Greater cooperation is necessary to protect the fragile ecology of the Himalayas, the world’s youngest mountains facing unprecedented human encroachment, concluded the team of Nepali and Indian journalists and researchers that gathered in Kathmandu on Monday to assess the disaster brought by the floods last month. The programme, titled “Ganga-Mahakali catchment disaster” was organised by the Nainital-based People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (Pahar) and the Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian magazine.
Speaking at the programme Dr. Shekhar Pathak, the founder of Pahar and noted historian said the rivers in Uttarkhand and the Himalayan region were “angry” from the last 100 years of human encroachment. The tragedy was far greater than the media suggested and was not limited to Uttarakhand. It spanned eastern Himanchal Pradesh and western Nepal, he said.
Mr. Pathak accused the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand of “hiding very many things, including the number of dead and missing” and “not even bringing up the floods with his colleagues until four days after the devastation began on the evening of June 16”.
The exact death toll in Uttarakhand is unknown but is estimated to be around 10,000.
It is suspected that a large proportion of the 10,000-15,0000 labourers who carry pilgrims to remote temples, perished. Many of the labourers were youth from western Nepal.
Mr. Pathak claimed that all the hydro projects in Uttarakhand collapsed and the dams — about two dozen of them — had been swept away by the floods. He vented particular ire at the JP Power Project on the Bishnuganga river for destroying the ecology of the area with the use of thousands of tonnes of dynamite to blast tunnels and roads through the Himalayas.
“We have example after example of human encroachment at the Himalayas. But the ones who died were not responsible.”
Several Nepali participants noted the differences in the destruction caused by the Mahakali river on the Nepal-India border. On the Indian side, the town of Dharchula suffered no losses because of the protection from embankments and newly-constructed spurs, but the one Nepali side, the river tore the town of Darchula into pieces.
Nepali commentators, including the district chief of Darchula, accused the administrators of the Dhauliganga hydro project in India of releasing the floodgates without warning. The district chief unsuccessfully tried to contact the district magistrate on the Indian side for two days.
The Indian embassy in Kathmandu denies that the Dhauliganga dam caused the floods in Darchula.
Speaking at the event, journalist Girish Giri recounted his travel to the confluence of the Mahakali and Dhauliganga river. “The locals on the Indian side, too, believe that the floods were caused by the Dhauliganga dam,” he said.
The full impact of floods in Nepal will not be known this month, if ever. The Red Cross estimates that 59 have died, 29 injured and 2,079 families (approximately 12,500 people) have been displaced in dozens of Nepal districts since May by floods in the Mahakali and the Karnali river systems. With the monsoon still hanging over the country, there are fears that two other river systems, the Gandaki and the Koshi, could unleash more floods in the central and eastern parts of the country.