Uttarakhand glacial burst was a disaster waiting to happen

Uttarakhand glacial burst - A 50-meter concrete bridge in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, was rebuilt after being swept away in flood and landslide. The ecologically sensitive and fragile hills of Uttarakhand have seen massive construction activities in recent decades. Photo credit: PIB
A 50-meter concrete bridge in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, was rebuilt after being swept away in flood and landslide. The ecologically sensitive and fragile hills of Uttarakhand have seen massive construction activities in recent decades, making glacial bursts such as the one that happened on February 7 inevitable. Photo credit: PIB

By Rakesh Agrawal

Successive regimes have thrown caution to the wind in a strong push for rapid economic growth.

Surrounded by an unending panoply of a tall green wall, eager to kiss a distant azure sky, my wife and I stood totally mesmerized by the sylvan splendor as we explored the famous Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve in India’s Uttarakhand state, almost a quarter century ago.

I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was in the legendary village of Raini, in Chamoli district where once human rights activist Gaura Devi had initiated a mission to save the lush green trees by launching “Chipako Movement” to give us this impossibly green world.

Alas, the same village was now becoming a graveyard of dreams. The lives of these simple hill folk were shattered in the wee hours of February 7 when a sudden glacial flood sent their world crashing down.

“It was early in the morning. Sitting outside, I was enjoying the morning cuppa when I heard a deafening sound and left my tea unfinished, rushed outside to see a torrent of water with heavy boulders, rushing to my home,” recalls Rajeev Semwal, 46, of Raini village.

In an hour, a vast region of this hill state was reduced to rubble, including most houses of Raini village. “Why the God keeps cursing our dev-bhumi (land of gods),” said 74-year old Raji Devi.

No, it wasn’t the curse of God, but the action of the lesser mortals, we, the humans, that once again hit this “dev-bhumi,” prompting the mighty Trishul mountain to dump about 200 meters of snow and rocks into Rishiganga river, causing it to swell and flood a vast region.

READ: Uttarakhand to Amazon basin; protected forests affected by human intervention (July 2, 2016)

This angry torrent of water equipped with lethal arsenals—boulders, debris and rocks, also hit two hydro-electricity plants (HEPs)—the smaller, under construction 13 MW Rishiganga and the bigger 530 MW, Tapovan HEP leaving hundreds feared dead.

Only 58 bodies have been recovered so far with over 150 still missing, many workers trapped in the main 1.7 km long, 20 feet high and 15 feet wide Tapovan HEP tunnel, joined by a secondary 300-meter long tunnel.

The ecologically sensitive and fragile, and geologically young and sensitive hill state of Uttarakhand is no stranger to disaster — the worst happened in 2013.

Then, in 2016, a similar avalanche took place in the same area, when another part of the same Trishul mountain had hit the area, prompting the villagers to take note of an impending disaster.

Two years ago, residents of Raini village filed a petition with Uttarakhand High Court to re-look at the construction of the Rishiganga HEP as it could damage their village. On Feb. 7, their worst fears came true.

There is little doubt that a part of the mighty Trishul mountain broke and fell into the Rishiganga river, but what caused it during the winter months with below freezing temperatures  and snow all around?

Taking this cue, many opine that it was a landslide that triggered an avalanche, as Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary suggests. The notion was also supported by Anand Sharma, Additional Director General of the Regional Meteorological Center in New Delhi, a climate change naysayer.  But, if only it were the ‘normal’ winter season with temperature falling and falling, she says.

A report modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggests the warming of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas by 0.2 degrees per decade during 1951-2014 and by 0.5 degrees at the higher altitudes, caused the glacier to melt, resulting into Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).

This view is supported by experts and scientists like Jimmy Kansal, Deputy Director of the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment, Defense Research and Development Organization.

Scientists at the Divecha Center for Climate Change at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, second this, citing a study that found that the release of water from an underground glacial lake led to flash floods and inundation in the region.

