Can dangers from floods and fire increase at about the same time? This unlikely question is being asked in the context of the recent experiences of Uttarakhand. In February, this year destructive floods were reported from some parts of Uttarakhand which attracted attention all over the country for several days as many people lost their lives and several others were trapped.
However, what is not so well known is that during the just ended winter, Uttarakhand also established a record of sorts for the maximum number of forest fires reported in a winter season. According to recently published official data, Uttarakhand recorded 470 incidents of forest fires from November 2020 to March 2021, while the number of forest fires during approximately the same period in the previous year was 39. Some sources maintain that the number of forest fires this season has been even higher than reported.
Floods are generally a monsoon phenomenon and forest fires are reported mostly in summer months. The first three months of the winter are known normally to be relatively milder and quieter in the lower and middle Himalayan region. But such destructive floods and so many forest fires during this quiet season this year appear to indicate a deteriorating situation in times of climate change aggravated by policy mistakes, which together are pushing the people of the Himalayan region towards more disasters.
The increase in the threat from floods has been linked time and again to indiscriminate tree-felling for many projects and excessive dam construction activity in recent years. But this is set to further increase greatly even in hitherto untouched areas like the Lahaul-Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh. This is also being linked to impending disruption of livelihoods and displacement. Meanwhile the people displaced by the Pong project several years ago have still not been rehabilitated properly. Such problems are more in areas where a chain of dams is being constructed or has been constructed as the combined impact of displacement and in terms of less visible and longer-term factors like RIS (reservoir- induced seismicity) may be much higher. A study by Prof. Shivani Abrol in the context of Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh says: “Large-scale execution of hydropower projects has wreaked havoc on hill districts’ environment, and has brought it to the verge of ecological disaster as the flow of major rivers is being diverted into tunnels leaving the original bed dry.” In fact, the entire ecology and even geography of ecologically sensitive regions may be changed entirely within a few decades, without much care or concern for the destructive impacts of such changes.
There is a rapid increase in threats from landslides also, much of which is related to tree-felling and careless construction and widening of highways. The union government has been investing heavily in excessive widening of highways in recent times without proper pre-project investigations with the result that careless, badly planned construction work has resulted in several landslide zones or else has led to aggravation of landslides. Many rural communities and roadside communities are threatened badly by this. Recently when I visited some of these communities on the Kalka-Solan highway widening project, some of them said that they were on the brink of disaster and needed satisfactory rehabilitation badly.
In more recent times, the adverse impacts on hilly areas have been discussed more in terms of Covid-related factors such as disruptions in the tourism sector. This is of course a serious problem as livelihoods of several people linked directly or indirectly to tourism have been affected adversely recently. But in addition, there are less visible problems with longer-term trends which are affecting people in villages more seriously.
Drinking water is the most basic need but there are more drinking water shortages than before in villages despite the implementation of more water schemes. The reason is that basic water sources including springs are getting depleted or even vanishing altogether due to factors such as tree-felling, indiscriminate construction, deposition of rubble, indiscriminate sand mining and other mining in rivers and hills as well as other related aspects of ecological ruin.
As Prof. Abrol has stated, not only is the river water getting diverted across vast stretches creating shortages along the original course of the river but in addition the blasting for tunnels also leads to drying up of water sources in new areas. All these aspects lead to overall lesser rainfall and snowfall. Hence daily life becomes more difficult as there is less water for drinking, for animals and for farming. In addition, there is increasing pollution of water in many villages due to use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or due to sanitation and garbage issues.
While Himalayan regions boast of several top boarding schools of the country, rural schools particularly in remote areas are often in a deplorable condition. In recent times problems of education are increasing for local village children and children from poorer households due to prolonged school closures, emphasis on online education and connectivity and related problems. In some areas like Kashmir, these problems have been aggravated by prolonged cuts in internet services.
Youth who could not get proper education face increasing problems in getting satisfactory employment and have to migrate for low-paid work in urban areas. Increasing number of households in hill villages are led by women. On them falls the burden of managing households composed more of children and elderly members in times of increasing water shortage, increasing forest fires, landslides and floods.
Also, there are additional difficulties for nomadic and semi-nomadic communities, people living in conflict zones and/or in border areas or close to border areas, region-specific minorities etc. In view of these increasing difficulties there is need for increasing development and welfare funds for Himalayan states with special emphasis on needs of rural people. There is a need for more allocations as well as for improving priorities of spending.