Uttarakhand Disaster: Reminder for Development and Climate Change Risks

Source: The Indian Express

Aditi Pokharel

The Uttarakhand disaster is a reminder to the government about the hazardous impacts of development initiatives in ecologically vulnerable regions.

The recent flash flood in the Chamoli district of Uttarkhand that took the lives of many and wiped out several infrastructural developments, specifically, the two-hydropower plants on the Ganga, was a reminder of sustainable development needs. A large part of the Nanda Devi glacier fell into the Stream of Alaknanda River, resulting in severe flooding. The rapid flow of water destroyed all the houses and structures that came in between. It is not the first time for Uttarakhand to have experienced such a disaster. The flash flood of 2013, popularly known as Kedarnath Tragedy, is still fresh in people’s memories.


Glacial lake outburst explained:

Glaciers are sensitive indicators to the increase in air temperature and global warming. Glacial lakes are inherently unstable; hence, a potential threat to people and property in valleys below them. According to the official site of The Central Water Commission, Flash floods caused by the outburst of glacial lakes, called Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), are well known in Himalaya, where landslides had often formed such lakes. GLOFs have immense potential of flooding in downstream areas, causing disastrous consequences due to the release of large volumes of water in a very short interval of time.

Outbursts of glacial lakes (GLOF) and landslide-dammed lakes (LLOF) have caused severe catastrophes in mountain regions worldwide. The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) has experienced a series of disasters related to lake outbursts. The ongoing climate change is expected to alter and potentially increase lake outbursts’ probability in the future.

The Geological Survey of India (GSI) found that 13 out of 486 glacial lakes in Uttarakhand are vulnerable to outburst. GSI’s Director-General Ranjit Rath said, “These lakes are quite common on the debris-covered Himalayan glaciers with their lower part moving very slowly and at times remaining almost stationary. Sudden triggering mechanisms make them burst out.”


Way Forward to Sustainable Development:

The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain ranges, prone to erosion and landslides and unstable because of high seismic activity. On top of this, climate change and its resultant warming of glaciers and unseasonal snow and heat are exacerbating conditions in the already fragile ecosystem. Development initiatives in such a fragile ecosystem need to assess the environmental impacts and possible consequences properly. In the case of the recent Chamoli flash flood, it is obvious that most of the human casualties are the workers in different infrastructure and hydropower projects. The small 13.2 MW hydropower plant on the Rishiganga River is destroyed. Another much larger 520 MW Dhauliganga powerplant is also badly damaged, trapping many workers inside to die. It is sad and equally disappointing that the supposed development initiatives are major contributors to the flash flood’s human casualties.

There are several lessons in ecological management and sensitivity for the government to take from the recent environmental disaster in Uttarakhand. The tragic loss of lives in Chamoli could have been prevented if not for the heavy construction and building activity in the region. This unfortunate event must be the wakeup call for the authorities to take cognizance of the environment, says D. Raghunandan, Director, Centre for Technology and Development.

According to the India Water Portal, more than 50 hydroelectric projects are underway on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers. At the same time, a committee of experts warned that such projects are a threat to the state. Even Uma Bharti, the former water resources minister, had urged not to build power projects on the Ganga and its major tributaries since the Himalayas are an environmentally susceptible area. Magsaysay award winner Chandi Prasad said that he had written a letter to the then environment minister in 2010 warning about the hydropower project’s adverse effects on Rishiganga. His fear is realised in 2021. He claimed that if his warning had been paid heed to in 2010, such a catastrophe would have been prevented.

Following the recent Chamoli flashflood, concerns have been raised about the impact assessment of development projects planned in the Himalayas. The government needs to step back and take environmental experts’ advice before going forward with more infrastructural development projects in such ecologically vulnerable areas.