India’s Himalayan Floods a Man-made Disaster

Himanshu Thakkar

The following is a guest blog by Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

homes, farms and roads are washed away along the Gori River
Homes, farms and roads are washed away along the Gori River
Photo courtesy of Himal Prakriti

The Northern Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand experienced widespread flash floods and landslides in mid-June. The scale of the disaster was huge; at least 1,000 people have been confirmed dead, and credible sources say more than 11,600 more (now considered “missing”) also may have perished. Hundreds of buildings were washed away, roads destroyed in nearly 800 places, 147 bridges washed away, and more than 10 hydropower projects damaged or destroyed. There is no estimate yet of how much the damages will cost, but one rough estimate put it at US$50 billion. The Chief Minister says Uttarakhand will take three years to get back to a pre-disaster state. There is no dispute that the tragedy is of unprecedented proportions.

Natural disasters over such a vast area (38,000 sq km) and involving so many variables – the Himalayan mountains, rivers, forests, glaciers and people – are bound to be complex. Many times, a natural disaster and its impacts are a result of multiple things occurring together. The current Uttarakhand disaster highlights the anthropogenic reasons that greatly increased its impacts.

Because it is a young mountain, Uttarakhand is inherently vulnerable to natural disasters such as cloudbursts, landslides, flash floods, glacial lake outbursts and earthquakes. Its geology is ridden with numerous fault lines. It is a young mountain system. Climate change is increasing the frequency of such disasters. In such a context, all of our interventions need to take this reality into account and strive to reduce the risks. Yet in the case of these disastrous floods, it is increasingly clear that human interventions worsened the situation. 

Madkot Village Collapses into the Gori River
Madkot Village Collapses into the Gori River
By Himal Prakriti

It is clear that the lack of warning and disaster management systems in the region increased human suffering in this tragedy. But at the root of the floods was a wonton disregard for the “carrying capacity” of this fragile area’s natural systems. The human-induced assault included unregulated, unsafe and unplanned infrastructure development along local rivers, including the development of a large number of hydropower projects built in the fragile zone without proper checks and balances. Flouting of rules has been rampant, but the tragedy has shown we cannot bribe nature. 

Since Uttarakhand state was formed in 2000, it has been on a path of massive growth with various projects including mining, roads, a large number of hydropower projects, buildings and tourism. But the reality of the state’s vulnerabilities has been completely ignored. Illegal riverbed mining was so unsustainable, destructive and rampant that Swami Nigmanand gave up his life fasting to stop it just two years ago.

Collapsed 400 MW Vishnupryag Dam
Collapsed 400 MW Vishnupryag Dam
By Matu Jansangthan

In the first decade of the new millennium alone, over 15,000 hectares (37,066 acres) of forestland has been legally diverted in the state for various projects. Over 1,600 ha of riverbed mining was given legal sanction in the same period. During this time tourism in the state has gone up by up to 380%. Uttarakhand has at least 51 existing hydropower projects of various sizes, and another 47 under construction and 238 planned. As a post-disaster report from the National Institute of Disaster Management confirmed, all these activities have significant environmental and social impacts that hugely increased the disaster potential of the area.

For example, hydropower projects below 25 MW do not require an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), monitoring or public consultation process although it is well known that they can have very significant adverse impacts on the local communities and the environment. Even for projects above 25 MW, our former environment minister Jairam Ramesh is on record as having said that most EIAs are dishonest, cut-and-paste jobs.

Our environment compliance system is non-existent. Moreover, we have no credible cumulative impact assessment process, and therefore no way to analyze the disaster vulnerabilities, carrying capacity and climate change implications for any of the river basins of Uttarakhand. Undertaking massive interventions in fragile ecology in absence of such assessments is bound to invite disastrous consequences.

Flashfloods devestated the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand
Flashfloods devestated the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand
By Matu Jansangthan

Everyone seems completely surprised and unprepared for what struck Uttarakhand, even though climate scientists have been warning of exactly such events. Even if the current event is unprecedented in the scale of devastation and spread of affected area, several similar events happened in neighboring areas over the last few years. In 2012 alone there were two monsoon related disasters in Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag, the same areas also took the hit this year. Eight such disasters have struck Rudraprayag over the past 34 years, an area that took the worst hit this time. On top of climate risks are geologic risks. Scientists have also been warning that a large earthquake is imminent in both eastern and western Himalayas.

Vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand are largely applicable to all Himalayan states, and to neighboring Himalayan countries like Bhutan, China, Nepal and Pakistan. Many observers have called the Uttarakhand disaster a Himalayan Tsunami. It is a misnomer in many respects, since a tsunami is a natural phenomenon, whereas the Uttarakhand disaster is a natural phenomenon greatly compounded by human interventions. However, by that very metaphor, we connect the fate of all Himalayan states and lessons that they need to learn from this tragedy.

A 2010 report by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (LINK) identified the Himalayan region as one of the four most vulnerable areas to disaster. This region covers 16% of India’s total geographical area, spread over 12 states. Almost two-thirds of this region is designated forests, but “with few exceptions, most of this forest has been cut,” says the report.

Climate scientists have been warning that higher frequency and amplitude of the untimely and high intensity rainfall events that triggered the Uttarakhand disaster are likely consequence of climate change.

In the end, we need to realize that we have made serious mistakes of omissions and commissions. As Uttarakhand now turns towards rebuilding and rehabilitation, it needs to accept these mistakes and make urgent amends. Some top priorities should include:

  • Initiate cumulative impact assessment and carry out capacity studies in all river basins.
  • Put a stop to hydropower projects that are planned and under construction.
  • Demarcate the path of all rivers, declare no construction zones around them and prepare time bound plans for the relocation of buildings at risk along with future regulation.
  • Ensure an active disaster management department that has a key role in all development decision-making.
  • Put in place credible environmental governance and compliance systems along with robust systems for warning, forecasting, monitoring and information dissemination.
  • And finally assess the vulnerability of infrastructure and people in the changing climate.

These lessons from Uttarakhand are equally applicable to all Himalayan states of India and neighboring Himalayan countries. The disaster can be taken as a rather costly and tragic wake up call. If not heeded, what we have seen may turn out to be a just a trailer of the full feature film that is yet to come.

Monday, July 15, 2013