When Disaster Descends & the Need to Revisit Our Himalayan Policy

Around 9 am on the 7th of February (Sunday) the water in the Alakananda River had turned strangely grey. On close examination, it was fish that had swarmed the river downstream. The villagers from the surrounding areas gathered at the site to collect fish from what was an unusually dense pool, without much effort. Little did anyone know, it was an early warning system, from nature itself.

What happened?

Around 9:30 am, a glacier breach under the Nanda Devi, sent a large volume of water downstream that flooded the Dhauli ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Caught off guard by the sudden deluge, the workers in the Rishi Ganga Hydel Project were trapped with little ground for escape. The rampant waters claimed the lives of more than 26 people with over 170 people still missing. Further downstream, it also partially damaged the NTPC’s 30 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project, roughly 8 km away. It is also claimed to have suffered a loss of about 1,500 crore rupees, reports the Hindustan Times.

The Response

The response was quick, relentless and the work of the deployed rescue forces exemplary. NDTV reports National and state disaster response teams as well as teams from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were deployed in the area. Workers were trapped in the tunnels and under debris, the path blocked by silt and dirt, yet the morale of the rescue forces was of persistence. Encouraging visuals came up with several videos of successful rescue operations circulated in various media. Yet, the question stares at us— could it have been deterred as resolutely as it was contained?

A Troubled land

Lying along the stretch of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand with its peaks and valleys is a sensitive ecological region. Ineptly planned projects can trigger severe natural phenomena, endangering the very lives of the people around. Environmentalists have time and again raised red flags over meddling with the sensitive ecology of the region. Dam induced microseismicity and the resultant threat of landslides and floods, from glacial lakes, are also some of the concerns raised by them. Not to mention, climate change is also deemed as a significant threat.

This incident has brought back memories of the devastation that struck Kedarnath in 2013 claiming the lives of more than 5000 people. A phenomena called cloudburst caused the flood that engulfed Kedarnath, not very different to the deluge of 2021, although the causal factor was different. Terrified at what struck them, with visuals eerily similar to that of 2013, many residents no longer want to live there.

The Two Theories

Two theories have been put in place as to determine the source of the sudden deluge. As reported by The Hindu, the Director-General of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) Ranjit Rath had suspected the cause of the flooding to be a breach of a glacial lake, that led to an outburst flood. This phenomenon is called a Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). When glaciers melt, they leave a large amount of water in enclosed dams called Moraines which are made up of various materials like sand, stones, etc. When these moraines weaken they cause a release of the water that could potentially lead to a flood. Further downstream, when it collects debris along the way, its destructiveness increases exponentially. The second theory, as reported by The Print, has found consensus among various geologists and glaciologists, which involves a landslide from a hanging bit of glacier. When an enormous mass of ice comes sliding down, with rock particles and debris, it generates a tremendous amount of heat which in turn melts the ice into water. Satellite imagery has been used to point out to the release of dust after the incident, possibly resulting from the landslide. Experts are divided, but they assume either of the two could have caused the sudden deluge.

India and GLOFs: The threat and the preparedness

Glacial retreat, which refers to the melting of glaciers, due to climate change has resulted in the formation of several new glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2019 report stated that the glaciers would retreat in the upcoming years, causing landslides and floods. The Himalayan glaciers are said to be retreating at a much faster rate than the rest of the world’s glaciers. This poses significant dangers to life and property downstream. Furthermore, it necessitates dialogue about the possibility of natural disasters and the need for identification and surveillance of what can potentially lead to a disaster. 

The National Disaster Management Authority has reported in The Indian Express that identification, mapping and structural measures to prevent sudden breach of lakes have been recommended by them in their guidelines, which includes reducing the volume of water in the lakes by pumping or siphoning out the water.  Yet, in spite of what is on paper, much less has been implemented on the ground. Some identification has been undertaken but the other aspects have seen less activity. Lack of an early warning system, constructions around such GLOF prone regions are all too costly and dangerous to overlook. The NDMA recommends new infrastructure and habitation around such high hazard regions to be relocated to other safer locations. 

Is there a Bigger picture?

Several scientists share the view that the event was triggered by a landslide as opposed to a breach in some glacial lake– one of them is Dr. Ravi Chopra, scientist and Director of People’s Science Institute in Uttarakhand. In an interview with Scroll.in he mentioned that such events are not entirely unusual in the himalayan ranges with the only exception that this time the region it hit was populated. Post the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, Dr. Chopra headed a committee which reported that projects should not be undertaken in such ecologically sensitive areas, more precisely, Paraglacial zones. Yet it has been seen that since 2009, the state has signed agreements to build another 350 dams. Furthermore, the National plan is to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills, which will amount to a staggering estimate of one dam every 32 Kms in the Himalayas, reports The Hindu.

Even though such developmental projects in the hills are carried out under the pretext of reducing carbon emissions and extracting India’s hidden resource potential, often the environmental risk factors are not taken into account, let alone environmental destruction. What would have happened if the recommendations of the committee headed by Dr. Chopra were strongly adhered to, and any construction in the Paraglacial zone halted or abandoned? 

Guidelines by the NDMA resort to relocation of new infrastructure and habitation in the high hazard zones, but the solution to the larger problem is in no way that straightforward. The problem is of climate change, of retreating glaciers and glacial lakes, which could be breached any moment. Climate change weakens the moraines, the enclosing of the glacial lakes, which upon breaking gives an outlet to a huge volume of water, that could bring disasters downstream. It is therefore worthwhile and probably in need of immediate attention– to revisit our developmental policies in the Himalayas– and for that matter, any sensitive ecological zone.

But the situation is rather grim; it has been hard to ascertain what really caused the sudden deluge which really prompts us to question the efficacy of the current early warning systems, whether the surveillance and monitoring of the high hazard zones have been adequate enough. Hence it is of immediate need– an efficient early warning system, comprising better communication and emergency outlets, that can be crucial for the prevention and mitigation of disasters along with the exemplary work of the rescue forces– because when disaster descends, nature overwhelms everything.

Krishanu Kashyap is a first year student pursuing Economics at Ashoka University.

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