Himachal Pradesh, a state known for its natural beauty, snow-capped Himalayas and exquisite landscapes, attracts millions of national and international tourists every year. The hill state, however, is now caught in a continuous cycle of landslides, cloudbursts and flash floods.

This year, at least 246 deaths have been reported because of natural disasters and accidents during the monsoon season, as compared to 161 monsoon deaths last year.

By early August this year, 218 people had been reported dead during the monsoon season. On August 11, 28 more people were killed in a landslide in Kinnaur. The state has already recorded 35 major landslides from the onset of monsoon on June 13 to July 30 this year, which is double as compared to 16 landslide incidents in 2020.

The cloudburst occurrences have also gone up by 121% this monsoon season compared to last year, according to reports. Flash floods too have increased, with 17 incidents reported in Himachal Pradesh this year, compared to nine last year.

Renu Lata, a scientist with the GB Pant National Research Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, told Mongabay-India that climate change and anthropogenic activities are responsible for such massive destruction in Himachal Pradesh.

The Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Plan on climate change has identified that the average mean surface temperature of the state has risen by about 1.6 degrees Celsius in the last century. According to the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Plan, the patterns of temperature and rainfall are changing in the state and these have increased the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events, such as riverine and flash floods, drought, avalanche, cloud bursts, landslides and forest fires.

Listing the trends of climate change and their impacts in the hill state, the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Plan notes a higher warming rate in Shimla during the last 20 years, less monsoon discharge in River Beas, increase in winter discharge in River Chenab, the decline in glacial deposits, and an increase in the winter and spring discharge of River Satluj.

Upper Beas River near Manali. Photo credit: John Hill/Wikimedia Commons

Kulbhushan Upmanyu, an environmentalist associated with Himalaya Bachao Samiti in Himachal Pradesh, said that the temperature in the plains has increased by one degree Celsius due to global warming, but, in Himachal, it is 1.6 degrees Celsius.

“Earlier, the place situated 3,000 feet from the sea level used to experience snowfall,” he said. “Now, the snowfall is experienced only at a place situated above 5,000 feet. Earlier, pleasant rain used to continue for a week, but now, the rainy days have decreased and the intensity of rain has increased.

“The glaciers also melt at a rapid pace now. Water from glaciers joins with heavy rain, causing flash floods in the area,” he said.

Faiyaz A Khudsar, a scientist at the Centre for Environment Management of Degraded Ecosystems, Delhi University, noted that “anthropogenic climate change and elevation-dependent warming are the factors due to which the surface temperature in Himachal Pradesh is higher than the global average”.

“At the current rate, the average temperature in Himachal is likely to increase by 3 degrees Celsius-5 degrees Celsius by 2100 which will make it difficult to live in the state,” claimed Khudsar.

He further explained that if 10 centimetres of rainfall is received at a station in one hour, the rain event is termed as cloudburst. “As the temperature increased, the atmosphere started holding more moisture creating huge clouds,” said Khudsar. “The warm winds have increased which collide with the huge cold clouds. So, the moisture comes down very heavily in the form of cloudbursts.”

The cloudburst incidents then lead to flash floods and landslides causing severe damages to the infrastructure in the state. In fact, according to a landslide risk assessment report by the government of Himachal Pradesh, all 77 blocks in the state, having over 18,577 villages are now at the risk of landslides.

A landslide warning sign on a highway in Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal

Climate change woes

The hill state is currently pursuing several construction projects, from highways to hydropower projects, which are considered an important component of India’s clean energy plans.

For instance, till 2014, the length of National Highways in Himachal was 2,196 km. In 2018, the length was increased to 2,642 km. The state roads of 4,312 kilometres in length have also been approved as new national highways. A majority of the already constructed national highways are also undergoing reconstruction or widening.

Besides roads, according to the state of rivers report by Himdhara Collective, an environmental research and action group, Himachal Pradesh has a total of 813 large, medium and small projects and micro-hydel power plants. The state has already installed 10,264 megawatts worth of projects. The report said that Himachal Pradesh is planning to harness a total of 27,436 MW and, of that, 24,000 MW of power planned from five major river basins of the state namely Satluj, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Yamuna.

