Jammu and Kashmir’s Precarious Natural Vulnerabilities Clash with Development: Reckless Construction and Human Activity Spur Natural Disasters, Endangering Ecosystems.
By Mool Raj
In a region susceptible to seismic upheaval, nestled within the high-risk Zones IV and V, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) finds itself perilously positioned. Yet, a disturbing trend persists – rampant construction activities in ecologically fragile zones, disregarding the harsh lessons of history. Cast your mind back to October 8, 2005, when a mighty 7.6 magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc upon J&K, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. A Wake-Up Call
Jammu and Kashmir, with its distinctive topography, bears the burden of a turbulent history plagued by earthquakes, floods, landslides, and lately, unpredictable climate shifts. Environmental experts assert that many of these natural disasters can be traced back to reckless developmental projects and the ruthless exploitation of our natural treasures, including water bodies, orchards, agricultural fields, mountains, and forests. The accelerated pace of human activity also bears blame for the alarming rate of glacier melt within J&K.
The tale unfolds, as heedless execution of developmental undertakings continues to disrupt delicate ecosystems. Tragically, we appear unrepentant and indifferent to nature’s plight, oblivious to the repercussions. In return, nature unleashes its wrath through catastrophic natural calamities.
Consider the events of September 7, 2014, when torrential rainfall triggered massive water surges from the higher reaches, inundating the Jhelum, Chenab, and Tawi basins. The resultant floods, a catastrophic consequence of this deluge, wreaked havoc upon J&K. Shockingly, it’s estimated that the 2014 floods surpassed the Jhelum’s carrying capacity by a staggering fivefold.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, some still attribute the majority of these floods to human activities, particularly unrestrained construction in the floodplains of the Jhelum over recent decades. These wetlands, once guardians against inundation, have lost their effectiveness due to conversion into agricultural or concrete expanses.
Ecologically vital wetlands within the Jhelum floodplains, such as Hokersar, Bemina wetland, Narakara wetland, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-arth, Anchar lake, and Gilsar, now stand degraded, victims of relentless encroachment and urban sprawl. Their deterioration has severely impaired their ability to absorb floodwaters.
Regrettably, even flood channels and wetlands, capable of safeguarding us from such disasters, fall prey to ruthless exploitation. A sense of helplessness seems to pervade our collective consciousness. Are we not complicit in this cycle of destruction?
Similarly, reckless construction in vulnerable zones exacerbates risks to life and property. The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, situated in the precarious Ramban district, frequently succumbs to landslides, primarily attributed to haphazard construction practices and the extensive use of heavy machinery.
Despite its classification within the high seismic Zones IV and V, J&K persists with construction in these precarious regions, seemingly amnesiac about the powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook its very foundation on October 8, 2005, inflicting widespread devastation.
As a resident of Doda, I bear witness to the ecological fragility of this region, borne out of its unique geoclimatic conditions. Doda stands as a testament to seismic vulnerability, having endured nine tremors in just 60 hours during a particularly harrowing August last year. In the midst of this vulnerability, numerous developmental projects are currently underway in the mountainous Doda district. The Chenab Valley, host to massive dams like Dul Hasti in Kishtwar and Baglihar in Ramban, remains highly susceptible to natural disasters.
Within the Chenab region, several hydropower projects abound. It is imperative that stringent policy guidelines be not only established but rigorously enforced to minimize the harm inflicted on this delicate environment. The vulnerability of these geologically youthful, unstable, and fragile rocks has multiplied in recent years, thanks to a litany of unscientific developmental endeavors. Deforestation, poorly planned road construction, unchecked terracing, and encroachments on steep hill slopes have all contributed to the escalating frequency of landslides.
Amidst these disquieting developments, the ongoing four-lane Srinagar-Baramulla-Uri highway project stands out. This venture, necessitated by surging traffic demands, is causing the felling of numerous apple and popular trees. The picturesque tree-line, a cherished sight along the Srinagar-Baramulla highway, once a major tourist attraction, is now under threat.
Development is an imperative, as is the expansion of roads to accommodate burgeoning traffic. The crux of the matter lies in formulating road projects that not only meet our infrastructure needs but also ensure minimal disruption to our precious trees. There must have been alternative solutions to integrate these trees into the road network, setting a precedent for sustainable development.
The grim reality is that trees take years to mature, and their value within our ecosystem is immeasurable. The loss of trees is irreplaceable, causing lasting harm to our environment.
J&K has borne witness to erratic climate patterns in recent years. The valley has experienced heavy snowfall in winter, sudden and unseasonal rains in March and April, followed by a scorching and unrelenting heatwave in June. June 23 this year marked the hottest June day in Srinagar in 18 years, with temperatures reaching 35.0 degrees Celsius, a record previously matched in June 2018. Even renowned hill station Pahalgam in south Kashmir recorded its second-highest June temperature in 15 years at 30.2 degrees Celsius.
These occurrences stand as stark indicators of climate change. The majority of our snow cover and glaciers, including Kolahai, Thajiwas, Hoksar, Nehnar, and Shishram, are receding at an alarming rate. Glaciologists warn that glacier melt in the Kashmir and Ladakh region has outpaced other parts of the Himalayas and the Alps in recent years.
Although the Union Environment Ministry introduced Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) in the aftermath of the Joshimath crisis in Uttarakhand, where thousands were rendered homeless due to foundation collapses, J&K’s government has pledged to apply the SOP to mandatory disaster management plans, risk assessments, and eco-fragility studies in development projects, especially those within 100 km of the International Border (IB) or the Line of Control (LoC). However, it is imperative that these SOPs encompass the entire J&K region.
Considering the extensive damage to our forests nearly three decades ago, there is an urgent need for large-scale afforestation initiatives. Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently emphasized that environmental protection hinges on tree planting. A tree planted today will provide oxygen for generations to come. As pollution worsens, the ozone layer deteriorates, and solar radiation becomes an ever-present threat, planting trees represents the most effective countermeasure.
Sustainable development is not an unattainable ideal. Implementing Environmental Impact Assessments before embarking on projects can mitigate further harm to our environment. The time for action is now; the planet’s health and our survival depend on it.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of this newspaper