NEW DELHI, June 25 (UPI) -- Large-scale development along India's Ganges River is to blame for the high death toll from flooding and mudslides in Uttarakhand state, environmentalists say.
Roads are built willy-nilly, new hotel properties are erected along river banks and hydro dams proposed in the region's steep valleys combined to create the environment in which floods and mudslides have claimed more than 1,000 lives in the past week, CNN reported.
"You've heard of homicide, well this is ecocide," Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security told CNN. "The hills have been shorn of the forest cover, there's extensive mining taking place in this region and on top of that the roads that are being constructed are haphazard.
"And the hydro projects coming are phenomenal -- 70 hydro projects back to back," Sharma said. "Obviously there are tunnels being built, hills being blasted and everything goes topsy-turvy."
He said a huge, national road-building program includes routes planned through increasingly remote areas without adequate drainage.
A real estate boom also resulted in new developments proceeding without adequate planning, Sharma said.
Margareta Wahlstrom, a top United Nations official, said she hopes 2013 will be a turning point in disaster planning. Wahlstrom, the secretary-general's special representative for disaster risk reduction, pointed to disastrous flooding in Canada as well as the floods caused by heavy monsoon rain in southeast Asia.
"The shocking loss of life in India underlines how vitally important it is that we start planning for future scenarios far removed from anything that we may have experienced in the past," Wahlstrom said, suggesting that global warming is causing changes in climate patterns.
In India, most experts say unregulated development and tourism were responsible for the scale of the disaster, said Souparno Banerjee of the advocacy group the Center for Science and Environment.
"Development is important but we need to keep in mind the very delicate eco-system that you're working within," he said. "The Himalayas are the biggest mountain range in the world but they are also extremely fragile."
Uttarakhand's chief minister Vijay Bahuguna told the Times of India the floods set back development in the state by at least three years.
"My people are going to suffer because tourism is going to be affected. We have to put the infrastructure back on the rails," he said. "I have written to the prime minister that preliminary reports suggest there is loss of Rs 3,000 crore [$500 million]. This tragedy has broken our economy."
He said a balance must be struck between the environment and development and denied the disaster was manmade.
"This is a very childish argument," Bahuguna said, "that cloudbursts, earthquakes and tsunamis are caused by human factors."