August 22, 2021

Unbridled damage to the Ecosystem leads to Colossal Loss

Tikender Singh Panwar

“NEARLY 6,800 people lost their lives in the country over the past three years due to hydro-meteorological calamities such as flash floods, landslides and cyclones and West Bengal has recorded the highest deaths among all states,” these details were provided by the union home ministry in a response to a question raised by an MP from Tamil Nadu in Lok Sabha.

According to the ministry, hydro-meteorological calamities/ hazards include flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides. During the monsoon period (April-October mainly; in Western Ghat terrains from April to December, including the phase of the northeast monsoon), incidents occur in almost all landslide-prone areas, some of which are disastrous, leading to loss of lives, the reply pointed out.

“Six more bodies recovered, toll rises to 23”, is a headline in a regional newspaper published from Shimla describing the loss of human lives due to the landslide in Nigulsari in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. This landslide took place on August 11, 2021. A similar incident of flash floods was witnessed just a few weeks ago in the mountain town of Dharamshala where cars could be seen floating in the gushing water stream. Likewise, in Uttrakhand, there have been several mud slips and landslides and the frequency of these slides has increased. The Delhi to Kullu road highway was blocked for two days after a large slip fell on the road.

“At least 110 people have been killed in landslides and flooding triggered by heavy rains in the western Indian state of Maharashtra,” reported BBC on July 24. It stated the rains overwhelmed hundreds of villages, sweeping away houses and leaving residents stranded.

Similar reports of human lives lost during recent rains have come from different parts of the country. These incidents of heavy to very heavy rainfall and extreme events have increased frequently.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) report under the sixth assessment cycle was released on August 6, 2021. This report of working group 1 is a first in the series and two more, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability and on mitigation will be out by March 2022. As expected, the revelations of the report exhibit severity of the impact of climate changes and its imminence. Simply put it means, catastrophic climate-related events are going to happen more frequently and with gigantic proportions and impact.

No big wonder that the most powerful impact on climate change emanates from the emission of carbon gases and in the last three decades there has been an increase in 50 per cent, since humans evolved. Mitigation strategies will be rolled out in the third IPCC report and propositions of interventions will flow. But one thing is for sure and that is, the governments must prepare for adaption strategies, earlier the better. Unfortunately, the kind of interventions in the guise of development are made, these are further accentuating the vulnerabilities of the people impacting them severely even costing their lives.

Why is it that in the recent period loss to property and human lives has increased manifold especially in the Himalayas?

Perhaps there are two important reasons for that. The first one is that the impact of climate change is evident from the sheer increase in rainfall during a short period of the spell. Earlier the same volume of rainfall would take a longer time to pour. Then there are regions which hardly used to experience rainfall and were considered as ‘dry mountain deserts’.

Take for example in Kinnaur district, it was considered to be a dry desert, but in the past few decades there is massive precipitation taking place thus leading the many slips and landslides.

Apart from the climate change impact, it is the way our development work is being executed. The Himalayas which are considered to be one amongst the youngest range of mountains in the world are extremely vulnerable to such impacts: both climate change and massive construction activities.

In Kinnaur district, which is a tribal district, nearly 8,000 MW of hydropower is proposed to be harnessed.  More than 3500 MW is already being harnessed from this district. The construction of these projects is a scary phenomenon as minimum safety standards are also bypassed. The entry point of Kinnaur is Badhal/ Nigulsari and along with the Satluj one can reach the China border at Khab. The proposal is to construct hydropower projects right from Khab downstream to Bhakra which was constructed during the 1960s.

In the Himalayas owing to loss of land because of large dams, run off the river dam technology was adopted and Nathpa Jhakri Power Corporation-NJPC(1500 MW), Wangtoo Karcham(1,000 MW), Sapni(300 MW), Shongthong Karcham(450 MW) are all on this technology.

No doubt that the land submergence is minimal but the head-race tunnel for creating a potential difference at the surge shaft from where water is poured onto the turbines runs into many kilometres. The construction of these tunnels is hardly done by a TBM(tunnel boring machine) which minimises the loss to the mountain. The construction is done mainly through blasting, earlier by exploding the mountains and currently by imploding them. In either case, the rock layers get disturbed/cracked/fragmented, and this leads to loosening of the rocks and also the strata over them, thus leading to massive landslides in the regions where hydropower projects are being constructed. 

Not to forget that the grasslands over these mountains also lose their natural water flow and most of them have now become dry. Nathpa village became extinct as the entire village started loosening and falling in the Satluj river. The people had to be translocated to some other region.

The second important reason happens to be widening of the roads, especially four-lane widening of the roads leading to Manali and Kinnaur. These two stretches have become a nightmare for travellers. Unfortunately, the basic norms of cutting a mountain for such a widening is also not being adopted. Hardly one finds a geologist being part of this exercise. All that is being done is to sharply cut the mountain, not in terrace but vertical form, and which leads to a large number of slides. The Parwanoo to Shimla four-lane widening is a continuous reminder of such activity.

These construction activities are neither sustainable nor resilient and as the IPCC report points out we must ensure minimum damage to the prevailing eco-systems. Another big fraud that happens is the CAMPA fund(Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act). Instead of planting trees at the sites where the maximum loss to the ecosystem has taken place, most of the time the CAMPA funds are diverted for the construction of other utilities.


The climate change impacts arise from the risks which are universally accepted. From sea-level rise worldwide to drought, extreme events, food security, increased health risks and temperature-related morbidity in urban environments etc. One of the most profound impacts on the urban landscape is the damage done to urban infrastructure, urban flooding and thus ruining millions of livelihoods every year. In India some cities like Mumbai, Patna, Gurgaon, etc., invariably all large cities are extremely vulnerable to urban flooding. One of the reasons accentuating this problem emanates from the project-oriented development strategy seen through the prism of (earlier) JNNURM and now AMRUT and Smart City Missions.

Most of the infrastructure laid under these schemes have increased the vulnerability of the cities and thus is leading to colossus loss to the infrastructure and environment. The natural water channels are being disturbed and hard infrastructure laid in the form of flyovers and underground channels have damaged the natural ecosystems.

In very few of the cities is a vulnerability atlas created from bottom to top. According to the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction(UNDRR), mapping of the vulnerability is the first step to minimise the losses to occur because of climate change. However, this exercise is hardly being done and where such atlas are prepared these are prepared with the leadership of consultants of big companies, who normally suggest for capital intensive technologies to map such vulnerabilities. These interventions are hardly made and such technologies cost the cities and the people phenomenally high.

Instead of assessing the vulnerability through people’s participation is the best method which should be developed by preparing ward level plans to ensure that the loss to the people is minimised. Unfortunately, the inverse is being practised and thus leading to bureaucratic control and such plans neither catch the imagination of the people nor are they implemented on the ground thus leading to such large-scale losses when a disaster is struck.

Not just the plan but strict enforcement of these plans is another area that must be looked at. Resilient strategies for laying infrastructure must be adopted to ensure that there is a minimum loss to the ecosystem.

However, the manner in which these are carried out reminds of the catastrophic proportion that is awaited. Lakshadweep land use change, likewise a ring road planned in Andamans, and transfer of tribal forest land for private coal industry and many such decisions in the recent past point out that more gigantic disasters are in the offing. These forms of development is just a reminder that events leading to catastrophic proportions will certainly rise, the only way is to ensure that adaptive resilient strategies are adopted to minimise the loss.