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Insights into Editorial: Wounded mountains: on Himachal landslide tragedy

 

Context:

  1. The tragic 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.
  2. Extraordinarily heavy rain pummelled the State recently, leaving the hill slopes unstable and causing floods in built-up areas including Dharamshala.
  3. The descending boulders from destabilised terrain, which crushed a bridge like a matchstick, are a source of worry even for cautious local residents, and for unwary visitors, such as the tourists travelling in a van, they can turn into sudden disaster.
  4. Multiple rivers to burst their banks and flood parts of the European countries as well as the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
  5. It is believed that these areas of Europe have not witnessed such heavy rainfall for more than a century. The floods showed that climate change spares none.
  6. Even if a country has adequate resources and advanced infrastructure (physical as well as organisational), it can find no escape from extreme climatic events.

 

Heavy rainfall and Extreme climatic events leave none even though well-developed:

  1. Heavy rainfall within a short period of time resulted in overflowing rivers, canals, and other water bodies flooding many towns and cities.
  2. The scenes of roads being washed away, houses getting inundated, and stranded people being evacuated by helicopters, earth movers and lifeboats were no different from what is normally witnessed in India during such disasters. It bore uncanny resemblance to what Kerala experienced in August 2018.
  3. Not surprisingly, Kerala Chief Minister reacted to the situation in Europe. He expressed condolences and asked the Indian community in Europe to stand in solidarity with the flood victims.
  4. Also recalled with gratitude the technical assistance extended by the Netherlands to the State following the 2018 floods and the visit of the Dutch King and Queen to Kerala in 2019 when they personally reviewed the joint efforts under way for long-term flood resilience.

 

Loss to the Ecology will resulted in devastating effects:

  1. 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.
  2. Bootstrapping an incompatible model of development in the hills, represented by big hydroelectric projects and large-scale construction activity involving destruction of forests and damming of rivers, is an invitation to harm.
  3. Mega hydropower, which Himachal Pradesh is working to tap as a significant source of “green” power that substitutes energy from fossil fuels, could alter several aspects of ecology, rendering it vulnerable to the effects of extreme events such as cloudbursts, flash floods, landslides and earthquakes.
  4. The parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy during 2018-19 noted that the Himachal Pradesh, State could more than double its existing harnessed hydropower potential of 10,547 MW.
  5. As catastrophic weather events inflict frequent, heavy losses, Himachal Pradesh and other Himalayan States can only watch their ecological base erode. Changing course may yet preserve a lot of their natural riches.

 

Lessons for India from other countries experiences:

  1. The floods in Europe call attention to the global need for countries to implement ecologically sensitive flood protection measures.
  2. The Dutch have gone beyond their conventional dependence on dikes, dams, walls and gates to protect themselves from floods.
  3. Their current disaster resilience mantra is to live with water, build with nature and make room for the river.
  4. They champion creating adequate space for rivers to overflow by protecting floodplains from human interference, deepening riverbeds and creating alternate channels for excess water.
  5. After two major floods in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch embarked on several projects to widen riverbanks and reshape the areas around rivers.

 

  1. Flood-prone areas should be identified, and projects initiated on an urgent basis to create room for rivers.
  2. Low-risk areas such as playgrounds, maidans, or agricultural fields should be earmarked to store excess rainwater.
  3. Drains must be built for diverting water into these storage units. This will relieve the stress on the existing drainage infrastructure.
  4. The stored water can later be discharged back into the drainage channel once the high water subsides.

 

Way Ahead measures:

  1. Across the world, countries are being confronted with situations of either too little or too much water and droughts interspersed with floods. Rainfall has become unpredictable.
  2. In the short term, strengthened disaster readiness, planning and preparation will help us deal with sudden, intense rain and consequent floods.
  3. Climate change and global warming will continue to cause extreme climatic events.
  4. While national and State disaster management authorities have grown in experience, competence and professionalism, there is need for a higher degree of coordination and preparation across all levels of government.
  5. Practice drills need to be conducted in flood-prone areas. We need to test the effectiveness of flood warnings. The warnings should be in local languages and in simple terms.
  6. The United Nations Development Programme-World Bank-European Union Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared for Kerala after the 2018 floods pointed out that the drainage capacity of the rivers and canals of the State must be increased by creating more room for the water to flow.
  7. It called for removing obstructions and encroachments from existing water channels, the proper maintenance of such channels and creating additional channels for water to flow.

 

Conclusion:

The floods in Europe serve as a wake-up call to us in India to adopt pragmatic policies and practices that are nature friendly. We must recognise that we will have to learn to live with water in the long term.

Today, many are wondering how they can learn from the Dutch experience in preparing for floods and dealing with their aftermath. But the Dutch themselves are wisely not permitting themselves any complacence. Conscious of their vulnerability to water, they maintain a spirit of eternal vigilance to floods. Reflecting this approach, the Dutch Prime Minister has exhorted his countrymen to learn from the recent disaster and see what more can be done rather than stay satisfied that major damage and loss of lives was prevented.