While India's disaster preparedness and response has improved, the fragility of the Himalayas and the increase in population and infrastructure are at the root of crises like the Joshimath incident, senior officials at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said.
Authorities in Uttarakhand have declared Joshimath in Chamoli district a landslide and subsidence-hit zone. Wide cracks have appeared on residential and commercial buildings and roads and fields in the town renowned as a hiking and pilgrimage destination. A number of structures have been declared unsafe and residents shifted to safer places.
"Whether it is flash floods, cloud bursts or incidents like Joshimath, it is partly because of a combination of issues. The increase in human population and infrastructure to cater to tourists and the fragility of the Himalayas are at the root (of it)," Yash Veer Bhatnagar, country representative of IUCN India, said in an interview with PTI.
"As conservationists, we do not want to stop development everywhere. We want to make it as sustainable as possible, knowing well that remote villages in the Himalayas need basic amenities," he asserted.
Satellite images released by the Indian Space Research Organisation showed the Himalayan town sank 5.4 cm in just 12 days following a possible subsidence event on January 2.
Although Joshimath is built on a fragile mountain slope in a region prone to landslides, its sinking is being attributed to large-scale development projects being undertaken there.
IUCN India and the TCS Foundation have launched an initiative, "Himalaya for the Future", which aims to enhance sustainability and the well-being of the people in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) and downstream communities.
It involves reviewing existing initiatives, research and literature; mapping and consulting with stakeholders, building scenarios to identify possible interventions and developing a tool for quantitative and qualitative modelling.
"We are designing a tool which looks at cross-cutting areas such as forests, urbanisation, water resources, energy, infrastructure, gender, migration, traditional knowledge, disasters among others," Archana Chatterjee, Programme Manager, IUCN India, told PTI during the interview.
"We wanted to look at these issues in an integrated manner… And what are the challenges emerging in the region for which we have to plan now in terms of policies and programmes," she added.
It is an open and evolving model. Technical studies and mind maps of experts and communities can also be fed in it. The tool, for example, will help people know how a policy decision for the tourism sector can impact forests, water resources, waste management and other aspects, Chatterjee said.
Bhatnagar said though there has been some criticism, India has improved a lot in terms of disaster preparedness and response.
"We can see there was a good rapid response for Kedarnath. Even now, India is responding fast to Turkiye and Syria. There is an understanding at every level and we are better than the last time," he said.
India has launched 'Operation Dost' to extend assistance to Turkiye and Syria, which were hit by a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake and strong aftershocks on February 6.
Asked if the exposure to disasters and crises in the IHR is going to increase with the expansion of the tourism sector, agriculture and hydro-electric projects, Bhatnagar said, "The extreme weather events are certainly going to increase." He said climate change is leading to changes in the frequency, intensity and distribution of rainfall in India. The amount and timing of rainfall has become more variable.
"A lot of cloudbursts are occurring in the Himalayas in September and October when the monsoon has normally receded and one doesn't expect this to happen," Bhatnagar said.
He also stressed on the need to conduct "very strong" awareness drives in areas closer to glacial lakes to minimise harm at the time of disasters such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF).
Three million people in India are at risk of flooding caused by glacial lakes, the highest number of those exposed in the world, according to a new study by scientists at the UK's Newcastle University published in the journal Nature Communications.
A large number of these people live within 10 km downstream of a glacial lake, where any early warning time is likely to be low and uncertainty in GLOF magnitude high.
As global temperatures rise and glaciers continue to retreat, the number and size of glacial lakes is increasing in many regions around the world, including in the Himalayas. This can increase the risk of GLOF events, which are sudden and large releases of water from a glacial lake.
Flash floods potentially triggered by a GLOF event in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district in February 2021 left nearly 80 people dead and many more missing.
"Our project can help develop packages for awareness to enable people to understand how to respond and how and where to construct," Bhatnagar added.
On the Char Dham project and the criticism surrounding it, Bhatnagar said though the project has a strategic aspect to it, "we should look at the environmental impacts to the best possible degree".
"There are solutions that can reduce environmental impacts and make it much more robust and sturdy infrastructure," he added.
The Char Dham project in Uttarakhand aims at providing all-weather road connectivity to the pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. It involves the construction of 900 km of national highways.
The project has drawn criticism due to its potential impacts on the environment and local communities. Critics argue that the construction of new roads and highways in the fragile mountain ecosystem can lead to soil erosion, landslides, and other ecological disruptions.
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