Himalayan plunder: Why Sikkim geologists fear Joshimath-like disasters

Sikkim, also in eastern Himalayas, is plagued by unchecked development & lacks strong civil society to voice concerns

By Dichen Ongmu
Published: Thursday 09 February 2023
HImalayan plunder: Why Sikkim geologists fear a Joshimath-like disaster
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Parts of this article were used in a special edition on the Himalayas, published in February 1-15, 2023, issue of Down To Earth magazine 

After the natural disaster in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, geologists and activists working on environmental protection in Sikkim are a worried lot. Like any other Himalayan region, excavation of land due to infrastructural development has put Sikkim in danger. 

Apart from the 2011 earthquake, the 1997 cloudburst in Gangtok and the ongoing landslide in Pathing, South Sikkim can be considered as two major disasters.

One is in an urban setting and the other in a rural area. But in both instances, habitations have been affected. 

There is also another story about Aap Dara near Dikchu in East Sikkim, which is just a small collection of houses, but suffering like Joshimath. In Aap Dara's case, the Teesta Stage V project is to be blamed. Likewise, the Mantam village landslide in Dzongu has led to the formation of a huge lake.

Both Sikkim and Joshimath are located in the eastern Himalayas and are facing the same challenges and predicaments, said Gyatso Lepcha, an environmental activist based in North Sikkim. It is good that the Joshimath incident has garnered attention from the mainstream media and there is a huge hue and cry about it, but Sikkim has been witnessing this hazard for the past one decade, he said, adding: 

Our people are facing this situation especially in places like Dikchu, Shipgyer, Ramam in North Sikkim because of tunnels and the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation projects. We are facing environmental disasters affecting the indigenous community of the region at large and loss of properties equally.

Sikkim lacks a strong civil society, where people usually don’t come out and react, he shared. “Because of this, we fail to bring our issues to the mainstream media.”

Lepcha cited climate change as another major factor leading to environmental disasters in Sikkim, stressing on the fact that the rainfall pattern during monsoon season has become worse. 

Hydel projects, which commenced in the late 1990s in the state, can also be held accountable for the disasters, the expert said. They have affected the main Teesta river basin, where 90 per cent of Sikkim’s landmass is dependent, he added. “Hence, due to the construction of a bumper dam on Teesta river, we are facing multiple land erosion in every part of Sikkim and also parts of Siliguri.” 

Apart from the dams, numerous pharmaceutical companies and rampant unnecessary road widening, smart city projects and congested urban planning are putting more pressure on the ecology, he added. “It is leading us to nowhere but environmental disasters.”

Joshimath dispatch: Tales of woe emerge from a dying town; locals squarely blame administration

Strengthening the civil society and political parties is a possible solution, according to Lepcha. 

“People, parties and the government who want to see a good future of Sikkim should come forward and talk about the sustainable goals of the state and come up with policies where environmental issues are given more importance,” he mentioned. 

The river ecosystem in Sikkim has become a matter of concern, according to a local technical scientist. “Its area is increasing due to more and more exploitation of rivers. Meanwhile, a natural disaster can happen. It should be thought seriously in scientific ways. Since, the source of water in hilly areas is in the Himalayas, a situation like Joshimath can happen anywhere in the Himalayan region,” he said.

It is necessary to do a survey of the state by applying geographic information system technology in the state, he added.

To avoid incidents like Joshimath, work has to be started in a scientific manner, said a retired director of the state mines and geology department. 

Due to climate change, the glaciers located in the upper reaches of Sikkim are melting, he maintained. Along with this, they are themselves engaged in increasing their area, he said. “If the size of the snow lakes continues to increase, there is a possibility of a threat to the reservoir infrastructure of the hydro power project made of concrete. We also need development, but it should be built in a sustainable and long-term manner.”

An officer of Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority (SSDMA) concurred that climate change has a major role in the disasters taking place these days in Sikkim. “To be precise, erratic rainfall, flash floods and cloudbursts have become frequent and prominent in the past few years.”

He added:

Earlier, we would know the season and quantum of the rainfall. But these days we can witness flash floods even in unexpected areas, especially in the dry season.

On being asked how SSDMA is working to control the damages, the officer said that disasters are something which cannot be tamed but the losses can definitely be controlled if there is good preparedness. 

The department is working across the state, aiming to assess the preparedness be it during the disasters or after, he said. Furthermore, department agents are responsible for conducting studies on land stability that look into the geological aspects and suggest the scale of developments in the areas, where new infrastructural developments are taken up, he informed.

Praful Rao, a retired air force officer settled in Kalimpong who runs Save The Hills blog, refused to simply blame climate change for the hazards taking place in the Himalayan region. He stressed on the fact that no serious and in-depth studies have happened on climate change, neither is there data to prove it. “Our Himalayas are new mountain ranges and seismologically active. I fear what is going to happen if nature continues going through similar transitions in other parts of the country,” he said. 

The developmental projects are rampant despite the fact that we are prone to disasters, said Rao. “Mountains left to themselves will also sink eventually but human intervention will hasten disaster. Something which would have happened after 20 years might just occur in seven.”

In monsoon, NH10 becomes a death trap. Earlier, landslides used to take place above the road like in the case of Likhubheer which is now stabilised, he added.

“But now, we are getting to see a new type of the landslides and it’s due to the dams, where the river eats the roads from below followed by the continuous rise and fall of the tides in the river,” Rao said. 

He also questioned the type of roads that are being built. “Don’t make a road by simply cutting the mountains; look at the drainage pattern and make safer roads that are possible.” 

“We can’t afford to have dams every kilometre, especially in states like Sikkim & Arunachal Pradesh,” he opined, highlighting the need for regulation. 

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