India: Floods an avoidable environmental catastrophe

Issue 

Yet again, there are floods devastating the Himalayan region; yet again the same criminal negligence and apathy of the administrative machinery exacerbating the tragedy.

The lack of proper disaster management infrastructure in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, the delayed warnings, and the government’s refusal to act on the warnings from the Meteorological department in Delhi ― unfortunately, all of this is painfully familiar.

But, even as the people of Uttarakhand bravely try to rebuild their shattered lives, we need to remind ourselves that the recent devastation is human-made in more ways than one. These floods and the subsequent destruction have important lessons for us. They point to far more than administrative inefficiency and indifference.

To start with, we need to remember that the majestic Himalayas, which feed several rivers including the Ganga and the Yamuna and their tributaries, are relatively young mountains. These “new” mountains need to stabilise with time. Only then can they begin to cope to some degree with constant destabilising assaults in the form of constructing huge roads, highways and dams.

Also, the entire Himalayan region is an extremely fragile eco-system that can be tampered with only at our risk. It is an eco-system that demands respect, that requires us to “learn its laws” as Frederich Engels so eloquently insisted humanity needed to do with nature in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

This is something our policy makers seem to have entirely forgotten in their quest for a “development” paradigm premised on breakneck construction, on repeated interventions in the eco-system without regard to its disastrous consequences.

Time and again, environmentalists have pointed out that the large-scale mining activity in the Himalayas, the spate of hydro power projects, and the building of roads and highways would have serious consequences.

Landslides and flash floods are, after all, not new to the people of the region. With the growing intensity of implementing this “development” project, these have only grown worse.

The facts speak for themselves: about 300 big and small dams are being proposed over the Himalayan rivers, and according to a study (by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and University of Delhi) this will result in the submergence of about 1700 square kilometres of forests.

Mining activity in the Himalayan region has also intensified. Together with the construction of large dams, this process has resulted not just in huge deforestation, but also in the blasting of the young hills and depositing of huge amounts of debris in the Himalayan rivers.

As the Uttarkashi disaster in 2011-12 proved only too well, depositing debris from dam building and mining into rivers increases the chance of flash floods during heavy rains. Moreover, with the gUttarakhand government bent on promoting unregulated tourism (mostly religious tourism), the levels of traffic on the hill roads have already reached alarming levels.

An analysis done by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found the number of vehicles registered in Uttarakhand have risen from 83,000-odd vehicles in 2005-06 to a whopping 180,000. And the report points out, most of these vehicles cater to tourists.

Moreover, the spate of building roads, bridges and entire townships anywhere and everywhere in Uttarakhand ― even on the “flood ways” that flank the Himalayan rivers and on the floodplains and terrace regions of the hills ― has meant rivers inevitably cause huge devastation.

Ideally, a river needs wide flood ways to spread to in case of heavy rains; these flood ways essentially act as natural flood control mechanisms. Traditionally, large-scale housing and building on flood ways was avoided.

But now this important distinction between floodplains and flood ways has almost been wiped away by human activity.

Together, the paradigm of “development” in Uttarakhand is an ideal recipe for landslides and flash floods. For our policymakers, it seems, concepts like “carrying capacity” just do not exist.

It is not only environmentalists and the people of the region who have been warning the authorities about the possible consequences of unregulated tourism and building in the hills. The World Wildlife Fund (WII) warned the government not to go ahead with several hydropower projects planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river systems in Uttarakhand.

According to the WII report, commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, these projects could destroy 22% of the state’s forestland and affect the unique Himalayan ecology.

Similarly, the Comptroller and Auditor General warned three years ago that the spate of more than 200 hydropower projects in the state could be catastrophic in the event of a flash flood.

But such reports have rarely had any impact on the state’s aggressive promotion of its model of “development”. And, as Engels puts it, nature takes its revenge on us.
Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the ominous role of climate change in this disaster. Several experts have correctly located the Uttarakhand catastrophe in the depressingly long list of “extreme” weather events linked to climate change.

They point out that flash floods are related to the changing rainfall patterns due to the warming of the atmosphere.

The increased atmospheric temperature causes new precipitation patterns characterised by short spells of heavy rains rather than uniform rainfall over a longer period.

It is difficult to divorce the record rainfall of 340mm in June in the hills from climate change and its impacts. And this, along with huge soil erosion and several other human-made factors only increases the possibility of flash floods.

The Uttarakhand disaster is an ominous reminder. It is important not to see this disaster merely as an administrative failure, as the mainstream political “opposition” in Uttarakhand as well as in Delhi is trying to do.

The likes of BJP, deeply committed as they are to the “development” paradigm in Uttarakhand ― the paradigm of unregulated tourism, big dams and unfettered mining, building of roads, bridges and townships everywhere in the fragile hills ― are equally implicated in this disaster.

It is high time that we wake up to the need of an entirely new model of development, in the hill regions, and also the rest of the country.

[Reprinted from Climate and Capitalism.This article will appear in the July issue of the Liberation, published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.]