Wildlife & Biodiversity

Uttarakhand Floods: Respect Himalayan landscape if you want to preserve it, say experts

The recent flooding in Uttarakhand will recur across the biodiversity-rich Himalayas; respecting the landscape is the only way to conserve it

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 21 October 2021
To save biodiversity-rich places such as the Valley of Flowers, the governments of Uttarakhand and the entire Himalayan region must preserve their forests and reflect on their infrastructure model. Photo: istock

The latest floods in Uttarakhand have caused terrible damage to life and property. They also caught many off guard as they were not expected. The floods, according to experts, are a warning about the climate tragedy that is brewing in the Himalayas. If the mountain range’s rich natural wealth is to be saved for the future, we will have to respect the landscape, they say.

The Himalayas are home to many rare and endemic species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Much of the region’s population, cutting across political boundaries is poor. The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are also the water tower of South Asia.

Experts told Down To Earth that there were two words that were key to protecting Himalayan biodiversity, climate mitigation as well as livelihood generation: ‘Forests’ and ‘infrastructure’.

“Forest conservation is the only way to protect these rare species, for slope stabilisation as well as climate mitigation and providing better livelihoods to people,” ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, who works with Ashoka University, told Down To Earth (DTE).

Uttarakhand had a high proportion of its land area under forest cover (45.4 per cent as of 2019). However, forest was existent on only 70.7 per cent of the state’s legal forest land, Sahabuddin had noted earlier this year. Also, only 72.9 per cent of the state’s forest area was recorded as very dense forest or moderately dense forest in 2017.

The rest (27.1 per cent) belonged to the open category (with a canopy of 10-40 per cent), which was very likely to be degraded, she had written.

Shahabuddin told DTE:

The first step should be to focus on forest restoration in both Himachal and Uttarakhand. The forest cover should be of hardwood mixed deciduous type. Because we can see that chir pine are not capable of stabilising the slopes. Pines are very shallow rooted. They are also more prone to fire.

The second important step to prevent a climate catastrophe in the Himalayas was to focus on infrastructure, she added.

“The planning of infrastructure has to be much more sensitive to the fragility of these slopes. Even before these floods, there were huge landslides along the Char Dham route. It was an old historic route which was just doing fine. But the doubling of its width without paying attention to geological and technical considerations has wrought havoc,” she said.

DTE has earlier reported on the dangers of the Char Dham roads project.

Hridayesh Joshi, a noted journalist who hails from Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region also talked about the infrastructure part:

When these extreme weather events take place, we should reflect as to what kind of development model we have introduced. Rains and flooding are not new. But if you keep on dumping construction debris inside the Naini lake, it will overflow after a point.

“We should not encroach upon water bodies, cut down forests or construct highways such as the Char Dham without consulting technical experts,” he said.

Could the fact that the Himalayas are divided by political boundaries also be important in deciding a future course of action?

Rajesh Ghimire, an independent journalist in Kathmandu, Nepal told DTE that many people in his country had been shocked by recent heavy rains in Nepal as well.

“Nobody expects heavy rains in Nepal after Dashain or Dussehra. The paddy crops have been destroyed. People are in shock. They used to think that climate change was a subject of the future. But the harsh reality is that we need to act now to prevent it from happening in the future,” he said.

Shahabuddin said India needed to take the lead and set an example towards developing a more sustainable Himalayan landscape.

“India is a leader in south Asia. We have the money and technical expertise that poorer countries such as Nepal and Bhutan do not. We can become trendsetters,” she said.

In fact, India had not emulated Bhutan in certain respects, she pointed out.

“The Bhutanese have recognised that their future wellbeing depends on healthy forests. They have a specific land use plan in which areas have been demarcated for forests which are not to be used for tourism or construction,” she said.

States such as Uttarakhand needed to have a very strict and scientifically-designed land use plan too, Shahabuddin said.

She added that if she were in charge, she would conduct a study.

Had the effects of the extreme weather event in Uttarakhand been more in places that had more construction? Were forested places better protected? Where did landslides occur?

“We have to understand these events. Our responsibility does not just end at saving lives,” she said.

DTE  also contacted Soumitra Dasgupta the additional director-general of forests (wildlife) in the Union environment ministry for this report but did not get a response.

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