No End To The Himalayan Blunder?

Jan 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Disasters and Climate Change, Environment, Experts Speak, Government Policies, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, MOUNTAIN ISSUES, Opinion, POLICY ADVOCACY, Vulnerability

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma IndiaThe response to recent Uttarakhand disaster is seemingly inadequate, writes Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma. It has not only been a policy failure but institutional inadequacies lie exposed too. Mountain peculiarities have remained an exercise in academic deliberations. Often piecemeal and repetitive, several high level committees of the state have neither been able to foresee latent threats nor been visionary to suggest out-of-box actions to strengthen mountain resilience. It is high time the ‘solutionism’ perspective of predictable actions is laid to rest. The Himalayas can’t afford another ‘blunder’. Any takers?

Please write your opinion in comment box at the end of this article!

Or  At Discussion Link Below

The worst disaster that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013 is already ‘history’! While the radical viewpoint has been that ”the disaster was waiting to happen’, tentative  response is that ‘such disasters happen once in a century’. Between these two extreme viewpoints is, what is often called, the business-as-usual approach involving expert consultations, new initiatives and fresh collaborations engaging diverse stakeholders towards better emergency response and early forecasting of extreme events.

It must raise some degree of hope though accumulated evidences of the recent past indicate that far from ‘moving the mountains’  it is the mountains that have often moved men out of their slumber. No surprise, therefore, the mountain communities surviving on less than $2 a day remain vulnerable to growing climatic and environmental uncertainties. While the policy prescriptions have remained broadly inadequate, action research has rarely rose to the occasion to combat the mountain crises any bit.

If it sounds cynical so be it! Since 1982, more than a dozen task forces, working groups and high level expert panels have drafted and redrafted blueprints for addressing the mountain peculiarities. The last task force report, convened by India’s Planning Commission, was released in the year 2010. Suggestive in nature, the report had primarily stressed the need for the Himalayan states to regularly interact and share experiences for developing a common essential plan for the region.

No wonder, the mountain regions have become graveyard of failed policies and institutions. No claims to the contrary ever get made either! From forest research to crop improvement and from geological studies to remote sensing, the Himalayan region has been home to some 36 research institutions and over 24 universities spread across some 12 mountain states in the country. In addition, each of the states has its own institutional architecture to provide the necessary link for developments at the local level.

Devastation KedarnathWith an average of five public-funded research institutions and universities in each state, the region could not have asked for more.  Ironically, however, the Rio+20 assessment of Sustainable Mountain Development has concluded that there has not been any significant change in environmental protection, economic growth and social improvement in the region. Clearly, the policy prescriptions and consequent institutional responses to the mountain issues have been found less-than-adequate.

The question that begs attention is: to what effect have these institutions and policies been in addressing the mountain concerns? It has been argued that despite huge financial investments across sectors the results have been deficient in making a difference to the life of people and the quality of their environments due to lack of coordination, planning, capacity and implementation. Yet, each of those dozen reports (and the related institutions) claim to have enlisted ‘solutions’ to diverse developmental challenges.

In the Himalayan context, the ‘solutionism’ perspective ought to be laid to rest because the problems have neither been fully understood nor been properly diagnosed. It has also been observed that there is missing or disconnected leadership among multiple stakeholders on various socio-environment development fronts. While the policy planners and subject specialists need to do some soul searching, the civil society has to get together in rising above its narrow confines.

While civil society initiatives need to address the challenge of  ‘scale’ for their wider adoption and spread, the pan-Himalayan multi-stakeholder platform(s) aimed at amplifying mountain concerns need to raise questions on failed policies and institutions and create new frameworks for creative engagement with the state. Unless the bar gets raised and a challenge is thrown before the state, it is quite unlikely if men would be able to move the mountains!

Discussion Link>>


Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma wrote this article for Climate Himalaya’s Expert Speak Column. Dr. Sharma is a development analyst based in New Delhi, India.




Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>

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9 Comments to “No End To The Himalayan Blunder?”

  1. MI Zuberi; Professor at Ambo University, Ethiopia-via Linkedin

    Thank you Dr Vajpai for this post…we appreciate the efforts by you and the Climate Himalaya for understanding and creating awareness about the problems. You and Dr Sharma are right in identifying the short comings of the efforts so far undertaken …not identifying and understanding the system as a whole and then trying to address the problems with this knowledge as far possible. There are many many examples of ‘not considering the whole’ and only trying to solve the ‘problem in isolation’ ….the consequences were and are always disastrous….the ‘Himalayan blunder’ is an example..which will not only affect the Uttarakhand or Northern India but also the riparian regions of India and Bangladesh too. The Himalaya is really a great key structure of this part of the world..and we should try to realize this fact and behave with responsibility. There is no scope of taking a BAU approach to this issue otherwise disasters will become more common and widespread affecting all of us.

