Incidents such as Joshimath subsidence will continue to occur if policy approaches do not change
This article is part of a special edition on the Himalayas, published in February 1-15, 2023, issue of Down To Earth magazine
What is happening in Joshimath may happen anywhere across the Himalayas. The mountain range formed 50 million years ago—a relatively recent event on the geological timescale—is settled on landslide debris and is rising at 10 mm a year. Despite erosion caused by rivers and human activities, it will continue to rise. That is the reason for its shifting soils and heavy land subsidence.
Infrastructure projects, such as roads and hydroelectric power stations, have accelerated the erosion over decades, resulting in the sinking of the landmass. The situation with Joshimath is similar to that faced by all big Himalayan landmasses that act as watershed and catchment areas, with rivers flowing through the gorges below. In Joshimath, the Alaknanda river flows under the village causing rampant erosion. It should be noted that 35 per cent of Joshimath is sinking while more than 50 per cent remains intact, where life is normal. The fracture has appeared across a line that may likely result in sinking the remaining 65 per cent of Joshimath as well. Joshimath gained attention because of the heavy settlement on it. There may be many places in the mountain range, unnoticed, where human-made erosion continues.
About a decade ago, a massive landslide was reported from Uttarkashi mountain (also called Varunamath mountain), which threatened the entire region. It is now stable and infrastructure continues to develop. Another case is of Anamath and Painymath, which is similar to present-day Joshimath. About 25 years ago, cracks appeared and the land started sinking. To build resilience, the residents built a stone wall along the river, which stabilised soil in the area.
These cases show that nature is a great healer too and if we understand science and nature, we can strike a balance. The sinking in Joshimath will also continue to a point and, if we do not disturb the mountain further, it will sustain the pressure.
We should have a better understanding of nature, its load-bearing capacity. The residents cannot be denied development because of the incidents. But instead of building 20-50 km of roads a month, why cannot we build 2 km? Earlier, roads were built manually; now heavy machines are used, which disturb the ecosystem. The process of development has to be redefined at the policy level. It can be broken into smaller streams and local stakeholders be involved. Vulnerable structures that get washed away in flash floods, must not be constructed. Local geography needs to be considered for every aspect of development. The solution is to understand the science of nature, not just use science for development.
The true meaning of Uttarakhand and its development will be achieved only when the Himalayan ecology, economy, resources are used keeping in mind the fragility of the zone. The Niti Aayog can chalk out a path keeping in mind the many factors required to maintain the Himalayan ecosystem.
(As told to Himanshu N)
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