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Deadly Indian landslide may have been a man-made disaster

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 4 Aug 2014 06:48 GMT
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A resident looks at the debris of her damaged house after a landslide at Malin village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra July 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
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A landslide in western India that has killed more than 100 people and left scores missing may have been a man-made disaster caused by deforestation to make way for farming, experts say.

Hopes of finding survivors are fading after heavy rains triggered Wednesday's landslide, burying dozens of homes in the village of Malin in India's Maharashtra state.

While the blame falls on India's crucial yet often deadly monsoons – which annually trigger landslides and floods – geologists and environmentalists said the tragedy was avoidable.

“There are two types of landslides: naturally-induced and human-induced. The current landslide is possibly due to human activities like farming and road construction," geologist Satish Thigale was quoted as saying by the DNA newspaper in India.

Environmentalists blame a government income generation scheme that required hill slopes to be flattened and thousands of trees to be felled.

According to the Hindustan Times, official data indicates that nearly 28,000 trees were cut, but unofficial figures put the count at 300,000.

Reports have also suggested that heavy machinery such as backhoes were used to level the slopes, which has contributed to loosening the soil to such an extent that it has impacted the hill's drainage of water.

"Relentless rain naturally was the trigger. But the use of heavy machinery to flatten land for agriculture may have aggravated the crumbling of the hill top,” said Ashim Kumar Saha from the Geographical Survey of India in The Hindu.

At first glance, “the cracks (found) imply an improper rainwater drainage system. Only a detailed report can tell us what caused the tragedy and only then can we come up with recommendations," said Saha, who has been surveying the affected area.

Monsoon season downpours, though vital for agriculture, often bring disaster in India.

Heavy rainfall in June last year wreaked havoc across India's northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, causing rivers and glacial lakes to overflow and triggering massive landslides – killing almost 6,000 people.

Experts say the construction of hydroelectric dams, deforestation and the spread of unregulated buildings along riverbanks magnify the impact of the monsoons.

"During continuous rains, the mud, debris and red material that are bound together loosely tend to get washed down by the rivulets that are formed at the top of the hillock," said T.N. Singh, a geologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.

"Had there been shrubs or trees, the roots would have bound the mud and red material and the situation would have been averted," Singh told The Asian Age newspaper.

A report last year warned India to stop viewing natural disasters as standalone "acts of God" or of nature and to recognise that the country’s development policies are increasing the number of deaths and amount of devastation in such calamities.

Written by academics, aid workers, scientists and analysts, the "India Disasters Report" said development works carried out in pursuit of greater economic growth - such as the construction of dams and deforestation - are putting people and the environment at greater risk when disasters strike.

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and many of its 1.2 billion people live in areas vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, landslides, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes.

Around 76 percent of India's coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, while 59 percent of the country is vulnerable to earthquakes, 10 percent to floods and river erosion and 68 percent to droughts.

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

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