Residents of the ancient pilgrim town of Joshimath were forced to flee their homes in the freezing weather of January. Walls had cracked open, while foundations were tilting and sinking in a quarter of the approximately 2,500 buildings in the town. Federal and Uttarakhand state government officials are moving thousands of residents into hotels while halting all work on road widening and a hydropower project. Experts point out that this was a disaster waiting to happen because the authorities ignored multiple warnings over decades about the way roads and hydropower projects were being built.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami over the weekend to check on rehabilitation, while the Prime Minister’s Office declared Joshimath a “landslide-subsidence zone” and asked experts to prepare short- and long-term plans on what to do.

But there has been no lack of expert advice or warnings, it is just that these have been repeatedly ignored before the Joshimath disaster unfolded.

Less than a week ago, a delegation of Joshimath residents who went to Uttarakhand capital Dehradun to complain about cracks in their houses due to construction work reportedly only managed to get five minutes with the Chief Minister. “He told us our fears are unfounded and sent us away without listening to us,” a member of the delegation told The Third Pole, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The damage was visible inside houses in Joshimath as well. Credit: Puran Billangwal

This was on January 4, a day before cracks widened so quickly in so many houses and roads that residents forced managers of the local Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project to halt all tunnelling work. The same night, district officials made a count of affected buildings. The count had gone up by January 8 evening.

The Joshimath disaster

Kalachand Sain, head of the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, said Joshimath – a town 2,000 m above sea level – has always been vulnerable because it sits atop the debris of an old landslide. This has failed to stop a building spree in recent years, with ill-planned construction destabilising the soil and choking underground water channels, so that water starts accumulating under the foundations.

This process has been accelerated manifold by the work to widen the road to Badrinath – another pilgrimage centre higher up in the Himalayas. That road is part of the Char Dham (Four Pilgrimage Centres) road widening project. There have been multiple reports that trees are being cut and natural water channels choked because the project is failing to follow the government’s own principles on how to build a road in a mountain area. The road widening work has now been halted.

The other large threat multiplier is the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project of the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited. This is a run-of-the-river electricity generation project that entails boring a tunnel over 12 km in length through the hillside and channelling the water of the Dhauli Ganga river through the tunnel to generate electricity.

National Thermal Power Corporation Limited was quick to point out on January 5 that its tunnel did not pass below Joshimath and should not be considered responsible for the disaster. But it does pass through the same aquifer that is below Joshimath.

Piyoosh Rautela – now the executive director of Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre of the Uttarakhand state government – had co-authored a letter to the Current Science journal in 2010. In the letter, written on December 24, 2009, he had warned that the tunnel boring machine being used by the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited punctured an aquifer allowing the water to move in a different direction underground, drying out the springs on which many residents of Joshimath depend for their household water supply. Rautela has now said the sinking of Joshimath “is likely caused by aquifer breaches as we see muddy waters pouring out”. However, he added, “there is no evidence yet to link or delink it with the hydel tunnel.”

Hemant Dhyani, another expert, said, “Only a water test can tell if the streams erupting in the town are from the hydel tunnel.” He felt the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited had been premature in disclaiming any connection with the Joshimath disaster.

This is the same hydropower project where around 200 workers were killed after being trapped in a flash flood within the tunnel on February 7, 2021. That flash flood had been caused by the collapse of an ice wall – which experts ascribed to climate change impacts – on the slopes above the Rishi Ganga, a tributary to the Dhauli Ganga. All these rivers are part of the Ganga basin, India’s largest river basin.

A large X is used to mark houses determined to be unsafe in Joshimath. Credit: Puran Billangwal

After Joshimath disaster

While the authorities try to resettle the suddenly homeless people of Uttarakhand and await the recommendations the expert committee it has set up, locals are fretting. Atul Satti, a local environmental activist, told The Third Pole, “We demand instant action from the government that must include immediate stalling of the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited project, closure of Chardham all-weather road (Haleng-Marwari Bypass), implementation of National Thermal Power Corporation Limited’s pact that insures houses, setting a committee for rehabilitation of Joshimath within a set time frame, providing immediate help to all the affected people that include compensation, food, shelter and other basic facilities and participation of local representatives” while deciding development projects.

Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and Lead Author for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports, said in a statement, “There are two aspects to the Joshimath problem. First is rampant infrastructure development which is happening in a very fragile ecosystem like Himalayas… Secondly, the way climate change is manifesting in some of the hill states of India is unprecedented. For example, 2021 and 2022 have been years of disaster for Uttarakhand. There have been numerous climate risk events like high rainfall events triggering landslides. We have to first understand that these areas are very fragile and small changes or disturbances in the ecosystem will lead to grave disasters, which is what we are witnessing in Joshimath.” He emphasised the need for a “strong planning process” before any development projects were taken up in such fragile ecosystems. “Joshimath is a clear example of what one should not do in the Himalayas.”

Across Joshimath red X’s are painted across buildings. Credit: Puran Billangwal

YP Sundriyal, head of the geology department at the Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, pointed out that Joshimath does not have a proper drainage system, so “water percolation has decreased the cohesive strength of the rocks over the time. This has resulted in landslides, triggering cracks in the houses. Climate change is further worsening the matter, with more extreme weather events. We need to have the formation of some strong rules and regulations and moreover forced and timely implementation of these rules.”

An emerging pattern

Joshimath is an ancient pilgrim town, and its plight is making news headlines. But it is not the only one facing problems in the Himalayan region. There have been reports of houses developing cracks near the sites of many hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Even Bhutan, which has showcased its run-of-the-river hydropower projects as environmentally friendly, has towns with cracked buildings. Beyond just the impact of large hydropower projects is the way that expert advice and warnings, often of the government itself, is put aside in the rush to build infrastructure in the fragile Himalayan landscape. While there may be short-term profits for some construction firms, the long-term risks and costs are borne by the residents of these regions as well as by the state exchequer. It is past time that experts are listened to before the disasters rather than asked what to do after the disasters they predicted have happened.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.