”Vulnerabilities that arose due to unplanned and non-scientific developments in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem were exacerbated by floods resulting from the convergence of monsoon winds and western disturbances in July-August 2023, leading to significant devastation. It is acknowledged that the frequency of such extreme events may increase due to climate change,” the report read
Climate change, unauthorised construction on unstable slopes and floodplains, and the removal of green cover are increasing the risk of disasters in the Himalayan region, according to a report from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) on the 2023 Himachal Pradesh floods.
Torrential rains, resulting from a rare convergence of western disturbances and the southwest monsoon, caused extensive flooding and landslides in north India in July and August. The downpour led several rivers in Himachal Pradesh to swell beyond their usual bounds, causing havoc in both urban and rural areas across 12 districts.
The state experienced 5,748 landslides, 45 cloudbursts (rainfall above 100 mm in an hour), and 83 flash flood-like situations. The disaster directly affected 22,879 households and claimed around 500 lives, with losses and damages amounting to Rs 8,665 crore, the NDMA said.
During July 7-11, 2023, Himachal Pradesh recorded 223 mm of rainfall, a staggering 436 per cent above the normal amount of 41.6 mm for such a period. On average, the state receives 734.4 mm of rainfall during the monsoon season (June-September).
In its post-disaster need assessment (PDNA) report, prepared at the request of the Himachal Pradesh government, the NDMA highlighted that unregulated development has added to the vulnerability of the Himalayan region.
”This has created environmental and infrastructural challenges, amplifying the disaster risks in the region,” it said.
The drive for urbanisation and tourism has led to rapid construction activities. Often, these constructions ignore essential guidelines, resulting in establishments on unstable slopes or floodplains, the report read.
The NDMA noted that unchecked growth of settlements around riverbanks and valleys, driven by tourism and a growing population, puts many at direct risk during flash floods. Water channels, which should act as natural outlets, are often encroached upon, leading to higher vulnerability during heavy rainfall.
”Vulnerabilities that arose due to unplanned and non-scientific developments in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem were exacerbated by floods resulting from the convergence of monsoon winds and western disturbances in July-August 2023, leading to significant devastation. It is acknowledged that the frequency of such extreme events may increase due to climate change,” the report read.
Citing reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the NDMA said that two key regions in the Indian subcontinent are particularly vulnerable to climate-induced disasters: the Indian Himalayas and coastal India.
”The disaster in Himachal Pradesh serves as an indicator of such events, which are expected to rise in the near future,” it said.
Considering the unique terrain in the region, the NDMA emphasized the need for construction practices to undergo rigorous evaluation. Road construction and design should be reconfigured to reduce ecological impact.
The environmental effects of various hydro projects, whether large, medium, small, or run-of-the-river, need to be assessed cumulatively.
Construction methodologies for major projects should be contextualized to the Himalayan ecosystem, and building regulations require updating and reinforcement to ensure that the ecology of the Himalayan region is not affected, it said.
The NDMA said the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority (HPSDMA) should proactively anticipate and factor in climate-related risks when planning and implementing recovery initiatives.
It also noted that Himachal Pradesh’s weather prediction and early warning capabilities are ”limited”, with only 31 weather stations currently operational in the state.
The agency recommended installing automatic weather stations in each gram panchayat and strengthening early warning systems in the state.
It also emphasised the need to demarcate river floodplains, and have appropriate policy instruments and mechanisms in place to restrict any construction in such areas.
The NDMA also suggested establishing local hill area development authorities, saying that the absence of adequate planning in hilly areas exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. ”It is crucial to establish a techno-legal framework to monitor and regulate development in these mountainous regions.” The agency said it is important that dams in the state function on prediction-based modelling and account for three to five days of weather data from the catchments for flood warning.
Guman Singh, an environmentalist from the state, emphasized that people should acknowledge the Himalayas’ high fragility, and their vulnerability will increase with the changing climate.
”We need to learn to live in harmony with nature. The issue lies in the fact that guidelines are often formulated but seldom implemented. These unauthorized constructions result from government officials colluding with the public. We require new technology and policies, and it’s crucial for the general public to also become more aware,” he said.