Why is Joshimath sinking? Alarm bells in hill town ringing since 1976
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Joshimath -- a small Uttarakhand town located on the site of an ancient landslide -- has seen an explosion of construction and population in the last few decades. The winter abode of lord Badrinath, a staging ground for troops posted along the Sino-Indian border, and a sort of a base camp for Himalayan expeditions, Joshimath is making headlines for the wrong reason: it is sinking.
Residents are protesting and have raised concerns about the land beneath the town sinking. Residents say houses have developed cracks and that they are forced to find support structures to keep their homes from falling under their own weight. Over 500 houses in the region have developed cracks.
A team of experts recently conducted a survey and revealed that the fear among residents was true: the city is actually sinking at its base. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has said that the situation in Joshimath is being closely monitored. There is more to it than meets the eye when it comes to this disaster waiting to happen in Joshimath.
WHERE IS JOSHIMATH?
Joshimath is a hilly town located on the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH-7) in the state of Uttarakhand. The city serves as a tourist town as it acts as an overnight rest stop for people visiting Badrinath, Auli, Valley of Flowers, and Hemkund Sahib, among other important religious and tourist locations in the state. Joshimath is also of great strategic importance to the Indian armed forces and is home to one of the Army's most important cantonments.
The town is located on a running ridge that is traversed by running streams with a high gradient from Vishnuprayag, a confluence of the Dhauliganga and the Alaknanda rivers. A 2022 report stated that the area around Joshimath is covered with thick layers of overburdened material.
While the panic over the Joshimath sinking is making headlines now, scientists and geologists working in the area have been sounding the alarm for decades. The first such report indicating the grave problem that could threaten life and property came in 1976. That report -- by the government-appointed Mishra Commission -- pointed to a crucial piece of information: Joshimath is located on the site of an ancient landslide.
WHY IS JOSHIMATH SINKING?
The biggest reason why Joshimath is sinking is related to the geography of the town. The landslide debris on which the city was established has a low bearing capacity and experts have long warned that it cannot support a high rate of construction. Increased construction, hydroelectric projects, and the widening of the National Highway have made the slopes highly unstable in the last couple of decades.
Erosion due to the running streams from Vishnuprayag and sliding along the natural streams are the other reasons behind the city's fate. Scattered rocks in the area are covered with old landslide debris comprising boulders, gneissic rocks, and loose soil.
According to a 2022 survey conducted by researchers from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, these gneissic rocks are highly weathered and have a low cohesive value with a tendency of high pore pressure when saturated with water, especially during monsoons.
Essentially, the land and the soil under Joshimath have a low capacity of holding together, especially when burdened with extra construction.
"Seepage from streams uphill has been observed, which may have loosened the soil of Joshimath. The nalas disappear underground and arise overground downhill, bringing totally muddy water, and then join the Dhauliganga or the Alaknanda (beyond Vishnuprayag). The drainage system of the town of Joshimath is not well maintained. Waste water from the days' usage flows through improper drains," a 2006 report by Dr. Swapnamita Vaideswaran, Scientist, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology revealed.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SAVE JOSHIMATH?
Experts recommend a complete shutdown of development and hydroelectric projects in the region. But the urgent need is to relocate the residents to a safer place and then reimagine the town's planning to accommodate the new variables and the changing geographical factors.
Drainage planning is one of the biggest factors that needs to be studied and redeveloped. The city is suffering from poor drainage and sewer management as more and more waste is seeping into the soil, loosening it from within. The irrigation department has been asked by the state government to look into the issue and create a new plan for the drainage system.
Experts have also suggested replantation in the region, especially at the vulnerable sites to retain soil capacity. There is a need for a coordinated effort between the government and civil bodies with the aid of military organizations like the BRO to save Joshimath.