Context: Uttarakhand glacier disaster:
The staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi mountain and the ensuing floods that have claimed many lives come as a deadly reminder that this fragile, geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted.
A significant slice of the glacier, dislodged by a landslide, according to some satellite images, produced roaring torrents in the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers in Chamoli district, trapping unsuspecting workers at two hydro power project sites.
What has caused the flooding in Uttarakhand?
- To the best of our knowledge, on February 5 and 6, there was good sunshine and the fresh snow and ice began to melt.
- The mass of fresh snow, ice and water began to move down a steep slope in a small mountain stream called Trishuligad.
- That valley is full of rocks, boulders and as the mass moved downward, it gathered energy and a lot of matter, solid matter.
- By the time it came down to the base which was the Rishi Ganga river, it had become an avalanche. It caused a lot of destruction as it hit the river.
- When you have a mass like this, if it strikes a barrier on the way it can normally smash that barrier.
- And each barrier that it smashes it gains more energy, moves with greater velocity downstream, and picks up more material from the bed of the river.
- So first it smashed into a bridge, then it hit the dam then went into the Dhauli Ganga valley and there it hit the barrage of the Tapovan Vishnugad project of 520 megawatts. Literally, within seconds it destroyed that and moved downstream.
- Scores of people are still missing in the wave of water, silt and debris that swamped the rivers and filled tunnels in the Tapovan power project, although the immediate rescue of nearly 15 people by the ITBP, the Army and other agencies brings some cheer.
- The rescuers face a challenging environment as they try to locate more survivors and bring relief supplies to paralysed communities. These immediate measures are important, along with speedy compensation to affected families.
What makes the geography of Uttarakhand so fragile and vulnerable to such incidents?
- This is a natural event that occurred in the high Himalayan ranges. They happen every now and then.
- Except this one is closer to a populated area. Secondly, we would have never heard of it, if it had not led to a disaster. There is a natural event and that is okay. But disasters happen when we do something stupid.
- In 2013, after the Kedarnath tragedy, the committee that was heading put out a report which clearly said that projects should not be built in these valleys.
- They are called paraglacial zones – glaciers in the geological pass have receded from this area leaving behind a lot of debris, boulders, rocks, etc.
- And when there is heavy rainfall or snowfall, and there is melting of water, snow and ice – the combination of the three is deadly – then it is able to gather a lot of the solids lying in the path and move them downstream.
- We had described the process of how destruction takes place and we had clearly said not to build them. This valley had six projects planned. To ignore this warning is foolhardy.
Increasing frailty in the face of environmental shocks:
- The Centre and the Uttarakhand government cannot ignore the larger context of the State’s increasing frailty in the face of environmental shocks.
- Once the crucible of environmentalism, epitomised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi and the Chipko movement, the State’s deep gorges and canyons have attracted many hydroelectric projects and dams, with little concern for earthquake risk.
- Red flags have been raised repeatedly, particularly after the moderate quake in 1991 in the region where the Tehri dam was built and the 2013 floods that devastated Kedarnath, pointing to the threat from seismicity, dam-induced microseismicity, landslides and floods from a variety of causes, including unstable glacial lakes and climate change.
- India is heavily invested in dam development and growth of hydropower, largely in the Himalaya region especially to cut carbon emissions.
- By one estimate, if the national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills is realised in a few decades, the Indian Himalayas will have one dam for every 32 km, among the world’s highest densities.
- Yet, as researchers say, this may be a miscalculation for reasons, including potential earthquake impacts, monsoonal aberrations that could repeat a Kedarnath-like flood, severe biodiversity loss and, importantly, extreme danger to communities downstream.
Experts point to climate change impact:
- The India Meteorological Department has said that no rains are forecast. Officials of the Central Water Commission meanwhile said the flooding from the glacial burst has been contained.
- Environmental experts have attributed the glacial melt to global warming. Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes, according to the latest assessment reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- There is also high confidence that the number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase in most regions in the coming decades, and new lakes will develop closer to steep and potentially unstable mountain walls where lake outbursts can be more easily triggered.
- Climate change has driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall, warmer winters has led to the melting of a lot of snow.
- The thermal profile of ice, say experts, was increasing. Earlier the temperature of ice ranged from -6 to -20 degree C, it is now -2 making it more susceptible to melting.
- The Himalayan rivers pass through environmentally fragile areas. However, like other Himalayan rivers, the Dhauliganga too has been dammed.
- Dhauliganga also has a power station of the National Hydropower Corporation Ltd of 280 MW at Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand.
Way Forward: What do environmentalists anticipate in the region?
- They have been warning time and again that this kind of development in this sensitive region should not happen.
- And that we need to look at a different pattern of development in order to avoid these kind of disasters.
- We really need to look at sustainable development ideas.
- For example, let us believe the government is meant to take tourists to the four shrines.
- The government is doing this primarily because it anticipates a lot of revenue.
- After the 2013 flood, experts written a monograph on environment and sustainable development in Uttarakhand, in which pointed out that if you are going to concentrate everything on four routes, you will not spread the wealth around.
- Whereas Uttarakhand offers so many innumerable opportunities for tourism.
- Somewhere you can see the mountain landscape, somewhere you can see beautiful forests, somewhere you can see streams, there are wildlife reserves.
- If we could spread all this tourism around the state and give a fillip to the homestay business then it would spread the wealth around. And the state could still earn its revenues.
- The second approach is if we say we are going to protect our forests, our rivers, we are not doing it for our own good. It is for the nation.
- So let the nation pay Uttarakhand people for the ecological services that they are rendering.
- Women give up going to the forest to collect firewood. They are giving up a source of energy so you distribute free gas cylinders to them. It is a very direct payment. That is the kind of development we need.
There is also some evidence that the life of dams is often exaggerated, and siltation, which reduces it, is grossly underestimated: in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, siltation was higher by 140% than calculated.
According to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a think tank, under construction HEPs threaten about 50% of the Dhauliganga’s length.
The need is to rigorously study the impact of policy on the Himalayas and confine hydro projects to those with the least impact, while relying more on low impact run-of-the-river power projects that need no destructive large dams and reservoirs.
Unlike what the NITI Aayog seems to think of environmental accounting, this would be a sound approach.