Unstable glacial lakes, deforestation and packed tourist areas add up to a growing risk for Kashmir’s Pahalgam, scientists say
SRINAGAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Devastating flooding in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand in June, caused in part by the collapse of a glacier-fed lake, has raised worries in other Himalaya regions could be at risk of similar tragedies, experts say.
In southern Kashmir, in particular, a number of glacial lakes in the upper reaches of the famous tourist resort of Pahalgam could be vulnerable to collapse if the region faces extreme rainfall or earthquakes, scientists say.
“The Uttarakhand tragedy has rung alarm bells for the entire Himalayan belt, considering its fragile ecology and environment. Since we are the part of the same fragile Himalayan belt, any extreme meteorological event could create havoc here as well,” Mohammad Sultan, head of the department of geography and regional development at Kashmir University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sultan recently headed a team of researchers who carried out a comprehensive study on the Lidder Catchment area in southern Kashmir, including research on manmade changes to the ecologically fragile area.
Heavy early monsoon rainfall and the collapse of a natural dam holding back a lake of glacial meltwater caused more than 5,700 deaths in Uttarakhand and in neighbouring Nepal in June as floodwaters swept through valleys with little warning, killing residents and Hindu pilgrims visiting temples in the region.
Pahalgam could be vulnerable to a similar catastrophe “as we have a reasonable presence of glacial lakes in the upper reaches of Pahalgam,” Sultan said, and in certain circumstances they “have the vulnerability to outburst.”
The threat is highest during the summer months of June to August, during the monsoon season. That is the same time of year when Kashmir receives its highest number of visitors to Pahalgam, including both religious pilgrims and recreational tourists.
“The magnitude of such a disaster can only be imagined,” Sultan warned.
Shakil Romshoo, head of the department of earth sciences at Kashmir University, said extreme rainfall or an earthquake in Kashmir could cause large-scale devastation.
“Since we have never taken any foolproof disaster control or disaster management measures for averting or managing disasters, we are vulnerable to major devastation even if a small catastrophe occurs here in Kashmir,” Romshoo said in an interview.
“We have no disaster preparedness or flood warning system in place. This is how disasters are allowed to take a toll on human beings and property,” he said.
The June Uttrakhand flood, which caused billions of dollars in property damage as well as claiming lives, was widely termed a man-made disaster because of changes to the region, including widespread deforestation that increased runoff of rainwater and made land less stable.
Scientists in Kashmir say a similar disaster cannot be ruled out in Kashmir, given the scale of devastation its fragile ecology has undergone.
HEAVY TOURIST LOAD
Pahalgam, also known as the Lidder Valley, spreads over an area of 1240 sq km (480 square miles). As one of the region’s major tourist attractions, the valley receives 800,000 annual visitors, 70 percent of them in the monsoon months of June, July and August.
“This is really a cause of concern. What is more concerning is the fact that the carrying capacity of Pahalgam is far lower than the tourist load it receives per day,” Sultan said. During the peak season, the valley receives four times as many visitors as appropriate maximum of 4,300 tourists a day that its ecology can support, he said.
If tourist flows are not regulated, especially in the months of June to August, and if developmental is not curbed – especially a surge of tourist infrastructure being put in place along the banks the Lidder River – “we are certainly putting in place all the necessary infrastructure for a huge disaster which we can’t escape in the near future,” he warned.
GROWING FOREST LOSS
The area under dense forests around the tourist resort of Pahalgam fell by 191 square kilometers (73 square miles) from 1961 to 2010, Sultan’s study found, with an average annual loss of 3.9 square kilometers (1.5 square miles), largely due to illegal construction.
Sparser forest areas did not fare so badly over the period, until recently. From 2001 to 2010, even they are now decreasing in size by nearly 10 percent a year.
“This could be attributed to the fact that the dense forests were initially changed into sparse forests and in the later stage these sparse patches were utilized for agriculture and residential purposes,” Sultan said.
Apart from the impact of construction of hotels and other tourism infrastructure on the forest area around the Lidder catchment, fuel-wood consumption for both commercial and domestic purposes is also taking a toll on forests, the study said.
Development continues in the region, with ecologically sensitive dense forests, meadows, pasture lands and river fronts marked for construction of hotels and huts for tourists, the study found. The only waste disposal site in Pahalgam also has been set up on the bank of a steam which flows into Lidder River, an important tributary of Jhelum.
Residents of Pahalgam similarly see growing risks.
“I won’t be surprised if a weather-related disaster strikes Kashmir,” said Rafiq Mir, who runs a fast-food restaurant and sells handicrafts in Pahalgam. Right now, “nature is being constantly destroyed in Kashmir in the name of tourism development.”
Athar Parvaiz Bhat is a freelance writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who focuses on environment and health issues.
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