Himalayan disasters: manmade, natural or both?

A longer term perspective to shape urbanization is needed


Mukul Sanwal | October 6, 2014

Demands have been raised for a judicial inquiry into the recent floods in Jammu and Kashmir. Two reasons are being given to argue that it was a manmade disaster – construction of a road-cum-dam that caused more than 20 percent blockade in the flow of the river and the delayed opening of the flood gates of the Dal. The question is whether these are primary or contributory causes of the disaster. Clarity is important because a conclusion based on science should determine the restoration work and the steps taken to prevent such disasters.

Extreme rainfall events are going to increase in frequency and intensity, particularly in the Western Himalayas, because of climate change; we have yet to develop a composite response to natural disasters resulting from extreme rainfall events caused by climate variability and their impact on glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), and continue to treat these natural calamities as man-made disasters.

No strategic policy lessons were drawn from the loss of 6,000 lives and extensive damage to infrastructure, estimated at over $750 million, in the Kedarnath valley last year. The focus remained on new funds for ‘restoration’, with the initial blame largely put on faulty development and dams.  The scale of the natural calamity in Jammu and Kashmir has evoked a similar initial reaction, even though there are no dams on the Jhelum above the Srinagar valley. The Himalayan disasters require a deeper reflection and a transformation in our thinking.

The Himalayan range constitutes an extremely dynamic system where disasters have occurred even before development came to these areas. The natural absence of vegetation in the higher reaches of the catchment areas, where the ground is made up of unconsolidated moraine, greatly helps in the formation of landslides. Subsurface flows contribute significantly to Himalayan streams and the downpour from cloudbursts occurring at the end of the rainy season digs into the soft ground. Moreover, the rivers in spate wash away the toes of the slopes and wherever the rivers take sinuous courses bank erosion is extensive. Parts of the mountain are extremely fragile and the steep gradient and narrow gorges brings down large quantities of silt, boulders and water at a very high velocity. Hardly any mountain range in the world experiences such high erosion rates, and drill holes have penetrated more than 5,000 m of alluvial sediments beneath the Ganga plains.

Averages of rainfall data are extremely erroneous in the Himalayan context. Short duration, high intensity rains are common over the Himalaya. The rainstorm of 1880 recorded 820 mm of rainfall in a single day and parts of Nainital located near the lake were washed away; around 315 mm of rain in a day led to the Kedarnath disaster and 250 mm rain in over 30 hours over a wider area of the Kashmir valley led to the current calamity. We can expect extreme rainfall events of a higher intensity and duration in the future.

Reckless road building and extensive deforestation during the 1960s and 1970s increased instability in certain areas, exposing geologically weak tracts with recurring landslides, but afforestation will not override the natural factors. It is interesting to note that deforestation as a cause of floods has come to be cited only recently. The district gazetteers of Purnea and Saharsa written in the last century, though concerned about the high silt load of the river Kosi, have never alluded to deforestation as a contributory factor and their recurrent emphasis was on the geological instability of the river’s upper catchment. 

Srinagar, in the Ganga valley and earlier the only place in Garhwal approaching a town, had to face floods several times. A huge flood swept away one-third of the town, and by 1803 the rajas ceased to live in Srinagar. Up to the close of the 18th century, the Teesta flowed into the Ganga but after the destructive floods of 1787, in which a large part of the Rangpur district was laid waste, it suddenly turned eastwards and joined the Brahmaputra. The Himalayan rivers have constantly changed their course long before deforestation began, and dams can serve as flood control measures.

In Leh, in 2010, 75 mm of rain in half an hour due to a cloudburst, equivalent of the annual rainfall in the cold desert, washed away the new settlement of Choglamsar, on the outskirts of the city, while the old settlement on the plateau did not suffer much damage.

In Kashmir, records of floods go back to 1883 when the Jhelum bund was built, with the extent of flooding, houses damaged and deaths doubling every 50 years. This broadly corresponds to the decreasing area of the lakes and wetlands in the Srinagar region, which are down to less than half their spatial extent in 1911. Moreover, the 44 ghats have been blocked and some 30 water channels converted into highways. The earlier rulers built only on the foothills.

