Monsoon left widespread destruction and uneasy questions in Himachal

A truck trying to cross the river in Himachal Pradesh.

A truck trying to cross the river in Himachal Pradesh. Photo by Ravi Kumar/Wikimedia Commons

  • This monsoon in Himachal Pradesh has seen an increase in the loss of human lives and the impact on infrastructure, compared to previous years.
  • While extremely heavy rainfall is largely attributed for the situation this year in the western Himalayan state, unplanned infrastructure development and haphazard urbanisation, too, have a role, say experts.
  • Experts and civic bodies seek better drainage systems and proper environment impact assessment, forest clearance and disaster risk assessment studies for all projects.

The hilly state of Himachal Pradesh is limping back to normalcy after a tumultuous monsoon season. The number of fatalities during the monsoon season in the state this year is around three-and-a-half times higher than last year. In 2022, 125 people lost their lives during the monsoon season, while in 2023, 428 people died due to extreme weather-related events in the monsoon season.

These deaths happened between June 24 and September 13, according to the official data compiled by Himachal’s State Emergency Operations Centre under the Department of Revenue. During this period, 427 people were injured while 39 people went missing.

Financial loss as a result of monsoon fury also broke all previous records. Between the 2017 and 2022 monsoon season, the state suffered a total loss of Rs. 60 billion (Rs. 6013 crore) at an average of Rs 10 billion per season. Total financial loss in the current monsoon season has touched Rs. 86 billion (Rs 8,679 crore), nearly 8.5 times more than the average monsoon season loss of previous six years, reveals official data.

Districts like Kullu and Shimla were the centre point of the catastrophe, where the washing away of bridges and highways and the collapse of buildings and houses occurred at a large scale.

At the state level, as many as 2,614 houses, both kaccha (temporary) and pucca (permanent) as well as 318 shops were completely damaged. More than 11,000 houses were partially damaged, reveals official data. Additionally, 5904 cowsheds were damaged.

Data further reveals that rainfall-induced destruction left as many as 128 roads closed which led to loss of Rs. 29 billion (Rs.2941 crores). Out of this, 47 were in the Kullu-Mandi zone, where several stretches of the Kiratpur-Manali highway witnessed huge damage. It was largely the result of the overflowing Beas river running along the Kullu district. In the Shimla zone, 23 roads had seen damage, including the Kalka-Shimla highway. As many as 19 bridges had washed away, while 97 bridges were damaged all across the state.

Monsoon fury or human-caused disaster?

Surender Paul, head of Himachal Meteorological Department, said the damages this monsoon are because of the excessive rainfall. Three spells of heavy to extremely heavy rainfall in July and August, which are estimated to be “unprecedented“, caused maximum damage.

Satellite image showing Beas River stretch (pre-and post-flood event)- Surroundings of Mandi village, Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh. The pre-flood image was taken on May 7 while the post-flood image was captured on July 15. Photo by National Remote Sensing Centre, ISRO
Satellite image showing Beas River stretch (pre-and post-flood event)- Surroundings of Mandi village, Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh. The pre-flood image was taken on May 7 while the post-flood image was captured on July 15. Photo by National Remote Sensing Centre, ISRO

For instance, the state received 224.1 mm of rainfall during five days between July 8 and July 12 against its normal rainfall of 42.2 mm, a deviation of 431% from average rainfall, which, according to Paul, was the highest since 1980.

Paul also shared a monsoon report prepared by the Himachal meteorological department, which stated that vigorous monsoon conditions between August 11 and 14 were 168% above average rainfall.

The report pointed out new 24-hour rainfall records in the state. For instance, single-day rainfall in Kullu – which saw widespread loss of road infrastructure and human lives – was 131 mm on July 9, the highest since 1971.

On the same day, Shimla had 24-hour rainfall of 185 mm, a record since 1966. The cold desert area of Lahaul and Spiti, known for its sparse rainfall, made a single-day rainfall record of 83 mm since 1951.

As per a media report, the number of landslides in Himachal Pradesh has increased over the last three years, from 16 in 2020 to 100 in 2021 and 117 in 2022.

This monsoon, the number of landslides at 165 made a fresh record in the state, stated HP State Emergency Operation Centre data.

