Natural disasters are not a new thing in Uttarakhand. Mighty yet fragile mountains, tectonic movements, gushing rivers, and erratic and intense rainfall make this region highly prone to disasters. Ever year, one or other part of the hill state is devastated by either flood or earthquake or cloudburst. In September 2012, heavy rains swept away around 6 villages in Ukhimath Block, Rudraprayag. In another incident in August 2012, a cloud burst caused flash flood in the Ganges that washed away hundreds of houses in Uttarkashi. Between 2009 and 2012, Uttarakhand experienced nine earthquakes of magnitude between 4.0 and 5.5. Recently, on June 17, 2013, massive flash flood and landslides destroyed over 153 bridges and swept away over 1,500 roads. Over thousands of tourists, pilgrims, and locals died. Nobody knows exact figures.
Earthquakes in Uttarakhand (Between 2009 and 2012)
|November 27, 2012||Uttarkashi||4.5||35 km|
|February 9, 2012||Uttarkashi||5.1||6 km|
|April 4, 2011||Pithoragarh||5.3+||26 km|
|July 6, 2010||Pithoragarh||5.2||32 km|
|June 22, 2010||Pithoragarh||5.2||16 km|
|May 3, 2010||Rishikesh||4.0||13 km|
|March 15, 2010||Pithoragarh||5.0||17 km|
|September 21, 2009||Joshimath||5.0||52 km|
|June 4, 2009||Joshimath||5.0||7 km|
The Geological Survey of India (GSI) declared over 230 villages out 7,626 villages in Uttarakhand sensitive for natural disasters. We cannot prevent natural disasters, but we can definitely mitigate their impact. But we have learnt nothing from our past experiences in Uttarakhand. We have failed to respond to all warnings whether it was from Meteorological Department or the GSI. Lately, the state has experienced rapid urbanization and urban growth. Hotels and big apartments have come up in river beds where soils are 100 percent saturated. Dams have been erected across active fault lines on the Ganges and its tributaries. Forests have been cleared for plantations and industries. We have done everything to ensure that even a slightest calamity can cause maximum damage to life and property. But unregulated and unsustainable tourism has done more damage than anything else in the state.
According to an estimate, over 25 million tourists visited Uttarakhand in 2011 whereas its actual population stood only 10 million (Recipe for Disaster in Uttarakhand, Times of India; June 23, 2013). The floating population was more than double of its actual population. Can you imagine what may happen to a place where tourists outnumber the local population?
Every geographic area has limited capacity to sustain maximum population. Its ‘carrying capacity’ largely depends on the availability of food, water supply, sanitation and medical care (the latter two in case of human population), et. al. Uttarakhand has tough and inaccessible terrain, fragile ecosystem, and highly unstable mountains, largely consisting of fluvio-glacial deposits, which often experience mass movement and mass wasting leading to massive landslides. Limited availability of arable lands, resources and economic opportunities further worsen the situation in high hills. In these circumstances, every addition to population puts enormous pressure on the area and leads to impacts that are irreversible.
This is unquestionable that tourism has broadened livelihood options for people in Uttarakhand. But uncontrolled and conventional tourism in the Alpine Himalayas posed innumerable threats to the natural areas. According to People and the Planet, over 250,000 pilgrims, 25,000 trekkers, and 75 mountaineering expeditions climb up to the Gangotri Glacier every year. Similarly, increased number tourists in Hemkund Saheb and the Valley of Flower have adversely affected the population of bees, which may result in the extinction of several rare plant varieties that bloom every July. Several illegal hotels and inns in restricted areas are depleting natural resources, using local forests for firewood, and unwisely disposing off solid waste.
Increased number of tourist lures some to make a quick buck. Sahastradhara near Dehradun is one such example where, in the last twenty years, the entire landscape has been changed. Now nowhere is seen innumerable streams that descended from the sulphur rocks. Pigeon-holed hotels and rickety restaurants infested with rats and mice dominate the entire landscape. Indeed, construction of hotels, restaurants and recreational facilities has degraded the natural environment and created aesthetic pollution. What is worse is that geology of the place is often ignored while construction of buildings, dams, roads and reservoir. In a report released at the International Conference on Energy Resources and Technologies for Sustainable Development in February 2013 in Kolkata, geologists from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee and Civil Engineering Department (Hill Area Development) Bureau of the Bureau of Indian Standards said that the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) ignored geological and environment conditions of the state and did not consider crucial parameters like geological safety factor, slopes and rock types while constructing roads in the Himalayas. We all know what happened to roads in recent tragedy in Uttarakhand. Unregulated construction activities along rivers and in river beds have created long term potential threats to life.
Tourism has put tremendous pressure on already scarce water resource in Uttarakhand. Presently, 11 out of 13 districts suffer from acute shortage of potable water. But overconsumption of water by irresponsible travelers—who are often found to be using more water than necessary—aggravate the problem for local communities. We also should not forget that tourism is seasonal in character which places higher demands for water during high season.
Landscapes along the trails to Kedarnath, the Valley of Flower and Hemkund Saheb are primarily dominated by plastics and solid waste. This has become a serious problem as littering around has become a major despoiler of natural environment. Besides this, on their return journeys, trekkers often leave behind garbage, oxygen cylinders, toilet papers, etc.
Degradation of natural environment by irresponsible travel has brought significant change in animal behavior, loss of natural habitat, and alteration in ecosystems. If we want to protect our people, our resources, our rivers, our hills, and lives of hundreds and thousands of tourists who come from all parts of India and the world, we really have to make tourism more sustainable that benefit both local communities and tourists from far and wide. And we have examples wherein governments took reasonable measures such restricting travels to protect local environment and fragile ecosystems. In 2000, authorities imposed restriction on tourism in Machu Pichhu in Peru to prevent wearing out of the original paving stones on the four-day long trekking trail to the “Lost City of the Incas.” Now only 200 people are allowed to trek every day. Likewise, Ecuador imposed travel restrictions in the Galapagos Islands to protect the local animal and plant life. Even in India, we have regulations and plans in use for tourists to Amarnath Yatra and Manasarovar Lake in Tibet. But there is not anything like this in Uttarakhand. If we really want to protect our Himalayan treasure – the Dev Bhoomi – we must begin with travel restrictions in six highly visited and extremely fragile places in the state – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamnotri, The Valley of Flower and Hemkund Saheb.