Nature's wrath

Even flash floods cannot refresh the authorities' understanding of the dynamic and fragile ecosystem of the Himalaya

Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

massive flash floods in the Sutlej river have left a trail of destruction in the Shimla, Kullu, Mandi and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh. At least 150 people are reported to have been killed and several crore of rupees worth of property damaged in what is being seen as the second-most devastating floods in five years. The Beas river had wrecked havoc upon life and property in the Kullu valley in 1995.

The state authorities, however, have been quick to attribute this large-scale damage to a cloudburst in the upper reaches of the river in Tibet. Once again, it seems all energies will be concentrated on eking out relief funds from the Union government and no attempts made to study the frequency with which these floods are occurring and the causes leading to such widespread damage. No lessons, it seems, have been learnt from the earlier floods as there are almost no efforts to promote afforestation or relocation of threatened human settlements.

It is now well known that the Himalaya ecosystem is naturally primed for disaster. The seemingly formidable gorges, which give an impression that no floods could occur there, are perhaps the most susceptible. Whenever a brutal rainstorm or cloudburst occurs, enormous quantities of silt are brought down from the slopes, already weakened by deforestation and increased human activity. As this unconsolidated moraine flows down from the catchment area, it causes deep lacerations at the base of hills leading to massive erosion in the bank. The resulting landslides cause blockages in the river.

When loose boulders and silt dams break, water gushes down the valley with even greater destructive power. Temporary reservoirs in smaller tributaries are constantly being formed due to continuing erosion and landslides, as a result of human activity amounting to tampering with the hydrology of these hills. Whenever there is a rainstorm, enormous quantities of materials from landslide are likely to be carried into the main river, adding increased ferocity to the river.

The Himalaya, though still a dynamic and rising mountain system, are facing an increased threat from violent human activities like terrace farming, road building and deforestation, which have taken a huge toll on the ecosystem.

However, a section of environmentalists believe that the Himalaya mountains are prone to floods that have lashed these mountains even before they were inhabited and no amount of afforestation would prevent more floods. What is left then for the authorities? To prevent further destruction of life and property, settlements that are seemingly prone to flood damage have to be relocated to higher and safer grounds. Above all, nature has to be treated with respect.

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