ecological-threats-to-himalayas

Context: The death of nine tourists in a landslip in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh is another pointer to the fragility of the ecology of the Himalayan States. 

  • Extraordinarily heavy rain made the hill slopes unstable and caused floods in built-up areas including Dharamshala. 

Himalayan landslide causes

  • Geologists define a landslide as “a natural phenomenon causing the downward and outward movement of slope materials like rocks, soil and so on under the influence of gravity.” 
    • Erosion by rivers, weakening of rocks and soils by torrential rains heighten a region’s susceptibility to landslides.
  • Most of these disasters occur during the monsoon (June to September) when excess rainwater pushes the soil triggering a chain of events intensified by man-made constructions and deforestation. 
  • According to the Geological Survey of India (GSI), roughly 15% of India’s landmass is highly vulnerable to landslides.
  • India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) lists the Himalayan states, Arakan-Yoma belt in the north east, the Meghalaya plateau, Western Ghats and Nilgiri hills as most landslide-prone areas.
  • The Himalayan landscape is especially susceptible to landslides. The mountain range was formed due to the collision of Indian and Eurasian plates. The northward movement of the Indian plate causes continuous stress on the rocks, rendering them friable, weak and prone to landslides and earthquakes.
  • Mountainous slopes combined with rugged topography as well as high seismic vulnerability and rainfall creates perfect conditions in the Himalayan region augmenting the susceptibility to landslides.

Govt. initiatives

  • Himalayan State Regional Council: NITI Aayog has set up the Himalayan State Regional Council.
    • The council is meant to ensure sustainable development of the Himalayan region. 
    • The council will act as the nodal agency for sustainable development in states, including Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
    • These include, spring revival for water security, sustainable tourism, transformative approach to shifting cultivation, strengthening skill & entrepreneurship landscape and data for decision making.
  • The Indian government has identified the areas where landslides occur repeatedly through Landslide Hazard Zonation maps. 
  • The NDMA has also published comprehensive guidelines on the management of landslides and snow avalanches to whittle down their destructive potential and minimise the consequential losses by institutionalising landslide hazard mitigation efforts.

Concerns:

An incompatible model of development in the hills involving destruction of forests and damming of rivers, is an invitation to harm.

  • Ecological decline: What should worry Himachal, and neighbouring Uttarakhand, is that the States may be entering a phase of irreversible decline because of losses to their ecology; frequent landslides may become inevitable. 
    • The use of heavy machinery to flatten land for agriculture or other purposes aggravates the crumbling of hilltops.
  • Highway development: In its 2020 report, the Supreme Court appointed-high-powered committee on the Char Dham project noted the massive slope cutting, unmindful of the irreversible loss it was causing to the fragile terrain.
  • Mega hydropower projects: All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a breakneck speed—Uttarakhand on the Ganga basin alone has identified projects adding up to nearly 10,000 mw of power and plans for 70-odd projects. 
  • Ignoring environmental impact: Kinnaur is a focus point for such development, centred around the potential of the glacially-fed Sutlej valley.
    • There is  high seismicity causing fatal landslides and severe damage to hydropower structures in the Himalayas; the cost of power produced was underestimated, while the potential was overestimated. 
  • Unsustainable model of tourism in the IHR include the replacement of traditional eco-friendly and aesthetic architecture with inappropriate, unsightly and dangerous construction, poorly designed roads and associated infrastructure, inadequate solid waste management, air pollution etc.
  • Lack of early warning system: The country lacks a sophisticated warning system for predicting landslides. Preparedness for the hazard and a suitable warning system are vital to preventing loss of human lives and property.
  • Climate change: Warming due to climate change was melting the Himalayan glaciers and facilitated avalanches and landslides, and that constructing dams in the fragile ecosystem was dangerous.
    • As glaciers melt due to warming, valleys that were earlier crammed with ice open up, creating space for landslides to move into. 
    • In other places, steep mountainous slopes may be partially “glued” together by ice frozen tightly inside its crevices.

Way forward:

  • Sustainable development: We need to think about a pan-Himalayan development strategy which is based on the region's natural resources, culture and traditional knowledge.
    • It should be based on the use of the region’s important resource for development and local livelihood security. 
  • Promoting sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region: Payments for environmental services (PES) such as charging entrance fees might also offer a valuable long-term solution within the tourism industry, as tourism relies heavily on the existence of sound natural environments.
  • Strengthening skilling and entrepreneurial opportunities on the principles of sustainability and resilience could contribute to harnessing the immense potential of niche mountain products as well as address uncertainties, such as adverse impacts of climate change.”
  • The policy for water-based energy in the region needs to be carefully balanced to take these concerns into account. The policy should lay down mandatory ecological flow provisions and tough enforcement measures and penalties for ensuring that construction of the project does not harm the mountain stability or local water systems. 
  • An aware and vigilant community that is aware of the warning signs of impending landslides is pivotal. 
  • Early warning systems should also comprise a “scientific and technological base, mechanisms of dissemination and transmission of information, and response capability on receipt of warning information,”
  • Green measures like growing more trees that can hold the soil through roots and identifying areas of rock fall as well as cracks that indicate landslides are crucial too.

We need to think about a pan-Himalayan strategy so that states can evolve common policies and not follow the race to the bottom. It is also clear that these strategies will have to be based on the region’s natural resources—forests, water, biodiversity, organic and speciality foods, nature tourism—but will need to address the specific threats so that growth does not come at the cost of the environment.

Indian Himalayan Region(IHR)

  • Stretching for about 2,400 kilometres across the northern border of India, the IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. 
  • It covers 533,000 square kilometres across 10 mountain states and four hill districts of India that make up the country’s north and northeastern borders.
  • The region stretches from the mountains in the northern states of Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh to the north-eastern states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and also covers the hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong in Assam and Darjeeling and Kalimpong in West Bengal. 
  • IHR also shares borders with six neighbouring countries with upstream/downstream geographical connect.

Significance:

  • The standing forests of the region are an important reservoir of biodiversity; these provide protection against soil erosion and increased flooding in the plains and are sinks for carbon
  • The region’s other key resource is the water that flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains.The development of hydroelectricity is important as it provides the country with a renewable source of energy and is a revenue source for the state.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/wounded-mountains/article35549242.ece