Hazardous mudslides linked to dumping of debris in mountains

Whenever there are intermittent torrential rains in mountain regions these days, more sand and silt are seen, say experts. Photo: IANS

Shimla: The spate of deluge and climate-related risks in Himachal Pradesh have been evidently triggered by extremely wet southwest monsoon rainfall this season. Even the cold desert Lahaul-Spiti, the rain-shadow zone, had to face the floods, say meteorologists and climate scientists.

They say in recent years flash floods have intensified as the mountains are getting older and they contribute to more silt and sand. The haphazard muck and debris dumping along streams and rivers that disturbs the natural course of rivers and streams often multiplies hazardous landslide chain reactions downstream. Also, debris from blasting and construction of hydropower projects and national highway projects is dumped on slopes, damaging the vegetation too.

They say incessant downpours in the mountainous states are now a reality due to global warming and the local communities may now have to unlearn their former ways of living and the authorities must stop unwanted construction. This time frightening visuals of bridges, residential and commercial buildings, vehicles and highways collapsing like a pack of cards and being swept away in mudslides indicate how bad is the debris management planning to halt the cascading process of natural hazards. Floodwaters are receding, but they are leaving a coating of mud with boulders that has to be cleaned up from fields, villages and towns.

In less than a month since the onset of the monsoon from June 24 to July 14, 53 landslides and 33 flash floods have occurred in Himachal Pradesh that claimed 108 lives with 12 people missing. As per the Revenue Department, the total monetary loss is Rs 3,738.28 crore and the property loss comprises 663 houses and 104 shops. This time the deluge reminded the locals of the 1995 floods in Kullu-Manali that wreaked havoc on an unprecedented scale.

Blaming global warming for the increasing intensity of the flash floods and the unusually high soil erosion in the hill states, disaster risk reduction and management expert Rajnish Ranjan told IANS that during the summer the higher terrains witness contractions and extractions, while the mountains observe freeze-and-thaw action during winter.

Freeze-thaw weathering is a process of erosion that happens in cold areas where ice forms. However, due to increased global warming, the process of weathering and exfoliation has increased manifold. “Thus, whenever there are intermittent torrential rains in mountain regions nowadays, we see more sand and silt. Secondly, mountains are also getting older and that also contributes to more silt and sand,” Ranjan explained.

Global science related to climate change says the scale of the rise in extreme weather events in India has been charting new highs with every passing year. 2023 began on a hotter note, with temperatures in February breaking the 123-year-old record. The humid heatwaves in April and June over East and Central India were made 30 times more likely due to climate change. Then the formation of cyclone Biparjoy lasted for 13 days in the Arabian Sea and became the longest-duration cyclone since 1977. With extremely heavy rainfall wreaking havoc across northwest India, science blames the increasing levels of global warming.

Anjal Prakash, lead author of two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports released between 2019 and 2022, told IANS that the relentless downpour has transformed picturesque landscapes into a battleground of resilience, as Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi-NCR and parts of Uttarakhand currently bear witness to the havoc. “As the rain clouds persist, it is a stark reminder of the urgency to address climate change and its far-reaching consequences.

As a sobering reminder of the connection between climate change and our shifting weather patterns, severe rainfall events have increased in frequency and intensity over the past several years. “Because the atmosphere holds more moisture owing to the increase in earth’s temperature brought on by greenhouse gas emissions, there will be more intense downpours and longer rains.”

According to Prakash, communities, especially people on the margins of society, are impacted by these severe precipitation events, which cause disastrous floods, landslides, and extensive devastation as the globe sees. “It serves as a sharp reminder that immediate action is required to curb climate change’s causes, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and prepare for the new normal of increasingly frequent and extreme downpour events.”

Gurpreet Kaur, Head of Clean Air Punjab, said the continuous rains have impacted farmland in Punjab. “Rainfall has triggered landslides in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, as well as flooding in Punjab. The water level of the Ghaggar river in Punjab has increased dangerously as a result of the monsoon rains. Punjab is one of the top 50 states in the world in terms of climate-related risks. This is the first time we can see the tangible threat of climate disaster,” she said with a warning to all before it’s too late.

“The government cannot pander to economic boom at the cost of the environment,” remarked octogenarian Ram Krishan Thakur, former Survey of India Director, who is settled in Manali which has turned into a land of rubble after torrential rain lashed the region.

Environmental activists blame the policy of promoting mega hydropower and highway projects even in fragile and eco-sensitive zones without the cumulative impact associated with the environmental hazards and risks inviting nature’s fury. They say more than 140 hydropower projects have been allocated in the Sutlej basin and disasters like the ones in Lahaul-Spiti and Kullu-Manali are in the making. They demand a moratorium on the construction of all new hydropower projects located in the Sutlej and Chenab River basins until a study of the cumulative impact of the projects on the fragile ecology and livelihoods is done.

Environmental researcher and activist Manshi Asher says that it is a double whammy for the people whose local occupations were first systematically destroyed, and were pushed on to tourism. “But as they say, tourism kills tourism. The mega infrastructures are not for the hill people and the mountains. But bit by bit every clearance process, every regulation has been removed. It’s like cutting the branches that one is sitting on.” For this, she blamed both the state and the Centre.

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