Devastating North India Floods Likely Worsened by Tourist Boom

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A submerged statue of the Hindu Lord Shiva stands amid the flooded waters of river Ganges at Rishikesh in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, June 17, 2013.

The rains came to Mussoorie, a hill town in Uttarakhand, in northern India, last Friday, June 14. Rushing mud and water stopped the town in its tracks, leaving swaths without power. Over the weekend, trains were canceled, the busy Dehradun-Delhi road was closed, and frequent landslides led to hours-long traffic jams on the narrow mountain streets. “We haven’t seen such violent rain in a while,” says Rupa Devi, a local. “For the first time in my life, I cannot read the skies.”

By Sunday, it was official that Uttarakhand was in the grips of the worst flood in a hundred years. Now, a week on, more than 65,000 people are stranded across the state and more than 500 have died. “The priority for the authorities at the moment is to rescue the stranded and provide urgently needed succor to those most in need of it,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the press. Rescue workers have thus far managed to save 10,000 people.

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Uttarakhand, known as the “land of gods” for the various temples that dot its hills, is extremely popular among pilgrims and tourists. It houses some of the country’s most famous religious shrines, including Kedarnath and Badrinath, Yamunotri, Gangotri, together often referred to as the Char Dham, or the four pilgrimages. The trip is particularly popular among older Indians, as well as Indians who live overseas. Of the people who have died in Uttarakhand, 50 have died near the famous Kedarnath temple, which is now covered in mud and slush and will remain off-limits for pilgrims for at least a year, officials say.

The picturesque region is experiencing staggering growth, changing a fragile Himalayan landscape. According to the Uttarakhand State Transport Department, the state has seen a 1,000% increase in tourist vehicles from 2005 to 2013. “You have now almost 100,000 religious tourists in a season as compared to 5,000 to 6,000 in the ’70s and ’80s,” says noted environmentalist Maharaj Pandit. “Such a huge footfall has necessitated massive urbanization including road widening and road building, which are connected to landslides and landslips.”

Indeed, the tourism boom is taking a toll. Shantytowns are springing up, cheap hotels have mushroomed, and, amid the rush, construction codes are being ignored. Experts say this unbridled urbanization likely contributed to the devastating floods. Deforestation is particularly risky and is getting worse, Pandit warns. “Deforestation in the Himalayas has been going on unabated since the British times commercially despite government’s claim of forest cover increasing,” he said.

For now, Uttarakhand is focused on rescue and recovery. When the skies clear, this young state, carved from Uttar Pradesh in 2,000, must take a moment to consider what comes next. The lesson, experts say, is that the region’s tourism boom will mean little unless the industry realizes that sustainability and safety go hand in hand.

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