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Time for a moratorium on dam building in the Himalayas?

Warnings that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated were ignored. By 2013, 292 big hydro projects were under construction or planned for India’s Himalayan region, one every 10 kilometres or so

January 10, 2023 / 02:00 PM IST
Cracks appeared in 68 more houses on Monday taking the number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath to 678.

Cracks appeared in 68 more houses on Monday taking the number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath to 678.

Joshimath in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, the gateway for pilgrimages and treks, is a crowded and unplanned town situated on the unsteady debris of an ancient landslide has been declared a disaster-prone area and its residents are now being evacuated.

It is located downstream of the confluence of the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers, in a region reeling under a series of climate change-induced glacial melting and extreme precipitation events, incessant floods and landslides, especially since 2014, that has made its topography more hollow and unstable.

The actual sinking of Joshimath and 21 other villages in the Chamoli district began after the Kedarnath flood disaster of 2013 and intensified after the Chamoli flood disaster of 2021 caused by melting glaciers and excessive precipitation. However, two other multiplying factors speeded the sinking, the first is the ongoing dam building and tunnelling activity for NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project and the second, is the construction of the Chardham highway, the government’s plan to build highways to connect four of the most inaccessible Hindu pilgrimage hotspots in the most fragile parts of the Himalayas.

Needless to say, too much construction has led to several large-scale landslides. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 128 landslides recorded in the Chamoli-Joshimath region alone. For the record, in 1976, a Centre-appointed committee led by MC Mishra, the then collector of Garhwal, had warned that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated. He recommended that all further construction activities except repair work be prohibited.