Stop man made disasters in fragile Himalayan region

Sunday, Mar 07, 2021 09:30 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Mar 07, 2021 03:50 [IST]

Stop man made disasters in fragile Himalayan region


On February 7th, a sudden massive flood devastated a Himalayan valley in the state of Uttarakhand, tearing through two hydroelectric dams, killing more than 100 people.  As a result of the flood, there has been massive flooding in Chamoli district- the Rishiganga river, the Dhauliganga river, and in turn  Alaknanda. Several bridges, roads, homes and hundreds of grazing sheep, cattle and goats were also swept away in the deluge.  A surge of water, thought to be triggered when a glacier broke off from Nanda Devi mountain in the state of Uttarakhand, left a trail of devastation. Millions worldwide watching the  tragedy unfold on their television screens and realizing the humanitarian cost of the disaster were obviously in search of the causes of frequent  disaster because this flooding gave flashbacks of the 2013 floods that devastated the state, where 1000 died.
While many speculate the flooding was caused by the outburst of a glacier, many are attributing the disaster to the ecological impact of climate change and extensive construction and human activities in the highest mountain region in the world, the Himalaya. The Himalaya being structurally unstable and young is still geologically active, fragile and vulnerable to both natural and man-made processes. An avalanche or cloud burst may be natural, but the impact of this disaster is local and man-made. It was highly unusual for a glacier to break off during the winter months. The possible reason is that with increasing global warming, the upper reaches of the Himalayas are warming faster, leading to more rapid melting of the glaciers. Researchers already  warned  global heating would  become a huge problem for the region in the next few years. A survey from 2019 found that glaciers in the Himalayas have been melting at double the speed since 2000, losing nearly a vertical 50cm of ice each year.
 In the era of globalization and so that the industrialization and so-called modernization, government  practically overlooked the natural ecosystems and carrying capacity of the Himalaya, besides the traditional beliefs and norms of nature conservation despite  grievances of environmentalists and public to the development which is dangerous and not sustainable. This type of development in this fragile region clearly reveals that science is being operated without an iota of conscience. This is the clearly evident that the top level managerial personnel, engineers and scientists supported by the politicians and corporate brigade are carrying out their job without accountability and responsibility. Even government do not bother the suffering of mankind and humanity and damage to the  ecosystem with valuable plants and animals facing threat of extinction.
Over the centuries, the numbers of pilgrims have increased exponentially at major pilgrim centers across the Himalaya. This expansion of tourism  mainly  supported by political and economic powers, has created a variety of social vulnerabilities in the entire region, which are ultimately responsible for turning a regional extreme weather event into a national disaster. Uttarakhand is one such centers of pilgrim activities in the Himalaya as it has four major Hindu and one Sikh shrines – the Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Hemkund. In order to fulfill the need of such a huge number of pilgrims an intricate network of roads, hotels, lodges and related support systems has been built into the remote mountainous areas of the Himalaya. Around 50,000 trees have been felled under the Chardham  road project to connect the pilgrim spots in Uttarakhand. The project is a 900 km long road, which is being constructed at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. The 900-km stretch project had been broken into 53 contracted road projects.
This approach is in practice simply  to escape from the requirement of environment impact assessment (EIA) report before the start of the project. The Regulatory authorities in environment sector framed the procedures and processes of EIA in such a manner that destruction of this fragile ecosystem in the name of development cannot be resisted. The broadening of roads means the mountains have been vertically sliced. Reconstruction of roads and other infrastructure hurriedly for tourism  after the disaster further aggravate existing vulnerabilities and create new vulnerabilities that might lay the cornerstone for disasters to come in the region. Despite knowing the history of landslides, the government has not conducted any environmental assessment before implementing such projects. Thereby it is clear that the policy-makers who approve these schemes either do not understand the scientific evidences or simply choose to ignore it.
Uttarakhand is now known as the ‘energy state’ of India due to more than 500 large and medium sized hydro-projects commissioned and several projects are being built on its major and minor rivers. Though the mega hydro-projects are blamed as the environmental menace, but other medium and small projects are also the major source of economy of the state, therefore, almost all the rivers are being dammed to use the valuable water resource for electricity generation without taking into account the future consequences. These require stream diversion, large-scale excavation of rock by blasting, tunneling and dumping loose rock debris/soil, creating unstable land forms prone to slope instability.
In addition to the above activities, construction of multi-storied buildings and domestic houses in such a high risk earthquake zone is also a matter of big concern. Earlier the houses in the mountains were mostly built of mud, wood, rock-slab, and other bio-materials which could withstand the tremor of earthquake. However ban on timber for house construction, easy availability of building materials and impact of market forces, people are constructing semi-concrete, concrete, and other not so shake-proof structures, therefore, a medium level earthquake results in a much larger damage in the region. The kind of construction that is actually taking place for developmental activities is not sustainable, and is dangerous. We hold the Government, State apparatus, regulators, scientists/engineers in environment sector and politicians accountable for the lives killed and maimed, for the resources destroyed, for the innocence slaughtered, for the values trampled and for the frightening future that stares at our face.
 This disaster was a man-made disaster and to prevent similar calamities from taking place, government should implement development projects in a scientific manner. Environmental assessments should be done before the implementation of development projects in ecologically sensitive areas. Policy-makers must actively engage with scientists and experts possessing adequate knowledge without tremendous zeal for  money and power, on the problems facing the Himalayas and their people to make sustainable development work. Global warming can grab the headlines, but many of the other pressures on the fragile mountain region are more mundane. The human population is increasing fast in the Himalayas, and so is the speed of the landscape changes needed to support it. Cattle grazing and rampant deforestation — on current trends, one-third of the total Indian Himalayan forest cover could be gone by 2100  — will drive nearly one-quarter of endemic species to extinction and disrupt the natural flow of water. Scientists and engineers must make the case more forcefully that rampant building construction cannot be permitted by any means on riverbanks or flood plains that are constantly swept by monsoon floods.
If the people of the Himalayas were more aware of the geological vulnerability and ecological fragility of their mountain home, they would surely force more compliance of laws and regulations to protect it.
(Dr Debapriya Mukherjee is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. E-mail Dr Aparajita Mukherjee is a Post-doctoral fellow, Chemistry Dept, Jadavpur University)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi