India: Climate change and extreme development to blame for Himalayan tragedy

February 26, 2021
Rescue operation following the avalanche in Uttarakhand, India. Photo courtesy of Sarosh Bana

A glacial cataclysm of epic proportions ravaged the idyllic north Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand on February 7.

The disaster triggered avalanches, burst glaciers and flooded rivers, devastating villages, roads, bridges and hydro-electric power projects (HEPs), and sweeping away over 250 locals and workers.

While 69 bodies have been recovered so far, authorities have declared 135 people still missing as “dead” and the huge rescue operation is now a recovery effort.

At the time of writing, 21 bodies have been pulled from the slush-filled 2.5 kilometre-long tunnel at the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan-Vishnugad project site, where about 30 workers were feared trapped.

The NTPC has been fined about US$80,000 for causing environmental damage by violating muck disposal site maintenance standards in the Tapovan area.

The authorities instinctively attributed the disaster to climate change, the entire Hindu Kush Himalayan region having emerged as a climate change flashpoint, but there is no denying that this fragile ecosystem has also been imperilled by extreme human intervention.

An assessment by the Indian Space Research Organisation speaks of an avalanche of snow and rock hurtling into the Tapovan-Reni area of Chamoli district, causing flash flooding in the Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers.

There had been two days of heavy snowfall in the area, after which the weather cleared and the air grew warmer. The melting snows led to the slumping of the snow bank, and the subsequent avalanche.

Other climate scientists suggest a rare incident — a glacial burst — occurred, characteristic of a climate change event, at the Nanda Devi glacier, which caused the deluge.

According to Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology director Kalachand Sain, a 5600 metre-high peak crumbled, pulling down the overhanging section of the Nanda Devi glacier. The entire mass plunged into the valley, creating a temporary dam that subsequently breached.

Ravi Chopra, chair of the Supreme Court-appointed High-Powered Committee, attributes the disaster to the Central government’s ambitious US$1.7 billion, 900km Char Dham road project that aims to improve connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage sites. The government denies this.

The swirling waters and surging slush destroyed the 520-Megawatt Tapovan-Vishnugad HEP (under construction), the 444MW Pipal Koti HEP, the 13.2MW Rishiganga HEP and the 400MW Vishnuprayag HEP.

Dhauliganga River merges with the Alaknanda River and joins the Rishiganga River further downstream. All three are major tributaries of the Ganga (Ganges). The avalanche may have released 3–4 million cubic metres of water into the rivers.

This calamity harkened back to June, 2013, when a flash flood claimed about 5000 lives, after the Chorabari mountain lake burst above the town of Kedarnath.

The havoc, referred to in the Indian media as a “Himalayan Tsunami”, was caused by mounds of silt and rock blasting homes and habitations. The Kedarnath temple was spared, when a thundering boulder stalled just metres away, stemming the trail of devastation behind it.

Uttarakhand lies on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, its climate and vegetation varying greatly with elevation. From ice, bare rock and glaciers at the 7816 metre-high Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain, to sub-tropical pine forests below 1500 metres.

Glaciers have been melting rapidly in the Himalayas because of global warming. Uttarakhand alone has 968 glaciers with a cumulative volume of 277.5 cubic kilometres and straddling an area of 2857 square kilometres.

Gangotri glacier is the largest at 30.2km long and is located at 7100m above sea level. It has an estimated volume of more than 27km³. But its rate of retreat over the past three decades has been more than three times that during the preceding 200 years.

Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than the world average. This situation will be aggravated by a predicted rise in temperatures in the Indian sub-continent. The glaciers’ rapid retreat is affecting stream flows, hydrology and biodiversity downstream.

One study determined that some glaciers have lost more than one-tenth of their mass in less than three decades. Uttari Nanda Devi has receded by 7.7%.

The state also has more than 1200 large and small lakes in the highlands.

Two prominent rivers of Hinduism originate in the glaciers of Uttarakhand, the Ganges at Gangotri and the Yamuna at Yamunotri. They are fed by myriad lakes, glacial melts and streams.

It is these glacial rivers that eventually drain into the Indo-Gangetic Plain (Indus-Ganga Plain) and the North Indian River Plain. This fertile plain spans 2.5 million km2 across northern and eastern India, eastern Pakistan, most of Bangladesh and the southern plains of Nepal.

The plain assures food security to more than 900 million people.

The Himalayan ecosystem provides habitat for blue sheep (bharal), snow leopards, leopards and tigers, flourishing bird life, plants and rare medicinal herbs.

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water says that more than 85% of Uttarakhand’s districts are hotspots for extreme floods.

The frequency and intensity of flooding has increased fourfold since 1970. Landslides, cloud bursts and glacial lake bursts have also quadrupled during this period, causing massive losses.

Uttarakhand has a population nearing 12 million and is often referred to as Devbhumi, Hindi for “land of the gods”, due to its multitude of Hindu shrines and pilgrimage centres.

The state’s forested Jim Corbett National Park is India’s oldest national park and provides a haven for a range of wildlife, including tigers.

Intent on transcending the pilgrimage-tourism image of Uttarakhand, past governments set the state on the path of “development” and “industrialisation”.

Like anabolic steroids, the policies springboarded the 86% mountainous and 65% forested Uttarakhand into one of India’s fastest growing states and a key investment destination for manufacturing and infrastructure.

Industry-friendly and incentive-laden approaches catalysed the development of industrial infrastructure, including integrated industrial estates.

Because its abundant water reserves were deemed hugely favourable for hydroelectric power, Uttarakhand was envisaged as an “energy state”, by harnessing its projected 25,000MW hydro potential.

Subsequent planning far overshot that. At the time of the 2013 disaster, the state had constructed 130 micro-mini to large HEPs with a total installed capacity of 6916MW. In addition, 450 more HEPs, with a combined 27,039MW, were under construction.

Damming the rivers to power industry downstream could, in the long run, drain the Indo-Gangetic Plain, putting food security at risk and threatening millions of people with famine.

Uttarakhand also lies in high seismic risk zone, its topography ranging from Zone IV (severe intensity zone) to Zone V (very severe intensity zone).

The contruction of dams, gargantuan power plants, power lines and support facilities, blasting with explosives, dredging of riverbeds for sand, and clear-felling forests for new roads in such a susceptible region will have long-term consequences.

These actions minimise river flows, leading to loss of river integrity, change river courses, erode escarpments, disrupt fish migration, and endanger aquatic biota and diversity. Construction of multiple projects, moreover, fragments river length, as has occurred along half the 205km-long Bhagirathi River.

Residents of the nearby Raini village, petitioned the Uttarakhand High Court in 2019, regarding the environmental impact of the Rishiganga HEP. The court reportedly asked the state government to form a team to investigate the issues raised and halted blasting in the project area.

Villagers have contested other projects, underscoring that they are neither consulted when authorities encroach upon their lands, nor do they find such inroads beneficial to them.

Past reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India point to the “poor quality pre-feasibility studies” and the absence of punitive action against developers who violate guidelines, execute projects shoddily, and show little concern for environment and safety.

According to the CAG, river beds frequently ran dry, owing to unrestrained work methods, there was a general disregard for afforestation and little government support for relief and rehabilitation of locals displaced by the projects.

An expert body established following the 2013 disaster was tasked with assessing whether hydroelectric power projects have contributed to environmental degradation in the region and biodiversity loss in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.

It found that the unlawful dumping of debris from road and tunnel construction had severely affected river water quality. Poor official monitoring was also a factor. But the most serious impact on biodiversity was the loss of the riverine ecosystem.

The destruction did not end on completion of construction, as repeated raising and lowering of water levels induced landslides along river courses.

Himalayan torrential rivers carry huge sedimental deposits, but dams in the region are seldom designed for such sediment loads.

Geochemical analyses of flood sediments collected along the course of the Alaknanda below the dam indicate a significant contribution of phyllite (foliated metamorphic rock) from the debris, which raised the level of the river bed. A temporary lake formed by hyper-concentrated sediment-laden water at the Vishnuprayag dam finally gave way, causing the flood surge that led to large-scale damage downstream.

What is called for is a clear halt to such works and a return of this once pristine mountain state to a pilgrimage and tourism economy, where local arts and culture are encouraged and Himalayan herbs can flourish.

At the same time, public representatives, policymakers and government should be held responsible, as disasters have become little more than statistics for them.

[Sarosh Bana is an environmental journalist in India. He founded the Forum for People-Oriented Water Utilisation in 1980, which brought international awareness and support to the campaign against the construction of the Narmada Dam.]

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