Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Natural Hazards Risk in the Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh, India

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Natural Hazards Risk in the Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh, India

Article excerpt

Living with the risk of natural hazards is part of everyday life in the Himalaya. Yet, when a disaster or a catastrophe does occur, it is often held up to scrutiny as if it were something unusual or unexpected. The Indian subcontinent has been prone to disasters of great scope for generations, and recent events such as the 1999 Orissa cyclone and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, coupled with the ongoing floods, droughts, and other hazards that are in fact commonplace, fuel a "disaster mentality" in the media and public conscience that extends to policy, bureaucratic, and scientific contexts (Parasuraman and Unnikrishnan 2000). In the Himalaya and adjacent regions, evaluations of floods and other disasters often assert an increasing frequency of whatever process is involved and imply that this is related to the degradation, primarily deforestation, of the Himalayan environment. Recently, such additional factors as global and regional climate change have been invoked in explanation. What evidence supports these cau sal associations, and from where does the evidence derive?

The Himalayan environmental degradation theory is most recently associated with the writings of Erik Eckholm (1975,1976) and Norman Myers (1986). However, as illustrated by Vasant Saberwal (1999, 2001), alarmist statements and generalizations of this type have been used for more than a century by the Indian Forest Department and its supporters to add to its legitimacy and conservationist cause. Degradation was taken to be synonymous with destruction of the forest and other vegetation covers, leading to increased runoff, erosion, land instability, and flashiness of streamflow. This, in turn, was thought to increase flood and erosion-sedimentation events downstream, within and beyond the mountains (Saberwal 2001).

Deforestation and environmental degradation in the Himalaya present a markedly complex picture. There can be no doubt that deforestation has occurred and continues to occur in specific instances and locations (Tucker 1982, 1983, 1988; Richards 1987; Sharma and Minhas 1993; Rawat 1995; Nusser 2000). In many parts of the Indian Himalaya significant deforestation did occur in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prior to colonial administration (Schickhoff 1995; Rangan 2001). Throughout the British colonial period, tension continued between commercial exploitation of timber and conservation within the Indian Forest Department (Saberwal 1999). Examples of exploitation and widespread deforestation during this period are well documented (Shiva and Bandyopadhyay 1986; Guha 1990; Gadgil and Guha 1995; Singh 1998; Arnold and Guha 2001). Eckholm's assertion is based primarily on postindependence deforestation, for which some specific evidence is provided by more recent studies in parts of the Indian and Nepal Himalaya (Jackson and others 1998; Saberwal 1999). However, the generality of the Himalayan environmental degradation theory has been challenged by more recent empirical works (for example, Ives and Messerli 1989; Denniston 1993; Hofer 1993, 1997,1998; Forsyth 1996). The picture is far more complex and varied than Eckholm implied. With this level of complexity and uncertainty, the Himalayan environmental degradation theory does not provide a sound basis for decision making with respect to environmental management (Thompson and Warburton 1985; Thompson, Warburton, and Hatley 1986).

Despite scientific evidence that suggests otherwise, the idea of generalized Himalayan environmental degradation with negative downstream consequences pervades the Indian media and public mind, much as the alarmist thinking persisted in the Indian Forest Department for decades. Most often, this comes to the fore in media reports following a damaging flood, landslide, or other calamity arising from earth surface processes (Dutt 1998; Dwivedi 1999). Arguments all implicitly assume that potentially hazardous earth surface processes have increased in number, frequency, and magnitude as a result of anthropogenic modification of controls such as vegetation cover. …

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