Himalayan plunder: Experts fear frequent landslides, floods, cloudbursts in J&K following Joshimath crisis 

Unchecked construction, destruction of karewas and illegal riverbed mining pose threats to the region's ecology

By Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Published: Monday 13 February 2023
Himalayan plunder: Experts fear frequent landslides, floods, cloudbursts in J&K following Joshimath crisis 
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Residents of Jammu & Kashmir fear they may face the same fate as people in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town, where hundreds of houses developed cracks last month due to land subsidence. 

Experts have warned that floods, landslips and other disasters may become more frequent in J&K if immediate steps are not taken to control deforestation, unplanned urbanisation and haphazard construction.

For years, the residents of the valley have been resisting development projects that may pose dangers to the ecology. In July last year, the Jammu and Kashmir administration in July 2022 approved the contentious 1,856 megawatts Sawalkot hydroelectric project in Chenab valley, where several hydropower projects are operational and more are under construction. 

Improper environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports were prepared for this project, environmentalists alleged. In 2015, experts had pointed out many shortcomings in the open letter to the then Jammu & Kashmir State Pollution Control Board (JKPCB). The following year, they asked JKPCB to cancel public hearings for the project’s environmental clearance.

“I am unable to understand how the government gave a nod to the project when there were several lacunas in the EIA document?” said Faiz Bakshi, convener of the Environmental Policy Group (EPG), a Srinagar-based advocacy group for conservation of natural resources and one of the signatories of the letter. 

A fresh EIA should be conducted for the project planned over 1,000 hectares, taking into consideration the Joshimath incident, he suggested. 

‘More vulnerable to floods’

J&K has been ravaged by natural disasters that may be linked with unsustainable development and global warming. 

On June 21, a cloudburst around Pir Panjal mountains in central Kashmir’s Budgam district killed livestock and other animals. 

On July 8, 2022, around 16 people were killed and almost three dozen injured due to a massive cloudburst near the Amarnath Shrine. 

The intensity of cloudbursts have increased during the last 10-15 years because of massive urbanisation, increased population and higher temperature, said experts. 

Majid Farooq, in-charge of the climate change cell at the environment and remote sensing department of the Jammu and Kashmir government, told Down To Earth: 

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted a 1.5 degrees Celsius global temperature rise by 2030. But in the case of Himalayan region, the temperature has already increased by 1.5°C in 2018. This is why the intensity of cloudbursts and flash floods are increasing in Jammu and Kashmir. 

“We have not learnt lessons from the 2014 floods and if the unplanned development and urbanisation continues, we may experience massive floods again in Kashmir valley,” Farooq added. 

He fears Joshimath-like disasters might occur in areas where there are big hydropower projects, but is more concerned about disasters related to floods and cloudbursts. “I believe we are more vulnerable to floods, flash-floods and cloudbursts especially in Kashmir valley as the temperature of the valley is increasing and land mass is shrinking day by day due to urbanisation.” 

The wetlands have been filled up and residential colonies have come up over them, he flagged. “These wetlands used to act as natural channels for flood water to get drained out. Now even after three hours of rainfall, we see water level getting up in Srinagar city and its adjoining areas. This can be disastrous.”

Karewas in danger

Another major threat to the valley is the destruction of karewas — ancient deposits of glacial clay and other sediments that remain tucked away in the folds of the surrounding mountains, particularly the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas that borders the valley on the southwest. 

The karewas in the region were formed 2.6 million-11,700 years ago and the fertile patches are ideal for cultivating saffron, almonds, apples and several other cash crops.

But now, construction companies, real-estate dealers and developers excavate these structure to be used in construction. 

People owning land around karewas sell the clay around their farms and the same is used to fill the low-lying areas of Budgam and Srinagar and for construction of Srinagar semi-ring road project. 

In many areas of Budgam district, illegal brick kilns have been set up on the karewa land by felling a large number of almond and apple trees and causing huge air pollution.

Between 1995 and 2005, massive portions of karewas in Pulwama, Budgam and Baramulla districts were razed to the ground for clay for the 125-km-long Qazigund-Baramulla rail line.

GM Bhat, former professor of geology, University of Jammu, told DTE: 

During rains there would be more siltation in rivers and streams as excavated Karewas are now prone to soil erosion and landslides. The eroded soil and clay would enter the Jhelum through its major tributaries like Doodh Ganga, Shali Ganga, Vaishav, Romshi and Rambiara streams. The enhanced siltation in these streams and rivers will cause flooding in summer. 

The illegal brick kilns on Karewas should be closed down and no fresh kilns should be set up, he suggested.

Unchecked riverbed mining

Illegal riverbed mining is another evil practice that heightens flood risks in the region. Abdul Gaffar, 75, a resident of Ganjibagh Panzan village in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district is aggravated as the small river flowing through his village has been destroyed due to massive riverbed mining by a construction company during the last one year. 

Gaffar and other villagers Ganjibagh Panzan have been dependent on the Shali Ganga for centuries as it would supply water to their paddy fields, vegetable farms, apple orchards and fruit plant nurseries. “Due to very deep mining done in the past one year by huge cranes by a construction company there has been massive destruction in Shali Ganga. Not only has the flora and fauna of this rivulet been destroyed along with fish but the landscape of Shali Ganga has totally changed.” 

Last year, around 0.8 hectares of fruit plant nursery and vegetable farms owned by Mohammad Ameen Rather from Ganjibagh were destroyed by floodwaters from Shali Ganga. This is because riverbed mining by a construction company had weakened the embankments of this rivulet. “This was not a natural disaster but a man-made disaster that occurred due to negligence of a construction company. I have suffered a loss of more than Rs 20 lakh and till date I have not been compensated,” said Rather, who lost hundreds of apple, pear, peach, plum plants.

The government even failed to make a proper assessment of the loss, he alleged. “On the other hand, the company continues riverbed mining using large hydraulic cranes which are banned by the J&K Environmental Impact Assessment Authority and J&K Minor Mineral Rules, 2016.”

During the 2014 floods, embankments in the western side of Shali Ganga had already been destroyed and by constant movement of trucks and JCB cranes and earthmovers, there has been a huge plunder, Gaffar said. “The water level in Shali Ganga is so deep that it may not be fit to irrigate our fields in future. This is our main concern now.”

Unregulated tourism over the last two decades has turned the hill stations of the region into cities, said experts. The large number of massive concrete structures that have come up in Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg and other places are also causing a serious impact on the environment. “The huge rush during Amarnath pilgrimage is also a matter of serious concern and needs to be regulated,” said Reyaz Qureshi, head of the department of tourism studies, University of Kashmir.

Srinagar used to receive huge snowfall in winter 20 years back, but there has been a sharp decline, while incidents of flash floods and cloudbursts are increasing, he added. 

The government needs to adopt a policy of sustainable tourism so that we avoid any more disasters in Amarnath or other places, the expert noted. 

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