“No, there was no GLOF. The devastation was caused by a huge mask of snow, ice, water and para glacial sediments (rocks and big boulders) rolling down a very steep slope into river Rishiganga and creating a massive flood in the river,” maintains Dr Ravi Chopra, a Dehradun based environmentalist and former director of the People Science Institute, a city based NGO.

“Hence it was basically an avalanche. Geologists studying the event have generally agreed that a large portion (approximately 10 hectares) of a hanging glacier above Raunthi Gad broke off and created the avalanche,” he said.

However, studies have hinted at faster glacial retreats in the Himalayan Region over the years.

“The Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, covering a 3,500 km long region of India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, experienced the rise of 1.3 degrees between 1951 and 2014, compared to the rise of 0.7 degrees during 1901 & 1951,” according to an IPCC report.

This has led to several areas of HKH recording a steep decline in snowfall and retreat of glaciers in recent decades, it says.

“There is now consensus that most glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating with the pace accelerating from the beginning of 21st century,” said Professor Anil Kulkarni, distinguished scientist at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change.

“As several studies have shown, warming is much higher in the upper reaches of Himalayas, with loss of glaciers, glacial lake formations have increased. These lakes can burst and there can be flash floods.”

Two other reports — the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, in February 2019 and the IPCC special report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, in Sept. 2019 — underlined that more Chamoli-like disasters were likely.

They both found that glacier retreat and snow cover changes have contributed to localized declines in agricultural yields in some high mountain regions, including the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the tropical Andes.

Changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme rain events vary according to season and region. The report also said that, in the Himalayas alone, up to two-thirds of the current and planned HEPs are located in the path of potential glacier floods.

Warning that glaciers have thinned and retreated, it said the glacier volume in HKH is likely to decline by 36% in a 1.5 degree global warming scenario, and by 64% by the end of century if current emissions continue.

Accelerated warming is likely to cause complete disappearance of debris free lower elevation glaciers and increase volume losses from glaciers at high elevation gradually.

While this disaster could either be an act of God (or, nature) or anthropogenic; very much like Uttarakhand’s worst disaster of 2013, it was aided and abetted by human action, most noticeably, by the construction of a plethora of dams and HEPs.

As many as 69 HEPs have been either constructed, or are under construction, with 24 given environmental clearance, in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins, learning nothing from the horrendous Kedarnath floods of 2013.

Even the recommendations of the Ravi Chopra committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India after the disaster were ignored.

The panel had recommended to take a re-look at the existing projects and total stoppage of dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, including on the Rishiganga, that is  “the para-glacial zone,” an area where the valley floor is more than about 7,000 feet above the mean sea level.

Destruction in the name of development has resulted in bumper-to-bumper dams and HEPs, he says, “As the government has gone ahead and chosen to build them.”

The Government of Uttarakhand also ignored the ultimate sacrifice of Prof. G.D. Agarwal, a former professor at IIT Kanpur, aka, Swami Sadananda, who went on a fast unto death in 2018, demanding a viral (uninterrupted) flow of the Ganga, between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, only to die after fasting for 111 days.

There was little follow up on the ground, except that some research studies were commissioned. Soon after, however, with the short political horizons of the party in power, all focus on developing sustainably was abandoned in favor of a strong push for rapid economic growth.

Caution was thrown to the winds. There have been constant demands to relax regulations in the Bhagirathi Eco-sensitive Zone. Similarly, there is constant lobbying by state officials and ministers for restarting hydropower projects stayed by the courts or by the central government.

Alas, this isn’t the last disaster and more such disasters are just waiting to happen. Most threatening is the craze of constructing all-weather, four-lane highways, connecting char-dhams (four abodes of gods), giving a fillip to the Hindutva agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Mercifully, the current disaster zone was outside this road-widening zone, but as the road-widening results into a massive outflow of debris into the river valleys and huge deforestations, any such disaster can’t be ruled out.

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