Days after a glacier burst in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand caused flash floods, the scientific community is still struggling to understand what triggered the disaster. At the time of writing this article, the death toll was 34 with more than 170 people missing. The floods have also caused heavy damage to public and private infrastructure, including the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project and the Rishiganga mini hydro project. The incident was reminiscent of the 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand which killed thousands.
Why is Uttarakhand vulnerable?
Uttarakhand is located in the midst of young and unstable mountains, and is subject to intense rainfall. But these natural characteristics can’t be solely responsible for devastations the State has witnessed in the past decade. For years geologists, glaciologists and climate experts have voiced their fears about an impending disaster due to climate change, rapid and indiscriminate construction activities, and the subsequent ecological destruction in the region.
The occurrence of the current glacier burst was loosely attributed to erosion, a build-up of water pressure, an avalanche of snow or rocks, landslides or an earthquake under the ice. According to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, a rock mass, weakened from years of freezing and thawing of snow, may have led to the creation of a weak zone and fractures leading to a collapse that resulted in flash floods. What has intrigued experts and the local community is that this avalanche occurred unexpectedly, out of the regular flood season.
Experts also identified large-scale human settlements and expansion of agricultural activities leading to massive deforestation, as a possible trigger. Studies have shown that widespread settlements, farming, cattle grazing and other anthropogenic activities could destroy the natural barriers that control avalanches and floods, thereby enhancing the possibilities of a glacial lake outburst flood. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report (2019) had pointed out that one-third of the Hindu Kush Himalaya’s glaciers would melt by 2100 and potentially destabilise the river regime in Asia, even if all the countries in the region fulfilled their commitments under the Paris Agreement. It also warned that any ecologically destructive activities would lead to more intensified disasters like landslides.
Experts and activists have incessantly asked for scrutiny into the construction of hydroelectric power projects in Uttarakhand. There have also been allegations about the use of explosives in the construction of dams and other infrastructure. In 2014, an expert committee led by Dr Ravi Chopra, instituted to assess the role of dams in exacerbating floods, provided hard evidence on how haphazard construction of dams was causing irreversible damage to the region.
Some immediate steps
The need of the hour is to invest in long-term crisis response mechanisms and resilience solutions. A few immediate steps include: (i) investing in resilience planning, especially in flood prevention and rapid response; (ii) climate proofing the infrastructure such as by applying road stabilisation technologies for fragile road networks and strengthening existing structures like bridges, culverts and tunnels; (iii) strengthening embankments with adequate scientific know-how; (iv) reassessing development of hydropower and other public infrastructure; (v) investing in a robust monitoring and early warning system; (vi) establishing implementable policies and regulatory guidelines to restrict detrimental human activities, including responsible eco- and religious tourism policies; and (vii) investing in training and capacity building to educate and empower local communities to prevent and manage risks effectively.
The time for wake-up calls is long behind us. India needs to urgently rise up to the challenge by applying innovative and inclusive solutions that support nature and marginalised communities, to restore and rebuild a resilient future for Uttarakhand.
A. Nambi Appadurai is Director, Climate Resilience Program, World Resources Institute, India. Views are personal