    Bernard Gore, Programme Manager at NZ Police, Wellington & Wairarapa, New Zealand via LINKEDIN

    If it was obvious, then how come YOU didn’t raise the alert? Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, but prediction is not, and looks like you are just after a scapegoat to blame.
    Mursheda Al Nur, Nepal via Linkedin

    Disasters are natural phenomena-no doubt. We have to give our best effort to face all these. Specially high level committees of the state should be more concerned and active in this regard.

  2. Krishnan Srinivasan, Ecologist & Natural Resource Manager, Chennai, India via Linkedin

    Geophysical phenomena do occur and are out of control by humans. Many of them are unpredictable and the quantum of devastation can also not be precisely measured. When one looks at such phenomena (like Uttarakhand cloud burst or Tsunami 2004), it is clear, human life is thrown out of gear. When we know for sure that certain areas should never be overloaded in the name of development, why should we resort to it. When pristine beauty is used for commercial exploitation, we have to pay the price too. Sequential, parallel, serial or the so called holistic approaches are to rationalize our own deeds, ex-post facto. When we know the tectonics of a region, planned urbanization is a must. One cannot have a cake and eat it too, by any approach.

    We learn from our mistakes. Himalayan blunders do not occur every now and then too. Climate change too is playing havoc, in the Himalayan biodiversity rich pockets. Probably an understanding has to be arrived at by the countries around the Himalayas to share the costs and benefits for mitigation and future activities. That ends up in politics.

  3. MI Zuberi; Professor at Ambo University, Ethiopia-via Linkedin

    Yes, you are right Krishnan…we get no solution dierect from approach/understanding…and often we use these for rationalizing our won interest/misdeeds. But that is not the fault of the approach/knowledge…we need to understand the system and impacts on the system.. … .considering the system as a whole; I think KN wanted to emphasize here. Also we have to learn from our mistakes..but when these are ‘intentional’ or ‘deliberate’.. do we want to learn !!

    • Krishnan Srinivasan, Ecologist & Natural Resource Manager via LinkedIn:

      Yes, Zuberi, either we learn or pay the price. No free lunches are given by nature. As we sow, so we reap. When a Himalayan Blunder happens, every rescue begins on a war footing only to be forgotten. Public memory is short, it moves to the next sensational event, in a few days. So is the action plan too. We, the Humans are yet to mature.

  4. Agha Iqrar Haroon says:

    A wonderful research article. Use of land is a greatest issue in Sun-continent. Moreover billions of $ came in this region through international funding but that was possibly gone to drain. We should evaluate capacity building programs that had been done so far in this region. Where is outcome?

  5. Amber Masud says:

    Dr. Sharma has rightly pointed out that the problem has never been really understood. Well the potential of landslides, GLOFs, FFs and other threats in the mountain areas has increased many folds over the years. Especially due to newer construction and advanced techniques including changes in traditional architectural designs aswell as material, has resulted in increased vulnerability of communities’ aboding in mountains. While we also understand that repeated disasters in mountain areas have also led to formulation of newer policies and building codes but we have also failed to implement anything and we do not actually realize what the real solution is. The HKH region remains at a high threat from many forms of hydro-metrological phenomenon, infact I would say with the current climate visibilities the threat has increased. But no one pays much attention to the same, as also mentioned in this blog that people tend to forget rather quickly and get back to their old ways. Well to me the primary responsibility remains with the governments of these regions to ensure that hazard vulnerability risk assessments for all settlements are done, in place policies are implemented and communities are assisted in relocation and settlement. I must also add from my experience working with the mountain communities in the Karakorum region of Pakistan, that sometimes communities also become very rigid in responding to help offered before disasters hit. I am certain government institutions, CS, donors etc. should work on providing viable settlement and rehabilitation assistance right at the time when risks are identified rather than responding at or after disasters hit, which also has huge cost implications.

  6. Gajendra Rautela says:

    I see a thought provoking and well written article by Dr. Sudhirendra Sharma and very clear initiative for discussion raised by Climate Himalaya almost six months after the Himalayan Tsunami.

    Dr. Sharma has rightly raised the issues issue of working of ‘36 research institutions and over 24 universities that spread across some 12 mountain states in India. But, to understand the failures one also needs to understand many things running parallel with these organizations.

