a glacier coming unstuck and an avalanche in the Alaknanda River. The huge mass of snow, water, boulders, and silt slithered down the Rishiganga River, first damaging the 13 MW private Rishi-Ganga hydropower project and then flowing down to Dhauliganga River to swamp the NTPC-owned 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project. Again, on June 14, 2021, incessant rains in the region brought back memories of the nightmare. The Rishiganga had swollen due to torrential rains for three days straight, causing soil erosion from underneath the village. This led to big cracks in several houses, instilling fear among the villagers. According to reports, a large portion of the Joshimath-Malari Road beneath Raini village caved in, cutting off around 22 border villages of the Chamoli district.

Man-made disasters

Disasters caused by landslides and floods are common in India’s Himalayan north during the June-September monsoon season. Scientists say they are becoming more frequent as global warming increases. Some scientists even assert that the human-caused climate crisis is making India’s monsoon season more chaotic and erratic.

However, local experts say that the current disaster is likely due to unplanned construction in this vulnerable region. It is poor planning and governance that has led to this much damage. “All the fallen buildings are those that were constructed recently; buildings built a hundred years ago have witnessed little to no damage,” observed a resident, adding that growing tourism to the region is another factor. “They build anywhere they like and when heavy rains occur, such disasters inevitably follow.”

It may be recalled that in January 2023, the ancient pilgrim town of Joshimath was sinking. Residents were forced to flee their homes in the freezing weather of January. Walls had cracked open, foundations were tilting and sinking. Experts pointed out that this was a disaster waiting to happen because the authorities had ignored multiple warnings over decades about the way roads and hydropower projects were being built. The Prime Minister’s Office declared Joshimath a “landslide-subsidence zone”. Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami claimed that the land subsidence in the township was because of “unscientific” development work though he described it as a “natural disaster”.

Joshimath, after three months of disaster

According to the Joshimath Disaster Bulletin published on May 8, 2023, a total of 868 buildings had developed cracks. In addition to this, 181 buildings were in the unsafe zone. A total of 378 members from 96 families displaced from these houses were living in relief camps, while 617 members of 200 families were either staying with their relatives or in rented houses. However, in April 2023, within three months of the disaster, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister organised a Himalayan Marathon and fun run to attract tourists and devotees to Joshimath.

For people living in and around Joshimath, the town is also important from an economic point of view. Many people living in the town and villages close by are dependent on Joshimath for employment. People work as tourist guides, priests, flower and prasad (a devotional offering) sellers. Many own small restaurants and hotels.

Since the famous Chardham Yatra has started, lakhs of devotees from all over the country come to Uttarakhand to visit the four major pilgrimage centres—Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Joshimath, as before, acted as an important gateway and halting spot for tourists who wished to visit Badrinath. This economic compulsion made many people return to their unsafe dwellings.

Studies show that after the town started “sinking” in January and buildings developed cracks, the administration opened relief camps for the locals. Some of the schools, guest houses and hotels were converted into temporary relief shelters. In four months since the Joshimath disaster, only 15 prefabricated huts had been built. On the other hand, since the commencement of the Yatra, the hotel owners started putting pressure on the displaced families to vacate the hotels and make space for the incoming tourists.

Thus, for those living in temporary shelters, earning a livelihood was turning out to be a major challenge. Joshimath residents therefore started returning to their unsafe homes in April, reports Mongabay. Heavy rain will once again make these people homeless. And many of them may also die.


Scientific evidence has already confirmed that extreme rainfall is going to get intense and frequent. Instead of putting all the blame on inevitable climate change, it is advisable to adapt with the changing climate.

In July, a parliamentary panel report tabled in Rajya Sabha recommended a comprehensive action plan for the Himalayan region. It also raised the issue of rampant construction, called for a check on tourism, and advised that a one-size-fits-all approach to environment clearance for projects should not be followed, reports Economic Times.

Chief ministers of Himalayan state should take note of this valuable advice. It may not be possible to avoid natural fury but, if planned properly, the associated damage can certainly be minimised. It is heartening to note that in this week’s colossal landslide in Kullu, no one was hurt, as residents had been moved out of the area in advance since it was deemed unsafe.

Views expressed are personal

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