Is the infrastructure race between India and China damaging the Himalayas?

The widening of roads in northern India has led to a significant increase in landslides and rockfalls

The Himalayan town of Joshimath in northern India continues to make headlines with new cracks in the ground. Why the city goes under remains a matter of debate. But scientists say a larger troubling picture is unfolding in the Himalayas.

They say the pace at which China and India are building infrastructure across the Himalayan region can significantly increase the dangers and risks of natural disasters. Global warming is further destabilizing the ecologically vulnerable region as rising temperatures continue to melt glaciers and permafrost (permanently frozen land).

And this is where highways are carved, railroad tracks laid, tunnels drilled, dams and airstrips built on both sides of the Himalayas.

“So basically you’re getting yourself closer and closer to the dangers,” said Andreas Kaab, a professor of physical geography and hydrology at the University of Oslo, who co-authored a major report on the cause of a devastating avalanche in Uttarakhand state’s Chamoli district in 2021.

A view of the damaged Dhauliganga hydroelectric power project in Reni village of Chamoli district after part of the Nanda Devi glacier demolished in the Tapovan area of ​​northern Uttarakhand state in India, February 7, 2021

Hydroelectric power plants in narrow Himalayan valleys can harm the projects

Studies have focused on individual events, but when put together they show an increasing risk of danger across the region – 3,500 km (2,174 miles) from which China and India form their shared de facto border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is designated. .

According to a study published in Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, there was a landslide every kilometer along the NH-7 national road in Uttarakhand in September and October 2022, partially or completely blocking the road.

Other studies have pointed out similar dangers.

“In addition to environmental conditions, road construction and widening have contributed to the formation of new landslides that are often shallow and small but still claim fatalities, [cause] serious damage to infrastructure and disruption to traffic,” says a study published by the European Geosciences Union.

Landslides and other natural disasters have become increasingly common in recent years. The newly built Char Dham highway in Uttarakhand also partially collapsed during last year’s monsoon rains.

During the Chamoli avalanche, more than 200 people were killed and two hydroelectric power stations under construction were severely damaged.

In preparing a report on the incident, India’s National Disaster Management Authority found that district officials had failed to consider climate and infrastructure-related risks when making plans to deal with future disasters.

The flood destroyed the G318 Sichuan-Tibet highway on July 21, 2020 in Nyingchi, Tibet, China

Eastern Tibet has experienced large-scale ice-rock avalanches in recent decades

The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has not responded to our questions about infrastructure projects that pose a threat to the Himalayan region.

Experts say the risk of natural disasters is the same on the Chinese side of the Himalayas. The thawing of the permafrost poses an immense threat to the infrastructure built in the region.

A study published in October in the journal Communications Earth and Environment found that nearly 9,400 km of roads, 580 km of railways, more than 2,600 km of power lines and thousands of buildings in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau lie in permafrost areas.

“By 2050, 38.14% of roads, 38.76% of railways, 39.41% of power lines and 20.94% of buildings in high-risk areas could be at risk of permafrost damage,” it said.

In eastern Tibet, north of the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the terrain becomes difficult. The risk of rivers breaking out of their natural course remains high.

“The region has experienced a series of ice avalanches, glacier detachments and glacial lake flooding in recent decades,” according to a report published last year in The Cryosphere magazine.

Earlier this month, 28 people died after a massive avalanche hit the exit of a tunnel in Tibet’s Medog district.

In 2000, a huge landslide destroyed all the bridges, roads and telecommunications facilities that had been built in Bomi Land, in the same part of Tibet, in previous decades.

“The region is the focus of significant Chinese government investment, including the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet high-speed railway,” says the report, published in The Cryosphere.

Chinese officials say the railway will cross 21 snow-capped mountains more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft) above sea level and cross 14 major rivers.

“In addition to the rugged terrain, the railway will face other hazards such as avalanches, landslides and earthquakes,” You Yong, chief engineer of the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua News Agency.

A woman sits next to a cracked wall of her home in Joshimath in the Chamoli district of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, January 10, 2023.

Experts say most infrastructure projects are carried out without proper environmental impact assessments

Experts say the increasing settlement in places like Nyingchi and Shigatse has also led to a significant increase in infrastructure development, including roads and telecommunications.

“They built 624 new border settlements,” Robbie Barnett, a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, quoted Chinese media reports as saying.

“Each of these must have extensive infrastructure components such as roads, electricity, water supply and so on.

“Many are at exceptionally high altitude, over 4,000m, where to our knowledge there has never been human habitation and where human habitation without extensive construction, supplies, inputs, etc. appears impractical, if not impossible.”

The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment could not be reached for comment.

On the Indian side, south of the newly settled Chinese areas, are states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, where the construction of hydropower projects is progressing at full speed.

But these are also the states identified by the Central Water Commission of India as those that experienced significant expansion of glacial lakes and bodies of water between 2009 and 2020, mainly due to melting glaciers.

A study published by the American Geophysical Union in 2020 found that 17 of the 23 critical glacial lakes in India were in Sikkim. Such lakes are classified as critical if they have been filled by melting glaciers and are in danger of bursting.

China and India have always worked together in international climate talks to protect their interests, often against the West.

Experts say such a partnership is not as effective when it comes to dealing with the challenges of climate change or other environmental degradation in the Himalayas.

Instead, experts say, geopolitical competition and hostility have prompted both Asian giants to step up all manner of development activities, including military ones, in this danger zone.

“This should have been an international biosphere reserve where no disturbances should have been allowed,” says Jeffrey Kargel, an American geoscientist who has done many studies of the Himalayas.

“But what we are seeing in the Himalayas today is an increasing risk of hazards, increasing exposure to such hazards and, as a result, increasing vulnerability in the region.

“We’re going to see many, many disasters here.”

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