February 14, 2021

Learn from the Uttarakhand Disaster

THE terrible disaster in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand on February 7, 2021, has already cost the lives of over 30 persons with another 150 or so missing or trapped. Tragically, most of the dead are workers in different infrastructure and hydro-electric power projects such as the small 13.2 MW project on the Rishiganga river near Raini Village which has been completely destroyed, and the much larger 520MW Tapovan power plant nearby on the Dhauliganga which too is badly damaged and where a number of workers are trapped. These projects were supposed to benefit the region but have become victims of the disaster. This is ironic because such reckless supposedly ‘developmental’ activities are themselves major contributors to such disasters, even if not always the prime cause.

The exact cause and circumstances behind the present disaster are still emerging. It appears that the earlier speculation about a glacial lake burst may not be correct. It now seems, based on studies of satellite imagery in India and abroad, and preliminary observations by Indian specialist teams, that a massive landslide was triggered by the breaking-off of a large section of a rocky mountain-top, along with a resulting avalanche involving large quantities of recently accumulated snow and rocks. There is also some suspicion that this entire chain of events may have been initiated by the fall of a broken part of a glacier on to that unstable rock face.

Whatever the specifics, this disaster is a grim reminder of mindless man-made “development” ignoring all warnings and without thought about consequences. Two major aspects stand out which both result in, and contribute to, similar disasters in mountain areas especially in the Western Himalayas namely, climate change and thoughtless infrastructure and other construction projects in the region.

It is now well known that man-made global warming has led to rapid melting and shrinking of glaciers along with melting of polar ice caps. More recent studies, both internationally and in India, have shown that melt rates are much higher at present than in earlier decades. In India, glaciers are melting more rapidly in the Western Himalayas than in the East. Glacier melt leads to formation of large pools or “glacial lakes,” whose barriers sometimes break, releasing large volumes of water leading to flash flooding downstream, as earlier surmised to have happened in the present disaster. This process is underway especially rapidly in the Western Himalayas leading to instability and increasing probability of flash flooding.

This problem is exacerbated by the irresponsible rush to build numerous roads, power plants and other infrastructure in the region. The Himalayas are known to be a young and unstable mountain range, subject to frequent landslides, with cloudbursts and flash floods bringing down tons of rocks and other debris even under normal circumstances. Expanding settlements in hilly regions are already putting pressure on the regional environment such as through road building, depletion of water sources, and tree felling leading to loosening of soil and rocks which increases landslips and rainwater run-off leading to floods in local streams and rivers. The current rash of construction projects, especially under the present government, has taken such destruction to new and dangerous levels.

A massive number of hydro-electric projects are now under construction in the region. At present there are around 100 dams in the state with many more under construction. Several of these are supposed to be run-of-the-river projects but, in practice, also involve some impounding of water and construction activity. According to some estimates, over 450 hydel projects are planned, meaning there could be one project every few dozen kilometres! The construction of these dams and hydel projects involve tree-felling with lackadaisical compensatory afforestation, and a lot of construction, often using dynamite and other questionable techniques triggering further instability in already unstable hill regions leading to large-scale protests by villagers. Construction debris are often simply dumped into the river in violation of procedure, or along the roadside in so-called “designated spots” but frequently end up in the rivers.

Massive road construction is also underway, notably under the Rs 14,000 crore Char Dham Project started in 2016 linking the four major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand with over 800 kilometres of roads including the Char Dham Mahamarg highway, hotels and other infrastructure. Environmental clearance for the project was obtained through the subterfuge of dividing the project into 53 projects of under 100 kilometres which made clearance easier. The packed committee to review the project also raised the road width to 10 metres involving cutting of the hill upto 24 metres. Of even greater concern is road cutting and scooping of hill sides being done in a crude and dangerous manner including through dynamiting, often with almost vertical slopes, sharply increasing prospects of landslides, and without stabilisation and fresh plantation to help bind the slopes. Speed, greater profits for the companies involved, and not safety is clearly the priority.

Besides the direct damage caused in the already unstable region, all this only worsens impacts of future flooding events. Debris raises the river bed, increasing chances of flooding and submergence of riverside infrastructure and townships as happened in the 2013 disaster.
Kedarnath town, which suffered extensive damage in 2013, is being rebuilt with little thought to the impact on the surrounding environment and the vulnerability of the town to further flooding and other events like in 2013. No thought has been given either to the carrying capacity of towns and settlements in this fragile area. Alternative suggestions such as building residential infrastructure at lower altitudes with regulated pilgrim traffic to the temple, have been brushed aside.

Monitoring and observation of this region for extreme weather events, landslides and slope instability, and glacial observation, is almost non-existent.

There has to be a complete safety and environmental review of all projects in the hill regions of Uttarakhand. It is essential that this disastrous course be reversed without delay. Otherwise future disasters are bound to happen.
(February 10, 2021)