Himachal floods: A man-made disaster?

  • Flash floods during this year’s monsoon season have caused unprecedented damage to both lives and assets in Himachal Pradesh.
  • Although climate change is expected to have played a hand in causing the high precipitation leading to these flash floods, human induced disasters resulting from planned development have played a significant role in causing such colossal losses.

Impact of climate change in India

  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) VI report has clearly stated that the Himalayas and coastal regions of India will be the hardest hit by climate change.
  • In the Himalayas, there is a noticeable pattern of increased precipitation occurring in shorter periods of time.
  • This year, the precipitation so far has been attributed to the combined effect of the south-west monsoon with western disturbances.
  • The total rainfall from June to date was 511 mm.

Reworking of the development model

  • Apart from climate change, anthropogenic factors have also significantly contributed to the disaster.
    • The State’s development model initiated after it came into being in 1971 had been successful in transforming Himachal Pradesh into an exemplar of development for mountain States.
    • This model, known as the Dr. Parmar model, focused on exemplary land reforms, robust state-led investment in social welfare, and a strong emphasis on human resources.
    • However, the advent of liberalisation led to significant changes, with the Central government demanding stringent fiscal reforms and mountain States being forced to generate their own resources for fiscal management.
    •  The exploitation of natural resources, including forests, water, tourism, and cement production, became a major focus for development.

Impact of huge hydropower projects

  • One of the main reasons for the devastating impact of floods in the region is the uncontrolled construction of these hydropower projects, which have essentially transformed mountain rivers into mere streams.
  • The technology employed, known as “run of the river” dams, diverts water through tunnels burrowed into the mountains, and the excavated material (muck) is often disposed of along the riverbeds.
  • During periods of higher precipitation or cloudbursts, the water returns to the river, carrying the dumped muck along with it.
  • This destructive process is evident in rivers like Parvati, Beas and Sutlej, as well as many other small hydropower dams.
  • Moreover, long tunnels spanning 150 km have been planned or commissioned on the Sutlej river causing significant harm to the entire ecosystem.

Influx of a large number of tourists

  • The development-driven road expansion is aimed at promoting tourism and attracting a large number of visitors.
  •  The road-widening projects, often carried out by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), involve transforming two-lane roads into four-lane roads and single lanes into two- lane roads.
  • The development model follows a public-private-partnership (PPP) approach, emphasising the need to complete these projects rapidly.
    • However, this has resulted in bypassing essential geological studies and mountain engineering skills.
  • Traditionally, mountainous regions are not cut with vertical slits but are terraced, minimising the damage to the environment.
  • Unfortunately, in both the four-lane projects in Manali and Shimla, the mountains have been cut vertically, leading to massive landslides and damage to existing roads.
  • Restoring these roads after such disasters is a time-consuming process, often taking months or even years.
  • The consequences of such road expansions are evident during even normal rainfall, as it leads to slips and slides, amplifying the magnitude of the destruction during heavy rain or floods.
  • The establishment of massive cement plants have resulted in significant land use changes that contribute to flash floods during rainfall.
  • The cement plants alter the natural landscape, and the removal of vegetation leads to reduced capacity of land to absorb water.

Way forward

  • Commission of Inquiry must be instituted to bring the major stakeholders — the people — on board and discuss both the policy framework failures, as well as the peculiar aspects of the projects undertaken.
  • A new architecture is required to empower local communities over their assets.
  • The losses faced in the forms of culverts, village drains, small bridges, schools, other social infrastructure must be compensated; and this can be done if the assets are insured and the custodians are local communities.
  • This will help to rebuild the assets quicker.


  • With climate change a reality, humans should not add to the problem, but make adequate changes in infrastructure planning to avert disasters.