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Joshimath Disaster: What led to the crisis?

by | Feb 24, 2023 | Accidents, News Article

In Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, on the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH-7), is the steep town of Joshimath. Apart from its religious significance and tourist destinations, it also serves as a halt for tourists travelling to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib. Joshimath, which is home to one of the Army’s most significant cantonments, is also of tremendous strategic importance to the Indian armed forces.

Running streams with a steep gradient originate in Vishnuprayag, a confluence of the Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers. They pass through the town (located in seismic zone-V with high risk). It is one of the four cardinal monasteries founded by Adi Shankara, the others being Joshimath in Badrinath, Uttarakhand, Dwarka in Gujarat, Puri in Odisha, and Sringeri in Karnataka.

Joshimath Disaster

The Joshimath Disaster

The signs of Joshimath disaster were first observed in October 2021, and since then, the condition has begun to deteriorate, leading to land subsidence and landslides in the Chamoli area of Uttarakhand. According to reports, a 2022 expert panel appointed by the Uttarakhand government discovered that Joshimath is “sinking” in some places as a result of both man-made and natural reasons. By the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, huge portions of the town underwent unexpected land-sinking, and numerous homes also had significant cracking.

It was discovered that practically all of the wards of the city have structural flaws and damage as a result of the earth’s surface sinking gradually or suddenly as a result of the loss or relocation of underlying materials. Despite having over 20,000 residents and a significant influx of tourists, Joshimath lacks a solid basis for any building. The angular sediments in the debris are worse than those deposited by rivers. These holes in the strata make them geologically very unstable. The root cause of the tragic joshimath disaster was the construction that was poorly planned, which caused the soil to become unstable and obstructed underground water pathways, causing water to begin to collect under the foundations.

What led to the Joshimath disaster?

1. Location of an Ancient Landslide: Joshimath is not on the main rock; rather, it is situated on a layer of sand and stone, according to the 1976 Mishra Committee report. It is situated on an old landslide. According to the report, the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers’ undercutting currents, heavy construction activities, blasting and excavation of rocks also contribute to the occurrence of landslides.

2. Geography: Old landslide material, including boulders, gneissic rocks, and loose soil with a limited bearing ability, has buried the area’s dispersed rocks. When saturated with water, especially during monsoons, these gneissic rocks tend to have high pore pressure due to their high weathering and low cohesive value.

3. Construction Activities: The slopes have become extremely unstable in the previous few decades due to increased building, hydroelectric projects, and the expansion of the National Highway.

4. Land Erosion: Further factors contributing to the fate of the joshimath disaster include sliding down the natural streams and flowing streams from Vishnuprayag.

How does land subsidence occur?

An abrupt or progressive sinking of the Earth’s surface is referred to as land subsidence. The most common causes of subsidence, or the sinking of the ground as a result of underground material movement, are pumping, fracking, or mining operations that extract water, oil, natural gas, or mineral resources from the earth. Natural occurrences such as earthquakes, soil compaction, glacial isostatic adjustment, erosion, the creation of sinkholes, and the addition of water to fine soils deposited by wind can also result in subsidence (a natural process known as loess deposits). Subsidence can affect very huge areas, such as entire states or provinces, as can be seen in the joshimath disaster case.

Joshimath: ISRO reveals that slow land subsidence occured between April and November 2022 (ISRO)


What is a landslide?

The sliding down of a slope of a mass of rock, rubble, or earth is known as a landslide. They fall under the category of mass wasting, which is any downward movement of rock and soil caused directly by gravity. The five slope movement types of falls, topples, slides, spreads, and flows are all included under the umbrella word “landslide.”

How can Joshimath be saved?

1. The region’s hydroelectric and economic initiatives should be completely suspended, according to experts. Yet, it is urgently necessary to move the population to a safer area before redesigning the town’s planning to take into account the new variables and shifting geographical features.

2. One of the most important aspects that need to be researched and improved is drainage planning. As more and more trash seeps into the soil and causes it to become looser from the inside, the city is suffering from poor drainage and sewage management. The state administration has requested the irrigation department to investigate the situation and develop a new drainage system design.

3. Replanting has also been advocated by experts as a way to preserve soil capacity in the area, particularly in susceptible places.

4. To save Joshimath, a coordinated effort between the government and civil organizations is required, assisted by military groups like the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

5. The state currently has weather prediction technology that can alert citizens to local events, but its coverage has to be expanded. Satellites and Doppler weather radars, which use electromagnetic energy to detect precipitation and pinpoint its location and intensity, are used in Uttarakhand to forecast the weather.

6. The state administration also has to be more serious about scientific investigations that clearly explain the causes of the current problem. The state won’t cease its development binge until after that.

What lessons can be learnt from the Joshimath disaster?

The Joshimath disaster has once again shown how important it is for India to improve its disaster planning and management. The tragedy has demonstrated that the infrastructure and reaction systems in place are unable to deal with such catastrophes. Hence, to enhance response times and reduce the loss of lives and property in events like joshimath disaster, the government should invest in cutting-edge technology and equipment, such as early warning systems and rescue helicopters.

In conclusion, the Joshimath disaster is a tragic reminder of the impact of natural disasters on the lives of people in India. It is also a wake-up call for the government and the private sector. The impact of construction on Joshimath has been both positive and negative. The construction boom has led to an increase in the local economy, employment opportunities, and the inflow of tourists. However, it has also resulted in environmental degradation, air and noise pollution, and increased housing prices.


  • Dr. Tanushree Kain

    Tanushree is a passionate Environmentalist with a Doctorate in Environmental Sciences. She is also a Gold medalist in Master of Science (M.Sc), Environmental Sciences. She has 6 years of experience as a guest faculty in Environmental Sciences. With her combination of technical knowledge and research expertise, she can create clear, accurate, and engaging content that helps users get the maximum information regarding environmental topics.


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