However, Manshi Asher, associated with Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, based in Himachal Pradesh, told Mongabay-India that just excess rainfall can’t be blamed for what happened in Himachal. “The scale of the disaster, as seen this time, is a cumulative result,” she said, referring to the damages in Kangra, Mandi, and Kullu that she says happened as a result of large-scale mega infrastructure such as dams and highways constructed without applying scientific methods. In the rural areas, it was badly built link roads, causing damages.

“Building collapses in Shimla and Kullu cities are a direct fallout of haphazard urbanisation, with local laws failing to prevent over-congestion and encroachments,” she added.

She said several research papers as well as the National Green Tribunal (NGT)-led reports, warned against uncontrolled and unsafe construction in cities like Shimla but nothing has changed. “Greed and ease of doing business have prompted sidelining of laws and regulations that have gone beyond the geographic and ecological boundaries,” she added.

Unscientific development

In Kullu, a civic body group, Himalayan Niti Abhiyan, is now actively raising the issue of unscientific development, which they believed was the major reason for the recent monsoon-time damages in Himachal Pradesh.

Its convener, Guman Singh, told Mongabay-India that various government agencies carried out construction without studying the geology of the area, the carrying capacity of hills, and the appropriate water drainage system.

“They simply blasted the mountains, carved out roads and the result is for everyone to see. Mandi to Kullu four-lane Highway had washed away in many stretches. Kalka-Shimla highway has met with a similar fate,” he added.

He said development in hills cannot be similar to that in plains. This mindset must be changed before it is too late to control the damage in the future.

Triund is a tourist spot in Himachal Pradesh. After monsoon fury, experts are raising concerns related to mass tourism.
Triund is a tourist spot in Himachal Pradesh. After monsoon fury, experts are raising concerns related to mass tourism. Photo by Ashish Gupta.

Himachal Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has already acknowledged indiscriminate construction and faulty designs as prime reasons for amplifying state loss.

The CM also said the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) should go for more tunnelling instead of widening the roads, and its engineers need to cut the “mountains more scientifically.”

He also blamed poor drainage for the damage caused to the roads, as well as the collapse of houses during the recent heavy rainfalls.

Way forward

Manshi Asher said no project could be categorised as a linear category project in mountain regions. In 2013, Ministry of Environment has issued a list of linear projects such as roads, transmission lines and pipelines, stating that they do not need environmental clearances. Asher claims that there are no linear projects in hilly areas because of the tough terrain. Thus, all such projects, since they don’t fall in linear category, must undertake independent environmental impact assessment, forest clearance and disaster risk assessment studies.

According to her, land use planning should be localised. The consent of citizens and gram sabhas should be a must for any development project. Mechanisms for citizen-led environment monitoring are critical.

“Local livelihood options should look at strengthening non-extractive and small-scale entrepreneurship in the long run,” she said.

She also stressed the need to move from a mass tourism model to more regulated and responsible tourism to reduce pressure on hilly towns and cities.

According to her, these steps are required because more extreme weather events may occur due to climate change. This stresses the need for proper safeguards to lessen human and financial loss.

While talking to Mongabay India, S.S. Randhawa, principal scientific officer at HP Council for Science, Technology and Environment, stressed the need for better drainage channels to avert the damage from heavy rainfall.

He said, technically speaking, over-saturation of subsurface soil was among the prime reasons for so many incidents of landslides and building collapses in the state. This can be averted if hills have better drainage system, something which has been impacted over the years due to heavy construction.

Meanwhile, the central government, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on September 5, sought directions to 13 Himalayan states and Union territories, including Himachal Pradesh, to immediately assess the carrying capacity of mountainous cities while proposing to form a new panel that would evaluate the action plans mooted by the states concerned. It was in response to the Supreme Court proposing appointing an expert panel to survey Himalayan cities and eco-sensitive areas in light of increasing landslides and floods in Uttarakhand, Himachal, and other Himalayan states.

Tikender Panwar, former deputy mayor of Shimla and an urban planning expert, told Mongabay-India that such surveys are only useful if they are acted upon. He said, “Everyone can see how congested Shimla is right now. There was no plan to decongest the city.”


Banner image: A truck is trying to cross a river in Himachal Pradesh. The state has witnessed huge impact of extreme weather events during current monsoon. Photo by Ravi Kumar/Wikimedia Commons.

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