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Climate Change Tracker: Was the Uttarakhand disaster foretold?

The Uttarakhand flash flood is a prime case of infrastructure projects amplifying the magnitude of climate change impacts in the Himalaya

A view of the damaged dam of the Rishi Ganga Power Project in Uttarakhand.
A view of the damaged dam of the Rishi Ganga Power Project in Uttarakhand. (PTI)

In the aftermath of the flash flood in Uttarakhand’s Rishi Ganga gorge that killed at least 34 people (over 170 are still missing), the one fact that’s becoming clearer is the role played by infrastructure projects, like hydroelectric power projects (HEPs), in amplifying a natural disaster.

While the cause of the flash flood is yet to be fully ascertained, it’s clear that a number of factors played a role. The first of which is global warming. As heating increases over the Himalaya, and winters shrink and permafrost at altitude thaws, hillsides, especially steep ones, are becoming more fragile, and more prone to landslides. Speaking to The New York Times about the possible causes of the Uttarakhand disaster, geomorphologist Dan Shugar said, “We’re seeing more and more in the high mountains cases of the rock and mountains not being as stable as we would have thought.” Whether it was a case of a piece of glacier breaking up, or a landslide that dislodged a piece of glacial ice, or the highly unlikely (in this case) possibility of a glacial lake bursting, such incidents are only going to become more frequent in a warming world.

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In such situations, infrastructure projects in the high mountains, like road building and dams, tend to amplify the magnitude of such disasters. The Delhi-based research organization and think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), in an independent analysis released on 11 February, elaborates on this. According to the analysis, 85% of Uttarakhand is vulnerable to extreme floods. Programme lead Abinash Mohanty says micro- climatic changes in the past 20 years due to a loss of 50,000 hectares of forest cover has exacerbated the effects of climate change. “A focus on land use-based forest restoration could not only reverse the climate imbalance but also help promote sustainable tourism in the state. Equally important would be climate proofing of infrastructure, investments and policies. This is no more an option, rather a national imperative to tackle such extreme events and ensure minimal loss and damage,” he said in a statement.

The landmark 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report by the intergovernmental body International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), had warned that both the risk of landslides and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) would increase. It also noted that the Alakananda valley, of which the Rishi Ganga is a distributary, has a long history of extreme floods. The report recommended better land-use guidelines, “with the aim of limiting exposure to geohazards and paying more attention to areas where major infrastructure development projects such as roads and hydropower …”

The warnings have been there all along. In the aftermath of the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, the Supreme Court had appointed the Chopra committee under scientist Ravi Chopra to study the impact of receding glaciers on HEPs. The committee, in its report in 2014, recommended no construction of HEPs in altitudes between 2,000-2,500m. Chopra had said at the time, “In our report we have proposed that no HEPs should be built in the paraglacial region as it has loose glacial debris which when carried downstream can be disastrous.” In the seven years since, the proposals have remained ignored.

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