Studying Landslide Risk in the Darjeeling District, West Bengal, India

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By Andrew Rumbach

The Darjeeling District is a mountainous region in the northernmost part of the Indian state of West Bengal. Sitting in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, the Darjeeling District is a popular tourist destination, known for its natural beauty, mild climate, hiking, and world-famous tea. The Darjeeling District is ethnically diverse, with populations of Lepcha, Gurkha, and Bengalis. The major cities in the Darjeeling District – Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Darjeeling – were originally founded as “hill stations” during British colonial rule, places of political and climatic refuge for English rulers during the hot summer months.

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Like much of the rest of India, the Darjeeling District is experiencing rapid urbanization. The population is growing, small towns are becoming bustling cites, and new roads are connecting previously isolated communities. With change come challenges. Among the most pressing challenges facing the Darjeeling District are landslides, or the mass movement of rock and soil down hillsides. Landslides are a naturally occurring phenomenon in the Himalayan foothills, typically happening during the monsoon season, when heavy rains bring much-needed water to the region. For centuries indigenous populations have lived with landslides, developing agricultural practices, settlement patterns, and architectural forms that are resilient to unstable hillsides. In recent decades, however, growth and development have increased the frequency, severity, and impact of landslide hazards. Anthropogenic or human-caused drivers of landslide risk are many, including the growth of urban settlements, the “cutting” of new roads into the hillsides, changing agricultural practices, deforestation, and the expanded use of concrete, among others.

In June of 2015, graduate students from the Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program at CU Denver visited the Darjeeling District. The students were participating in a new study abroad course aimed at understanding the environmental challenges facing this unique region of India. This year, the class focused on understanding the drivers of landslide risk. Students spent two weeks in India under the guidance of Save the Hills, a community organization located in the Darjeeling District that is working to raise awareness about landslides in the region. To better understand the complex drivers of landslides, the students visited landslide sites and rural villages, traveled to several of the fast-growing cities in the region, and interviewed key stakeholders from the community and local government.

Over the next several weeks, a series of blog posts written by students from the class will be published on the MURP Community Website. The blog posts examine different drivers of landslide risk in the Darjeeling District. Through the data and stories the students collected during their visit, they help us to better understand one of the most complex and challenging environmental issues in India today.

Student Blog Posts

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