A landslide, en route from Joshimath to Govindghat, Uttarakhand, India. Photo: Saurabh Chatterjee/Flickr

Why Joshimath exemplifies the need to invest in resilience

The news of large-scale subsidence and sliding in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath has once again brought attention to infrastructure development in the Himalayas. Following the evacuation of several hundreds of families from the town after cracks started appearing in buildings, big ticket hydropower and road projects in the region have come under public scrutiny. The holy town and development projects in its vicinity are no strangers to such scrutiny. This is the second time in the last two years that the town has been a catalyst for wider discussions around the environmental and geological limits of the Himalayan region and its suitability for large infra projects.

In February 2021, a glacial lake-burst in the Himalayas triggered a deluge in the Dhauliganga river valley in the Joshimath block located in Uttarakhand’s northern district of Chamoli. More than 200 people were killed or went missing as the powerful torrent of water and debris destroyed surrounding infrastructure and agricultural land. One of the big projects that suffered sizeable damage was incidentally the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, tunneling for which has been linked by many to subsidence and sliding in the region. After a year-long study of the disaster, the National Disaster Management Authority submitted a detailed report to the government. The report recommends that the pursuit of alternative sources of energy in the Himalayan region, a zone that appears to be environmentally fragile, be reviewed by the Ministry of Power. Besides, it made a strong case for mandatory inclusion of geomorphological, glaciological, hydrological, and meteorological studies of the catchment by relevant experts in the detailed project report for infrastructure projects located proximal to glaciate terrains.

Unfortunately, after every disaster, there are papers on lessons that are rarely applied. The recent incident of land subsidence in Joshimath is a testimony to the perils of unplanned construction, over-population, obstruction of the natural flow of water and hydel power activities. Among the many reasons being cited for the collapse of the area is the digging of a tunnel for the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, which is alleged to have punctured an aquifer, leading to water seepage and subsequent sinking of land. 

This time too, a blame game has ensued among those championing the cause of development and those accusing it of the disaster. But the key question remains unaddressed – how can development needs be met while addressing ecological concerns?

A disaster in waiting

Natural disasters are endemic to India’s geology, geography, and climate. They have been an integral part of its social and cultural settings. The rise and fall of the Indus Valley civilization bear testimony of this. However, with the emergence of the modern welfare state, changing demographic and socio-economic conditions, environmental degradation, and climate change, the impact of disasters facing the nation has increased manifold in both complexity and magnitude. As per the National Disaster Management Authority estimates, 58.6% landmass is vulnerable to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity; 12% land is prone to flood and river erosion; out of 7,516 km coastline, 5,700 km is exposed to cyclones and tsunamis; 68% of the cultivable land is at risk of drought, and 15% of landmass is vulnerable to landslides and avalanches. Besides, industrial and man-made disasters involving the use of biological, chemical, and radioactive substances have increased the vulnerability of infrastructure assets to disruption. 

Uttarakhand is a predominantly mountain state. It is home to geological, geographical, biological, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Since its formation in the year 2000, a number of hydropower projects have been commissioned to harness the potential of its pristine rivers and fuel economic growth. However, this pursuit of development has tested the carrying capacity of the Himalayas. The process has exposed the inherently fragile character of the region and adverse environmental and social impacts of extensive human intervention. 

The construction of bumper-to-bumper hydropower projects has resulted in unprecedented exploitation and fragmentation of Himalayan rivers affecting not only the riverine biota and diversity but also compromising the integrity and variability of their natural flows. The frequent landslides, floods and erosions triggered by despoliation of rivers have scarred the state’s landscapes and made the surrounding infrastructure vulnerable to structural collapse. 

Unscientific blasting using explosives for road excavation, quarrying, and tunneling has resulted in flyrock, ground vibrations, and air overpressure causing extensive damage to civil structures. The impact on downstream infrastructure is even more deleterious. Improper disposal of muck and debris from construction sites into rivers has increased slope instabilities and seismic tensions. This has led to slumping, sliding, and subsidence of slopes and damaged social infrastructure like water sources, residential structures, agricultural lands etc. 

The government’s decision to declare large hydropower projects (>25 MW) as source of renewable energy in March 2019 has since then provided legitimacy to the hasty statutory clearances being awarded to project developers for development of hydel infrastructure. Today, the proliferation of hydraulic structures is not only increasing the vulnerability of the state’s infrastructure to disasters but also leading to negative externalities such as displacement of local communities, loss of livelihoods, environmental and technological risks, and adverse ecological impact. The fragility of the mountainous region is turning these structures into risk-laden artefacts.

Furthermore, unabated deforestation and growing urbanization are reducing the buffer between rivers and human settlements. A large number of shanty towns and ramshackle buildings have mushroomed on the banks of rivers flowing through the state to accommodate the ever-increasing number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Devbhoomi (land of gods). This burden on the region’s carrying capacity adds to the vulnerability of its critical infrastructure. Joshimath, having been built on material from an ancient landslide, rests on a deposit of sand and stone. This places tight limits on how much load the region is able to bear. Not only this, the area is a seismic zone, which makes it vulnerable to frequent earthquakes.

Unfortunately, in most instances, poor regulatory compliance, lack of coordination and narrow institutional mandates, inadequate financial resources for risk-informed planning, and non-availability of historical data to build probability scenarios and decision support systems have characterized India’s inability to cope with impending disasters in the Himalayas, both natural and anthropogenic. There is a dire need to act; and act fast.

Investing in resilience

There are widely accepted global standards and parameters for risks related to hazards such as earthquakes, mapping of seismic zones, for instance. However, for disaster risk related to other hazards such as floods, similar globally accepted risk categories are yet to evolve. As a signatory to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, India can take the lead in building a common understanding of the nature and severity of disaster risks in different parts of the world. This will strengthen the country’s capacity to effectively anticipate, respond to, and recover from the impacts of disasters. The newly added working group on Disaster Risk Reduction to the G20 agenda under India’s presidency is a welcome step towards encouraging collective work, multidisciplinary research, and exchange of best practices.

The direct and indirect costs of disasters can be minimized through appropriate design, operation, maintenance, and financing of infrastructure assets. Such interventions can vary from mandating structural changes like using alternative construction materials, laying deeper foundations, adding redundancy in design etc. to reducing demand for infrastructure services by improving efficiency. Encouraging circularity principles can shrink the natural resource footprint of infrastructure in the construction phase, reduce harmful emissions and waste generation in the operation phase, and encourage reuse and recycle in the decommissioning phase. In this, state governments particularly can play a proactive role in providing an enabling policy framework for public private partnerships to attract sustainable investment and funding.

An infrastructure management system that includes a repository of key assets and their condition, both at the national and state level, is necessary for building capabilities for integrated planning. The addition of a new entry on disaster management in the Concurrent List of the Constitution can be a good starting point. Besides, concerted efforts need to be made for localization of disaster risk reduction by building on local capacity and initiative. Public consultations are a powerful means of inventorizing traditional best practices and indigenous knowledge. Finally, state governments must refrain from indulging in parochial opportunism by allowing unplanned and unauthorized construction in vulnerable zones.

The worsening impact of climate change is going to bring new and complex risk scenarios to light and test the country’s preparedness to deal with them. Disrupting the laws of nature in the garb of development will only hasten this process. This is the warning that Joshimath holds. Investment in vulnerability assessment and risk mitigation will not only make the country’s infrastructure more resilient but also unlock tremendous opportunities for social and economic development.

Shreyans Jain is a sustainability consulting practitioner with Accenture. He holds an MBA in Finance and Economics from the Indian Institute of Management Lucknow and a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Delhi Technological University. The views expressed are personal.