Most Indian Landslides Are Caused by Humans: Report
A new report by IndiaSpend concludes that the country’s primary cause of landslides is human intervention, citing a 2018 report from Copernicus Publications, which states that 18% of global human-induced landslide casualties occur in India.
Over 2020, landslides severely harmed lives and livelihoods in West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Kerala. Landslides, caused by heavy rainfall, flooding, erosion, and earthquakes moving rocks, earth, and debris down a slope, are becoming more of a threat in India as climate change is making monsoon seasons erratic and extreme.
But activities like construction, mining, quarrying, and hydro-power projects loosen and remove soil, gravel, and vegetation, leading to lower groundwater retention capabilities, which increases the risk of flooding. Thus, when heavy rain or earthquakes occur, the excess water or the loosened debris create landslides. A recent example of human-induced damage creating a higher risk of landslides is the Char Dam Road construction process, which activated new potential landslide zones in Uttarakhand due to the damage the construction caused to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 65% of 2019’s landslide fatalities happened in either the Himalayas or the Western Ghats.
More than 400,000 sq. km., or around 13%, of India’s land, is prone to landslides (excluding snow-covered areas). According to the 2018 report, which examined the years 2004-2016 and more than 5,000 landslides, India registered the most deaths in the world caused by human-triggered landslides (10,900 deaths across 829 landslides). This made up 18% of the world’s landslide casualties over those 12 years. Within this range, India also accounted for maximum mining-triggered landslides worldwide (12% of the total).
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Methods to protect individuals from landslide-related deaths include early warning systems and pre-planned landslide action policies to mitigate damage. A major means to prevent landslides in hilly regions is to have building laws that take note of the specific ecological constraints in the region and then further approve or reject construction plans. However, India’s micro-level land development regulations do not consider ecological diversity. IndiaSpend reports that a 2014 study and a 2019 National Insitute of Disaster Management report flag that land development regulations applied in hilly towns are inspired by city-based master plans, and do not take a hilly region’s topography, hazard potential, and socio-developmental context into consideration. The NIDM report states, “In the micro-level, the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) of IHR (Indian Himalayan Region) and WG (Western Ghats) States are either not having local land use planning or if they have, it not being updated. It is resulting in ill-conceived planning, unplanned development, and ultimately slope instability.”
Simultaneously, the Indian government’s proposed update to its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) laws — currently placed on hold by the Karnataka High Court — could also make man-made landslides far more common. Multiple criticisms of the EIA have stated that it prioritizes ease of doing business and development over environmental checks and balances, which further endangers ecologically sensitive regions and the people living in them. If passed, this law would make India more susceptible to landslides through human action.