Images from different disasters. Used for indicative purpose only

Thriving through change: Embracing adaptability

Tikender Singh Panwar

Shimla, July 10

Charathgarh, is a small town in the Una district of Himachal Pradesh. The recent images from this town, depicting a dead body floating in the cremation ground, serve as a  stark reminder or the urgent need for adaptive strategies to minimize the loss resulting from climate change. With the onset of the monsoon season, regional newspapers are filled with front-page stories highlighting the damage caused by nature’s fury.

However, we must acknowledge that it is not solely nature’s fury that is responsible for the significant loss experienced. Reckless infrastructure development in both urban and rural areas of the mountain regions, especially the Himalayas, is a major contributing factor. This ongoing development has led to colossal losses year after year, affecting assets, roads, bridges, houses, buildings, towns and villages throughout the region. Tragically, lives are also lost during these disasters.

The Delhi-Manali highway faces frequent blockages throughout the year. Similarly, there are numerous instances of disasters being triggered by heavy rains in various parts of the country. For example, the char dham yatra highway in Uttarakhand was washed away in recent rains. These incidents further highlight the vulnerability of infrastructure and the urgent need for adaptive strategies to mitigate the impact of such disasters.

Adaptation is the key

Adaptation  is crucial in addressing the challenges posed by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) report VI , and its three working groups, clearly emphasize the urgent need for intervention. It is encouraging to see that climate scientists worldwide are now recognizing the systemic nature of the problem.

At present, the report underscores the importance of implementing significant adaptation strategies to minimize the loss resulting from climate change-induced disasters. In the developing world, it is essential to build strong advocacy groups that advocate for a policy paradigm shift towards climate adaptability. While climate mitigation and adaptation strategies are interconnected, it is crucial for the developing world and the least developed nations to focus on adaptability, as they experience the largest losses, despite contributing the least to climate change.

The report’s emphasis on adaptation highlights the need for comprehensive measure to address climate change impacts effectively. By prioritizing adaptation strategies, nations can work towards minimizing the adverse effects of climate induced disasters and build resilience in vulnerable regions.

What does is mean by adaptability strategies? Adaptability  strategies refer to a set of measures and approaches aimed at reducing vulnerability and enhancing resilience in the face of changing environmental conditions, specifically related to climate change. In the context of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), adaptability strategies focus on addressing the challenges posed by climate change in the ecologically sensitive area.

Also read:Environmental Crisis in Lahaul, as tourist footfall leads to Garbage and Plastic waste overflow

The strong impetus from the centre for generating their own resources in the IHR states has led to a shift in development strategies towards areas that are not well-suited for the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. As a result, vulnerability in the region has increased over the past few decades, amplifying the impact of disasters. Despite advancements in communication and research, there continues to be a rise in fatalities and losses to assets.

The areas that require immediate attention in the IHR are:
  • Hydro power generation
  • Tourism
  • Infrastructure Development
  • Forest & Water
  • Urbanization

Sustainable Development in the IHR must be the overarching principle of development. Shifting the focus towards sustainable development practices that take into account the unique characteristics of the Himalayan ecosystem. This includes careful planning of infrastructure, resource management, and land-use policies to minimize negative impacts, community engagement and capacity building.

The Himalayas are considered to be the powerhouse of India. There is massive potential of hydropower generation in this region. The IHR has the potential of generating 115,550 MW hydro energy. The current installed capacity of 46,850 MW is being done by various agencies, both private and public companies. This report demonstrates the sheer linkages between the construction of these hydro power projects and disasters in the region.

The report states, “In Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town, where more than 800 buildings have developed cracks due to subsidence, the government on January 5, 2023, imposed a ban on construction activities, including on the works at Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. Anjal Prakash, research director at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, who was also the coordinating lead author of the 2002 Special Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that most of the existing or under-construction projects in the Himalayas were envisaged 10-15 years ago and there is a dire need to reevaluate these based on current scientific data. Both eastern and western Himalayan region in India are part of a seismically active zone; scientists have been warning of a build-up of a major earthquake in Uttarakhand.”

Despite these stern warning, the development strategy continues unabated.

Tourism is another major area that has an inherent duality in it. Whereas it serves as a bread-and-butter source for a large number of the population residing in the IHR, it is also building new social conflicts. There is more pressure on the natural resources. The infrastructure development model of four lane highways attracting tourists, building typologies not akin to the mountain needs and decrying the mountain aesthetics in building typologies, all of these are contributing to the rise in the incidence of the loss due to natural disasters. Carrying capacity of the tourism related activities must be discussed and engaged with ensuring that the people are kept at the centre of such discussions.

Urbanisation in the mountain region is another major area that needs to be revisited. The copy past models of the plains, the national building codes, mainly decided for the buildings in the flat regions, building typologies not suited for the mountains, the reinforced cement concrete structures, an such other forms are the way in which mountains are being shaped. These are neither suited for the mountains, nor are these adaptive to the mountain eco-system and hence are extremely vulnerable for the disaster risk reduction perspective.

The Hazard Risk Vulnerability Assessment (HVRA) report generated for Shimla town points towards the extreme form of vulnerability existing in the hilly town. It states that if an earthquake with a considerable magnitude strikes this hilly town during the day there may be more than 18,000 deaths, but it strikes during night the number might reach to 23000 people. The two most vulnerable buildings happen to be the Himachal Pradesh high Court and the Indira Gandhi Medical College, Shimla. Imagine there will not even be place in the major hospital which shall itself be grappling with the disaster.

This is the story of almost every mountain town. The emphasis must be laid on retrofitting ensuring a minimal loss in the advent of a disaster. Also, the building plans, the development plans must be based on strong geological findings.

 Alternative governance

Quite interestingly, if one visits the office of the member of the legislative assembly in Himachal Pradesh, for that matter across the Himalayan region, there are two major works that consume most of the elected official’s work. The first is transfers of the employees, and the second is demi official(DO) letters to the state and district bureaucracy demanding compensation to the town/village areas for the loss and damage that has occurred because of rain, floods etc. The loss mainly pertains to damage to roads, culverts, bridges in the towns, buildings, both private and public, crop loss etc.

The time period to get such losses assessed and finally compensated take months, if not years together. Till that period the people have to live by the loss and this in mountain vocabulary is called “contentment” or resilience, etc.

A major disruption is required in this area. Just like there is insurance of the human body, moveable and immovable assets like cars, house, etc., it is high time that the community led insurance models are developed for insuring their village or town common assets.

These assets include roads, bridges, culverts, schools etc. The principal driver for such assets and their insurance should be the village or town elected/community residents, and not the government. These are huge assets that the towns and the village own but are not considered of worth insurance.

A mechanism should be drawn where these assets, is lost due to natural disasters are compensated by reconstructing them within a short span of time.

Take for example in Himachal Pradesh, during the current monsoon period there are two major economic activities taking place. The harvest of ‘off-season vegetables’ in the regions on Solan Sirmour, Hamirpur, Kangra and another is harvest of apple in districts of Shimla, Solan, Sirmour, Kullu, Kinnaur, Chamba etc. One single culvert damaged, if not repaired will severely hit the farmers of a particular village.

Adaptability, in not just a conceptual phenomenon linked to infrastructure adaptability and building resilience amongst the communities through behavioural change etc. It is also how the economic and financial activities area adapted.

Adaptability for a better and secure future.



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