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India: Himachal floods expose need for climate adaptation

Shakeel Sobhan in Manali, Himachal Pradesh
October 4, 2023

Flooding like what was seen in India's mountainous Himachal Pradesh region is expected to be exacerbated by climate change. Environmentalists say infrastructure must be better adapted to extreme weather.

Indien | Starkregen im Himalaya
Himachal Pradesh received a massive amount of rainfall during a three-day stretch in July, and again on two separate 24-hour periods in AugustImage: AFP

The 40 kilometers (25 miles) between the towns of Kullu and Manali in India's northern Himachal Pradesh state take little more than an hour to travel on a scenic road following the Beas River.

Right now, the river appears docile. But destroyed buildings and infrastructure along the road are a reminder of the river's fury, which was unleashed during the bouts of heavy rainfall in July and August.

Rishi, who runs a cab service, has been driving in these winding hilly roads for more than a decade. Parts of the road have been completely washed away.

He slows down and points out the various structures that were destroyed or suffered damage during devastating floods in July.

There are remains of buildings — and paved roads that were damaged by the floods.

A section of the uncompleted four-lane Kiratpur-Nerchowk highway also stretches along the river. There are portions along the highway where landslides can be seen. "Ever since the work on the four-lane highway has started, the occurrences of landslides have gone up," Rishi says as he drives past.

Disastrous flooding in Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Pradesh received a massive amount of rainfall during a three-day stretch in July, and again on two separate 24-hour periods in August.

According to a report by the India Meteorological Department, between July 7 and 11, Himachal Pradesh received 223 millimeters (8.78 inches) of rainfall, even though the expected amount for this period is just 41.6 millimeters.

India floods fueled by climate change, rapid development

Kullu, Mandi, Shimla and Solan were among the worst affected districts in the state. The districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti on Himachal Pradesh's eastern edge respectively received 43% and 33% of their yearly average rainfall in just these four days.

Although many regions in India experienced heavy rainfall in early July, the devastation in Himachal Pradesh was markedly high. The flash floods, landslides, and subsidence that followed killed more than 400 people, with 38 people still missing. More than 2,500 houses were destroyed, while almost 11,000 suffered partial damage. 

Two months later, people are still picking up the pieces. On a warm sunny day in late September, Lal Chand oversees an excavator in the Aloo Ground area of Manali town. This was one of the places hardest hit by the floods.

Chand, a former head of the village council, is supervising the rebuilding work on his property along the riverbed. He says he lost property worth more than €1 million in the floods. Of the three buildings he owned, only one remains now.

His neighbor Rajesh Kumar is a hotelier in Manali, which is a popular backpacking town. Kumar was there when the heavy rains started on July 8.

"We evacuated all the tourists from the hotel and went up the hills to our villages. There was nothing to do but watch the destruction unfold," he says.

"We returned once the water subsided but did not have electricity for 10-12 days after that. There was no mobile network for days." The hotel has remained shut since then.

Kumar says up to 100 cars, mostly belonging to tourists, were washed away.

Extreme weather impacts made worse by development

Environmentalist Sandeep Minhas told DW the devastation witnessed in Himachal was a "manmade disaster."

Minhas, who is associated with the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, a grassroots environmental advocacy group, said that while mountainous regions naturally have risks of landslides and floods due to terrain and geology, impacts of climate change–related events are intensified by infrastructure development.

"A lot of factors contributed to the floods. The dams, the mega-projects, the vertical hill cuttings, illegal mining, the building of houses on riverbeds all contributed to the extensive damage seen," Minhas said.

Flood waters destroy tin houses
The Beas River washed away homes in Kullu after heavy rains turned it into a torrentImage: Aqil Khan/AP/picture alliance

Manshi Asher, of the Himdhara environment research and action collective, said that local authorities should have been prepared for the heavy flooding following the extreme rainfall.

"It would be wrong to say that it was a sudden, unpredictable one-time event that has caught the system off-guard," she told DW.

"The heavy rainfall is being attributed to a combination of western disturbance and monsoon trough exacerbated by climatic factors," Asher added. "But to understand the scale of the devastation, we would need to look at other non-climatic factors also."

Experts have identified several key factors that contributed to the recent destruction. Two dams released water, causing an unprecedented surge downstream.

Leftover mud from the construction of a four-lane highway was dumped into the river, exacerbating the situation. Hillside excavations for road construction caused deforestation and slope erosion, leading to landslides.

The lack of a river conservation policy permitted the construction of permanent structures directly on riverbeds. Additionally, the region has faced strains from rapid urbanization and increased tourism, with neither being adequately managed, straining regional resources.

There was also an absence of effective disaster planning, leaving the area unprepared for the aftermath.

Developing a response strategy

Looking ahead, Minhas said India needs to initiate a "national adaptation program which would take climate change into account."

"Mitigation measures cannot be techno-managerial, top-down and short-term,” says Asher. "It needs to be a well-coordinated, long-term vision-led policy and governance shift, with residents and their livelihood and survival needs at the center."

A bit further away, with the sun shining brightly overhead, Lal Chand continues to oversee the work by the riverbed.

Reflectively, he gestures towards the spot where a school building used to stand. "Who can we blame? It is how nature works," he says. "A river always claims its riverbed."

What caused the Himachal Pradesh floods?

Edited by: Wesley Rahn