The policy issue is really urbanisation, and not development in general. Traditionally mountain villages were located in the middle of the hill slope, with the forests and water sources above and agriculture in the warmer valleys.   New roads lead to urban clusters by opening the Himalayas to tourism and migration from the outlying villages for better services and employment. Since urbanisation is a new trend the earlier laws had not catered to this situation, and the absence of real controls has led to unrestricted construction of buildings. Inadequate drinking water and sewage systems were the first issues to be raised, and were solved in the short term with engineering solutions, supporting even more construction, habitation and commerce. With land values shooting up to levels in Delhi, a vicious cycle of corruption, political patronage and liberal rules in the name of development created the present situation in Srinagar, as well as in most towns in the Himalayas.

This policy failure does not have easy answers. The old towns do not have the physical space to provide modern conveniences. In the hilltop town of Almora water pipes were laid inside sewage lines! Automobiles, trucks, buses and taxis have added to the space crunch with excessive vertical construction, congestion and traffic grid locks, for which new roads provide only temporary relief.

The solution is to learn from traditional wisdom, and establish new towns on gentle slopes in the extensive state forest areas, with access to water and a layout that will accommodate modern transportation, commercial and employment needs. Traditionally, also, the walking tracts did not go along the river valleys but across the more gentle slopes. For example, the yatra route to Badrinath cut across Kumaon (from Khairna) rather than follow the Ganga (from Rishikesh). A grid pattern of roads and new towns in ecologically less sensitive areas, and scenic spots for tourism, is needed to provide alternatives to the population shifting into the urban middle class, and support real development.

The way forward is to locate in the Himalayan slopes at least a dozen of the new “smart’ cities the government wants to establish, as models. A beginning could be made with Srinagar by laying out the infrastructure for a new city with a service and knowledge based economy. Plots of land could be exchanged with those willing to move from the old town. New road networks should also be explored along the old pathways to open up areas for new planned urban clusters in the hill slopes. As congestion eases in the old town its re-development can be planned at a later stage.

Since under the Indus waters treaty, dams and storages are not allowed on Jhelum, there are no flood warnings or monitoring systems in the Srinagar region. Through collective monitoring and the exchange of real-time water discharge data, trust could be further built between water management authorities on both sides of the border for considering dams as flood control measures, in addition to generating electricity. Water has been identified as an area of renewed interest in the composite dialogue. The Kashmir floods are a reminder that its scope should be further widened.

The interaction between the unique geology and rainfall patterns of the Himalayas is manifesting itself in the increased formation of moraine-dammed glacial lakes formed as glaciers retreat and stagnate leading to glacial-lake-outburst-floods (GLOF), which have yet to be recognised as the first step in the natural disasters. For example, 35 destructive GLOF events have been recorded in the upper Indus river system in the past 200 years, and one from the Shyok area in August 1929 in the Indus river system extended 1,300 km downstream to Attock. The new lakes have yet to be fully mapped and studied using remote sensing to monitor their hazardous nature, because our focus has been on the melting and retreat of glaciers. For example, an 1882 picture shows debris and rubble below the glacier on the western side of Kedarnath and with a glacial lake on the other side – the Chorabari tal – overflowed because of the high rainfall. We also have records of the Gangotri glacier receding since 1780 but no continuing studies of the hazard associated with the glacial lake that is forming. Seven new lakes have come up in the Chandra-Bhaga Basin, in Lahul-Spiti district of Himachal. The Eastern Himalayas, particularly Sikkim, has larger glacial lakes. A Chinese study concludes that in the Central Himalayas expansion is more on the northern side than in the southern side, and could be an area for joint research. Peru has extensive experience of safely draining such lakes and we should learn from it.
The policy issue with regard to both disaster management and prevention in the Himalayas is the need for fresh thinking as environmentalists have taken the lead and focused on the symptoms and not the causes of the disasters. While dams can be designed to withstand geological and hydrological forces, and can be integrated into flood control measures, it is not feasible to provide such reinforcement to roads and buildings in the valleys. Natural disasters are going to happen in the Himalayas, and the potential high flood levels need to be assessed, mapped and infrastructure and habitation moved to the hill slopes, following traditional wisdom. That seismic shift will require science to provide the assessments to support the needed political will for a new approach to urbanization in the Himalayas.



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