    There is a need to reform the way forward as far as these research institutions and universities are concern and one of the Climate Himalaya’s Youth writer raised this aspect Link:

    The point is that, why these institutions still stand insufficient or ineffective and why there is need felt in every second decade to constitute one more group or institution by third decade that specialize in mountain specific research? Why there is a need of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest to finally get unit dedicated only to the Himalayas after almost 2 and half decade of having an organisation and nodal agency to carry research in various aspects of Himalayan Geology, Ecology and other related aspects? and that is a big question in its own self.


    During the entire duration of the Himalayan Tsunami, except a few scientific organisations, I don`t remember coming across any potential research paper or report from nodal agencies detailing about this incident, policy failures, and mitigation aspects to work on stabilization of the valleys post Tsunami. Though, after one month of the incident and now almost 6 months one can only go through what happened then and what happened before scenario in nationalised journals.

    I here wish to add a very important comment made by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, environmentalist and former professor at IIM-Calcutta, “The fragile ecosystem can sustain only a limited number of human beings. The issue of monitoring the resident population has not been addressed and the burden of too many people may destroy it. Population explosion poses a major threat to the environment and needs immediate action. But the politicians do not want to address problem issue,”

  7. I subscribe to your view about all present concerns restricted to academic, conference, workshops and committee deliberations only at this point of time, with hardly any real move for systematic scientific interventions on the ground. Time is running out before another devastating cloud burst event occurs.

    A potential approach may be time-bound scientific river restoration / appropriate fluvial modification initiative on the ground and here I may suggest to explore application of new cost-effective technologies like PIANO KEY WEIR and TRAIL DYKE system supported by prudent mathematical / numerical river modelling for Uttarakhand Hilly Stream development — for i) hazard reduction, ii) drinking water , iii) small hydro, and iv) possibly limited irrigation provision.

    I have provided design of PIANO KEY WEIR (probably first time in India) which is now in advanced stage of completion in SAWRA KUDDU HYDRO PTOJECT ( 120 MW ) on Pabbar river in Himachal Pradesh by HPPCL which may probably be considered for Uttarakhand.

    Prof.: Nayan Sharma, IIT Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India

  8. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg says:

    Herewith are my observations and reservations on Destruction of the Himalayas, in the form of the following article.

    Dam The Himalayas & Damn the Land-Seas-Oceans
    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg

    The Himalayan Destruction highlighted by DowntoEarth supports my hypothesis: Dam the Rivers and Damn the Seas, which now needs to be rephrased Dam the Rivers – Damn the Land – Seas – Oceans.

    It is a matter of fact that the dams and barrages were constructed to harness hydroelectricity and to irrigate the land. The benefits were realized in no time and soon enough electricity was available in the remotest villages while the land in the irrigation canal command area was able to produce at least 3 times as much.

    The benefit was at the cost of the forested area that had to be cleared; the land area that was submerged and the Project Affected Persons who were forced to abandon their hearth and home. The dams when commissioned had to face the problem of silting up and only after a few years their capacity was invariably reduced by one third. The silt having been retained at the dam sites was not available downstream, and thus the water made available for irrigation did not have the nutrients available earlier. No wonder the high dams are not being favoured in the countries which introduced them.

    The irrigation system has likewise had its days and has in most cases outlived its age. The valuable land has lost its productivity while only halfway through i.e. in about 7 to 10 years since signs of salinization and waterlogging due to seepage started appearing in just as much time. The land was salinized by the accumulation of salts brought by the rivers.

    Diversion of river water into the irrigation fields deprived the rivers of freshwater in the delta areas. Freshwater stopped flowing for almost ten months in the downstream areas, while seepage from the unlined canals and irrigated land accumulated and waterlogged the adjacent land. The lower deltaic plain in the area lying in the deltaic floodplain being no longer an active flood plain was subjected to extensive erosive action of the seawaves particularly during stormy conditions. This has led to submergence of a number of islands.

    The erosive action of flood flow over the dry river bed of the rivers e.g. the Indus and of flash floods over other rivers in Sindh West viz. the Ren Pethani, Lyari, Malir, and Hub has exposed the river bed of the concerned rivers to the rock bottom. The rock bottom in the case of River Indus is only 3 meter above sea level at Kotri Railway Bridge about 170 km from the sea coast, and is now exposed to intrusion of seawater during high tides.

