Two quakes, one warning: Himachal sits on very shaky ground

Two back-to-back earthquakes, one of a medium intensity measuring 3.2 magnitude on the Richter scale, on early Saturday rocked Himachal Pradesh where climate change is already having a drastic and detrimental effect.

Also indiscriminate drilling of the hills for constructing tunnels is forcing rural communities, mainly in fragile and eco-sensitive zones of Chamba, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts, to raise clamour against upcoming hydropower stations with their houses developing cracks and natural water resources disappearing.

In recent years, seepage in the Chamera III project that washed off Mokhar village in Chamba district, the bursting of reservoir of Aleo-II project in Kullu district at its first testing, and the seepages in the Karchham Wangtoo tunnel are indicators of a disaster waiting to happen.

Currently, the 180 megawatts (MW) Bajoli Holi hydropower project in Chamba has been facing anger from the tribal Gaddi community as they fear the project is posing threat to their houses and fields owing to cracks and seepage in private and public land.

The question is: Does the state has made scientific assessment of disaster-prone areas, studied geological and hydrological impacts for strict compliance with environmental and safety norms and prepared exigency plans?

These frightening realities have been mentioned several times in performance audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) that is to ascertain the state’s preparedness.

According to Himdhara, a state-based environment action group, the sheer negligence is evident at two levels — firstly, the failure in ensuring compliance with environmental and safety norms by hydropower project authorities and the government, and secondly, the negligence towards the very impacts of unregulated hydropower development.

Local NGOs and green activists are also demanding that international financial institutions must be held accountable for their financing of disastrous hydropower projects in the Himalayas.

Several shortcomings surfaced during the crisis — man-made or natural — admit government officials.

An official, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media, told IANS in case of disaster or natural calamity coordination among state and Central agencies involved in relief and rescue operations is almost a miss.

“No nodal officer is appointed at the state level to coordinate and monitor the operations,” he remarked.

Also there is no mechanism for reaching out to the affected people in the shortest possible time and no round-the-clock dedicated helpline service to provide information regarding post-disaster actions.

“The state has no special chopper to handle emergencies. Only the chief ministera¿s official chopper is deployed for airlifting victims,” added the official.

The hills of Himachal Pradesh, especially in Kullu, Shimla and Kinnaur districts, are more prone to natural disasters like flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides.

Official data show more than 1,500 people have been killed in flash floods in the state in the past 20 years.

Besides the construction of mega hydropower projects, roads and large-scale unregulated mining are generating mountains of debris, responsible for increasing the magnitude of the natural calamity.

Often the debris is haphazardly dumped on hill slopes, eventually finds its way into rivers and streams, raising the bed level.

The carrying capacity of rivers and streams is reduced and during heavy rain they often change their course, causing widespread destruction downstream.

State Disaster Management Department Director Sudesh Kumar Mokhta told IANS the state is prepared to handle any exigency relating to landslides.

When asked about the state’s preparedness and the need for an updated disaster plan in the wake of the sinking town of Joshimath in neighbouring Himalayan state Uttarakhand, he replied: “We don’t foresee any exigency like Joshimath in this (Himachal Pradesh) state.”

But the question is: Like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh has also been undergoing unplanned construction of road networks and hydropower projects.

The ground is sinking in several villages and towns of Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba and Kinnaur, a wake-up call for authorities as the robust forecasting system is a miss in the state.

A devastating earthquake in 1905 severely damaged property in the Kangra region, including St. John’s Church where many British officials were buried, and claimed over 20,000 lives.

The frightening reality of a performance audit in 2017 on disaster management, with specific focus on earthquake and fire, conducted by the CAG said 90 per cent of buildings, mainly houses, in rural areas of the state do not follow safe construction rules.

In Shimla town, 83 per cent out of a sample of 300 selected buildings were highly vulnerable if there was a major earthquake.

However, construction of buildings and houses in rural areas (89 per cent of total houses) is not regulated by any law.

Construction of seismic-resistant buildings in rural areas has, thus, not been ensured, the CAG had observed.

This is a wake-up call for authorities as seismic sensitivity of the state is high. Seven out of 12 districts have over 25 per cent of their area falling in seismic zone V (very high damage risk).

The remaining parts fall in seismic zone IV (high damage risk).

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

20230114-142006

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