Manshi Asher, who is the co-founder of Himdhara Collective, said, “The hills in Himachal Pradesh are very young.”

“They are still under formation and not yet hard,” Asher said. “In such a fragile environment, inappropriate human activity like unplanned development, deforestation, road cutting, terracing and changes in agriculture crops requiring more intense weathering is causing landslides.”

According to a study by Asher, 53 hydropower projects are planned on the Satluj basin in Kinnaur, where 37 people were killed due to landslides this year. This study found that hydropower proliferation in the name of “clean energy” has brought rapid land-use changes adversely impacting local terrestrial ecosystems and communities inhabiting them.

She found that of the area of the “forest land” diverted to non-forest activities between 1980 and 2014, 90% was transferred for hydropower projects and transmission lines, leading to change in land use, fragmentation of forests and loss of biodiversity in the Kinnaur region, already considered as vulnerable from the point of view of its ecology, geology and climatic changes.

A 2016 image of Khirganga Dam, Himachal Pradesh. The young hills of the state are expected to get several hydropower projects to increase clean energy capacity. Photo credit: Ankur Thakue/Wikimedia Commons

“Big hydropower projects, four-lane road projects are being built in Himachal Pradesh,” Asher told Mongabay-India. “But there is no mindful approach while such projects are being pursued. These hills cannot take such heavy projects. The grinding of hills and using big machines in such a fragile environment have changed the ecological balance.”

She stressed that the leftover debris (after cutting the hills) and wide concrete roads stop the water streams from uphill to the rivers. “Earlier, the whole hill was used as drainage, now there are a few points left,” she explained. “The loosened hills cannot take the load of high-intensity rain and thus collapses in the form of landslides.”

Asher also said that the mining in the state is also increasing the incidents of landslides. “If you see the landslide in Sirmaur, where an entire hill caved in, excavation work was carried out in that hill for limestone mining which loosened the earth on the hills and the hill was caved in,” she noted.

However, this is when Himachal Pradesh has recorded a rise in forest cover by 25% in 24 years from 1991 to 2015, according to an analytical study conducted by the State Centre on Climate Change. The report, however, mentions that the dense forest cover in the state is declining.

Upmanyu, however, said: “The open forests, agricultural land and shrubs are not green covers and only a dense forest can serve the purpose of forests.”

“A tree takes hundreds of years to grow, cutting old trees and planting saplings does not help,” he said. “So, there is not more than 10% forest area left in the state. The cutting of trees impacts the grip of soil and is causing landslides.”

Ongoing construction for a four-way project on Shimla Solan highway. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal

Apathy increases risk

In Boh and Bagli village near Dharamshala, many lives were lost and houses were washed away due to a landslide in July this year. A study conducted by AK Mahajan, professor in environmental sciences, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, had put these zones under the category of active sliding zones and advised against developing the area.

In the study, he stated that due to tectonic movement, rocks in Dharamsala are highly deformed, folded and fractured and the fracturing of rocks and presence of loose material coupled with high seepage leads to very high landslide hazards. Mahajan told Mongabay-India that he was neither consulted regarding the study nor the study was acted upon. “I was only called after the destruction happened.”

Despite several warnings by experts and the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority that the constructions should not be carried out, the experts accuse the government of not listening and still approving development projects in such zones.

“The government never consults the public, geologists and environmentalists for the development of the state,” Upmanyu alleges. “The rules are more industrialist-friendly. Despite our protests, the development projects get approvals. This all is resulting in people losing their lives and huge economic destruction in the state.”

Suresh Attri, the principal scientific officer (environment) of the Himachal Pradesh government, admitted the impact of climate change on rainfall and crop yield change but refused to admit that landslides increased due to developmental activities in the state.

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Navneet Sharma/Wikimedia Commons

“There is a climate change impact in Himachal Pradesh, which has intensified the rainfall and lowered the apple yield in the state,” Attri told Mongabay-India. “Landslides are common in Himachal. They are not because of climate change and anthropogenic activities.”

“Climate change is a worldwide phenomenon and Himachal Pradesh is suffering because of that,” he added. “It is not that we are doing something wrong. Development is taking place which is important for the people of the state. We are developing the state sustainably.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.