The weekend read: What’s next for Joshimath, India’s sinking town

In conversation with climate expert Abinash Mohanty

The weekend read: What’s next for Joshimath, India’s sinking town

Welcome to this weekend edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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The holy town of Joshimath, a picturesque settlement in the Himalayan foothills, used to be primarily renowned as a pilgrimage destination. But these days, it’s on the front pages for a different reason, with a different label - the sinking town. In the past few weeks, nearly 850 of its 4500 buildings started to crack, and 258 families had to be moved to temporary shelters, enduring snow and rain.

Perhaps even more troubling is that what’s happening in Joshimath is far from unexpected, rather it’s only the latest incident in a historically fragile environment caught between human development and climate change. Lights On spoke with Abinash Mohanty, head of climate change and sustainability with IPE-Global, and a reviewer of the IPCC Sixth Assessment report, who explained the roots of the crisis, and what should be done going forward.

Lights On: Why is Joshimath sinking?

Mohanty: The Joshimath crisis is unfortunately nothing new. The first cracks were recorded back in the Seventies. Tectonically the city is fragile, it was built on unstable terrain previously shaken by a major earthquake. Its foundational weakness was always there, and we don't even know the area’s carrying capacity to start with, because nobody ever mapped it. And on top of this, you’ve got this huge infrastructure project [the 520MW Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project] being developed in a very fragile ecosystem.

Without understanding the city’s carrying capacity, the activities that have been carried out over the years, including infrastructure development, disruption of wetlands and green covers, have proven unsustainable. Add today’s increasing climate vulnerability, and the cascading impacts over Joshimath are what we are witnessing now.

A line from the Mishra Commitee Report in 1976

How does climate change interact with these human impacts in the region?

Natural ecosystems act as a shock absorber against compounding impact events like landslides, land subsidence, etc. Now, imagine you're riding a bike or a motorcycle without a shock absorber, you’ll be prone to back pain on a bumpy road, this is what this situation is.

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm about this situation for a long time, but unfortunately, as it’s often the case, scientists were never included in any planning process. The Himalayan ecosystem is fragile, the IPCC has already confirmed that many times, ICIMOD reached the same conclusion in its landmark report. When I worked on the granular vulnerability assessments of the Indian region, I found that roughly eight out of 10 people were vulnerable across India. But in Uttarakhand, it was almost nine out of 10 people. And when it comes to flooding, 90 percent of [Uttarakhand’s] districts are extreme event hotspots. In the state, 67 to 70 percent of the landscape has been disrupted, against 45 to 47 percent in the rest of India. And as a result, the frequency and intensity of extreme events have been increasing over the last two decades, because the land doesn’t have the capacity to absorb these shocks.

What should be done in the face of this - and potentially other similar crises?

First, we need to map vulnerability hotspots. While multiple hazard and vulnerability studies have been done, they have all been done in silo. The seismographic hotspots have been marked in isolation, the climate extreme hotspots have been mapped in silo. We need to understand the cascading and the compounding impacts and in order to do that, we need a holistic map of these climate risk hotspots.

What are these areas prone to, and to what degree? This knowledge will help you tailor your actions, whether you need to declare them as a conservation area, heritage site or something else entirely.

This sounds relatively straightforward for wild areas. But what happens when, like in the case of Joshimath, the place is home to thousands of people?

When it comes to communities that have been living there for generations, you can't evacuate them overnight. Here we are running the risk of seeing human conflict on a large scale.

Armed with a detailed risk map, we should look at how to retrofit the infrastructure so it can withstand these compounding impacts. If Japan can build [resilient infrastructure], and India can build it across different regions, why can't we rebuild here? Once we map out these overlapping risks, then we can come up with solutions: Technological innovations, system innovations, and more importantly, financial innovations. And these should be ‘people centric’, rather than infrastructural development centric.

Hydropower is a pillar of India’s clean energy mix, providing over 11 percent of the country’s generation capacity. Most of the planned and operating dams are situated in the Himalayan region - 33 in the state of Uttarakhand alone. Should India stop building dams, and can it even afford it?

It’s not that these big infrastructure projects have not undergone environmental impact assessments, the problem is that these assessments are not tailored to the particular geography of the Himalayas and do not integrate the evolving climate risk landscape. First we need to scientifically assess the level of risk that hydropower poses in the Himalayan region. Then we can decide on whether we should stop hydroelectric projects altogether, we could perhaps install solar instead, or we shouldn’t build anything at all.

Is there a lesson we should learn from Joshimath as we think of the future of the Himalayas at large?

The lessons here have already been learned. We have been trying to cope with disasters, we have been trying to build back better. But we also need to keep that work  up with the pace of how the risk landscape is changing. Unfortunately, this risk landscape is evolving faster than our actions. And that is where the mismatch is.

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