    Flooding in the lower deltaic plain used to restrain the seawater salinity from intruding into the mainland, but flooding has ceased to occur and hence the potential gradient is reduced to the extent that seepage potential has overwhelmed the streamflow. The canal command boundary has, during the course of time, become wet with seawater reaching upland during high tides.

    The ecology of the entire Indus Basin has changed as a consequence of diversion and distribution of the water resources thinly over accessible and inaccessible areas of the country. This has, among other adverse impacts, steadily reduced the stream flow and the sediment load carried by it after the inception of Kotri Barrage in 1956. Thus the irrigation system that benefited the canal commands areas with water and silt as nutrient has, with no water stream in their surrounding, deprived the delta of the water as well as silt.

    It is known that with a reduced sediment supply but the same flow volume, the estuary of the river is degraded. On the other hand the same sediment load with a reduced flow volume would cause accretion of the river estuarine area. The reduction in flow volume as well as silt has thus progressively and irreversibly degraded the Indus Delta. The steady reduction in silt load led the erosion processes to dominate over the process of sedimentation/deposition.

    Commissioning of the Kotri Barrage in 1956 effectively altered the salt balance in the CCA and in relocating the moderately salt affected areas in the old channels or deep cover floodplains which receive substantial quantities of water for leaching out the salts. It is now reported and also apparent from the surveys that 67% of the Kotri Command area is moderately salt affected while 33% is severely salt affect¬ed. The high salinity area is continuing to move towards the command boundary under the potential gradient of seepage, and as mentioned above, it is keeping the soil moist. This condition is entirely different from the past when floods would wash off the salts from the land surface which would dry up with their recession.

    Ecological imbalances due to salinity or alteration of salt balance have occurred in majority area of Sindh to the extent of altering the chemistry of the irrigated land. Out of the total 5.35 MHa canal command area 1.35 MHa within the CCA, is salt affected, while 1.02 MHa has been affected outside the CCA. 16% of the land area in Sindh is saline, 2% sodic, 6% non-gypsif¬erous, 44% gypsiferous while 31% is non-saline.

    The conditions just stated are ideal for restraining the availability of trace elements. It may be stated at the outset that alteration of salt balance towards alkalinity reduces the productivity of the soil while reduced availability of essential trace elements is detrimental to growth. In the absence of amendments to rectify the salinity/alkalinity, the soil would lose productivity and yield of crops would be lower than normal. The end result would be complete loss of land and ruination over irrigated land. This ground reality is demonstrated by the loss of 16% of the land area in Sindh to salinity, 2% to sodic alkalinity, 6% rendered non-gypsif¬erous, and thus leaving only 31% as non-saline.

    The above is only a reflection of a study carried out to quantify the above thesis that the irrigation system, has during the process of aging, seriously degraded the ecology of the land. The reduced flow or no flow downstream has caused the death of the Indus delta. But this is not all; the New Theory on Climate Change, reported in, further elaborated in, has attempted to show that no flow has increased the salinity of the sea all along the coastal zone. The hypersalinity is responsible for lowering the specific heat capacity of seawater from 4.186 to 3.88; the difference though slight suggests that the seawater in the coastal zone will vaporize faster than at the open seas. The high temperatures of the heat zone that is now spread over the arid zone of Balochistan-Sindh-Southern Punjab (that drives the monsoon engine) is considered sufficient to raise the temperature of the Arabian Sea by 1oC to 1.5oC as also reported by the IMO. The ultimate result of degradation caused by anthropogenic activity, in this case by the irrigation network and rampant deforestation, is that there will be more vapour over the seas and hence in the troposphere, which when saturated by excessive water vapour will induce heavy precipitation in the form of excessive rainfall and snowfall.

    Construction of dams over the Himalayas will end up in substantial reduction in forest area. According to estimates by Conservation Biology in December 2012, 90 per cent of valleys and 25 per cent of dense forests in the Indian Himalayas would be affected, while over 54,117 hectares of forests would get submerged, and 114,361 hectares would be damaged by dam-related activities, totaling about 170,000 hectares. It may be too early to say and perhaps also absurd to suggest, but the ground reality indicates that in the long run it may induce desertification over the higher latitudes as well.

    Environmental and social impact of hundreds of dams and the irrigation network of several thousand km of canals would be enormous as correctly judged the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. He is right when he says that corruption is behind this dam-building spree, which has caught the fancy of politicians, contractors and bureaucrats. Less destructive alternatives are not even considered. I would suggest that instead of rapid growth of economy, it would be much better to adopt a sustainable rate and plan not to impoverish the resources in one go.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
    Former Director General PCSIR, Karachi

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