Uttarakhand disaster: A wake up call for govt

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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 Rishi Ganga river near Raini Village which has been completely destroyed, and the much larger 520 MW 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.

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 landslides 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. 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. 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.

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