Dissecting the Himalayan Deluge!

The recent deluge on February 7, 2021 in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand has raised many questions among the scientists who are seeking an explanation that could reveal the real cause of the disaster. A motley of opinions from the science community has only spun a web of perplexity. And this could only mean that the concerns are many. Certain viewpoints for the causes of the flash flood resulting from the glacial break should be pondered and analysed to bring about an answer to solving the problem in hand.

Firstly, the deluge could be attributed to the ever-prevailing problem of the world – the climate change. Evidence from studies suggests that climate change is one of the reasons for the glacial break as the Himalayan glaciers are melting and “have been losing the equivalent of more than a vertical foot and a half of ice each year” (as reported by The Hindu). This study, published in the journal Science Advances in 2019, clearly shows that the Himalayan glaciers are prone to melt and thereby raising the water flow that could cause floods. Floodplains like Uttarakhand are under threat due to this phenomenon. While the argument of climate change being the major cause of the flash flood in Chamoli seems convincing, it could not possibly be the sole reason behind the massive disaster.

Floods are not new to Uttarakhand. But, what kindles our curiosity is that the glacier burst happened unexpectedly and out of the usual flood season in Uttarakhand. This has raised questions among both the scientific and local community that how can the disaster be merely attributed to an avalanche of rocks or erosion of soil or simply using climate change as a blanket to cover it up.

Digging a little deeper, it is seen that there are two dams or multi-purpose power projects that were being constructed in the place of disaster-the NTPC’s Tapovan-VIshnugad hydel project and Rishi Ganga Hydel Project. The power projects were washed out by the unexpected flash flood on February 7 and as this article is being written, more than 170 workers of those projects are trapped in a tunnel as the water gushed in. Now, the link between the deluge and the power project construction cannot go unnoticed. To understand this, it is required to delve deeper into the concept of multi-purpose projects.

Construction of dams is not a recent phenomenon in India. Dams and multi-purpose projects have been in our schemes for water management and energy generation purposes. And likewise, scrutiny for such multi-purpose projects is also not new in India. Historically, dams were built to impound rivers thereby reserving water for irrigation and other major uses. The activity of dam-building can be seen from the first century B.C. when dams were built in areas near Allahabad to channel River Ganga. Further evidence shows the dam building in Chandragupta Maurya period and as well as in places like Kalinga(Orissa), Nagarjunakonda (Andhra Pradesh) and Bennur (Karnataka). Today, we can see that this process of building dams has evolved to become multi-purpose projects which not only works as a water reserve but also works to extract electricity among other purposes. Dams are not just about holding back water.

But as beneficial as dams can be, there is also a downside to it as there are two sides to a coin. Dams cause poor sediment flow due to inundation and affect marine life. Building of dams can also disturb the ground layer causing earthquakes. Dams built in floodplains can submerge the vegetation and can cause floods. These facts are not so new to us. Even a glimpse into school level geography could explain our disaster in hand. There is enough evidence that suggests that the multi-purpose power projects being constructed in Chamoli district could have triggered the glacial break which ended in deluge costing lives. In addition to climate change being a possible cause, these power projects demonstrate the human-hand behind the calamity. The responsibility for this entirely falls on the center and the state governments.

Being oblivious to a life-threatening matter for the sake of achieving better economic outcomes for Uttarakhand shows that the government consciously wants to live in fool’s paradise. Uttarakhand is successfully cultivating the benefits of being a world pilgrimage center and the successive governments’ efforts to stimulate the region’s economy since the 1960s by building roads and tunnels, dams, telecommunication towers and multi-lane highways and railroads has only facilitated the state’s status of being the destination for religious tourism. But, the state consistently fails to discern the impending danger that comes along with excessive developmental projects that could boost the economy of the state. Kedarnath floods in 2013 should have been taken as the first warning and yet, more than seven years later, the state of the state remains unchanged.

According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report 2019, even if the Indian government abides by and achieves the Paris Climate Agreement, about one-third of the glaciers of the Himalayas would have melted by 2100. With facts like this and the dwindling height of the Himalayas inch by inch, it is crystal clear that these disasters are going to be inevitable. It is already late to call it too late for India as our country should already have begun preventive and expiative measures to solve the imminent problem.

So, what can be done? There are several things to be done by the state and central governments to control and prevent these disasters. Control measures can begin from allowing the construction of dams and power projects in a sensitive area like Uttarakhand only when it does not affect the geography and the biodiversity. Landslides, floods and glacial breaks can be prevented when unwanted mass constructions are promptly rejected. Moreover, control and resilience to disasters require proper mechanisms and the government must engage in devising them. Making these mechanisms region-specific could bring effective control and safety of people. Committees and departments must be formed for crisis response and prevention. This will ensure efficacious methods and will enhance rapid response to disasters. Economic benefits from religious tourism in Uttarakhand is a good news but that also brings with it the responsibility of investing in safety measures in times of crisis. The government should always abide by that to guarantee the long term prosperity of the state.
Roads and embankments should be regularly checked and reconstructed to prevent undesirable and unexpected shocks like the flash flood. Creating infrastructure that does not get affected by the climate is an important step to be taken by the government to fend off and control the calamities. Assessing developmental projects before sanctioning them permission and funds is a dire necessity hereafter (a re-assessment of the same would help too).

One of the notable things from the recent deluge in Chamoli district is that the people (especially the construction workers of the tunnel of the aforementioned power projects) were not promptly warned in the event of the flash flood. Enabling measures and systems to swiftly warn the people during calamities is the need of the hour. Constant monitoring of the disaster-prone sites should be conducted to be prescient and perceive danger before or as soon as it surfaces. Signs for an approaching disaster should be noted to announce an early warning to the people. This should be included as a part of preventive measures to be taken to handle a disaster.

Further, the disaster response and management should be implemented in nooks and corners. This can be achieved by educating the locals on effectively managing a catastrophe and by instructing survival skills. This can be extended to training of youngsters and encouraging them to form disaster-management groups to help local communities in such times like now. Empowering the local communities with skills to handle and survive through a calamity can prove to be extremely useful. A classic example of the potential of young people in tackling a calamity would be Chennai floods 2015. The youth played a vital role in managing the crisis and showcased their valour. It is notable that those were groups of people with almost no skills in disaster management. Yet, they were able to come out of it successfully. The government must understand the capability of a local community that is trained in disaster control and management.

Lastly, the developmental projects like tunnels and dams in the state should be reconsidered, owing to the seismically sensitive geographical nature of the state. The government should understand that miscalculations can cost lives as it has happened in this case.

Several pieces of evidence show us that the deluge was no coincidence. It would be totally wrong to conclude that the disaster was solely natural. The government, insituitions and citizens must start thinking alike to realise the causes and resolve them as soon as possible for the Himalayan region to stay afloat, literally!

-Subiksha Kumar (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: / PTI

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