The vulnerability of Himalayan Region

Disaster struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on February 7, 2021 in the form of an avalanche and deluge, after a  portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off. The sudden flood in the middle of the day in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers — all intricately linked tributaries of the Ganga — triggered widespread panic and large-scale devastation in the high mountain areas. Two power projects — NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and the Rishi Ganga Hydel Project — were extensively damaged with scores of labourers trapped in tunnels as the waters came rushing in. At least 32 people are feared dead, and over 190. missing @ The Hindu.

Exclusive: Before And After Satellite Photos Of Uttarakhand Disaster Site -  Path of Ex

The upper reaches of the Hill received heavy snowfall a few days before and then usually sunny day followed. which could have triggered the melting of snow  which while gushing down could have possibly hit glacier resulting in avalanche. The preliminary conclusion of the report submitted states that the huge failure of the wedge might have triggered due to lubrication of various joints/planes by melting of snow and ice, including the weight of the overlying glacier. The wedge further slid down enroute mass containing huge rocks or moranic and bursting the supposedly previously formed lake in the past and triggering the flash flood. However, it is unclear if glacier was involved.

A heavy mass of rock at 5000-6000 meters fell onto a hanging glacier that seem to have created an artificial dam near the Raunthi stream. There was glacier melt. When water accumulated, a good amount of pressure was generated leading break up

WIGH Director @ frontline

The loss was estimated to be some 2000 crore with major chunk of Tapovan vishnugad HydroElectric project. And all the missing persons were presumed to be dead.

Post kedarnath tragedy(2013) SC had appointed a committee headed by Ravi chopra(Alakananda hydro power co ltd v Anuj josh & others)  to ascertain that construction of hydroelectric power project in the upper reaches of Himalayan region had anything to do with the Avalanche. The Committee reported that glacial retreat coupled with construction activity for hydroelectric power projects  could lead to large scale disasters in downstem because the blasting of hills and cutting down of treats leds to hill slopes become unstable The committee which studied  the seismological vulnerabilities of the area and cloudburst caused by climate change recommended a complete ban on construction of hydroelectric power projects in the para glacial zone i.e 2200 above sea level since the region is prone to acute seismic activity. Supreme Court Stayed 16 projects including 24 that are already been granted in environmental clearances.

Despite the recommendations of the committee, it never reached implementation stage. A Public Interest litigation was filed in Uttarakhand High court by villagers of Reni that was birthplace of chipko movement. The PIL contends that all the norms have been flouted for some Stone crushing activity and other developmental construction including cutting of trees. HC  directed the state government to form a panel to monitor but nothing happened. The Rishi Ganga project which was washed away in 2016 was redeveloped again in 2018 and was, also, the same project washed away again.

In 2009 Centre for Glaciology(CFG) was set up to study the effects of climate on glaciers in order to develop strategies for tackling climate change and for adaptability. The centre was set up following fears that himalayan glaciers were receding fast as a result of global warming. In 2007, the IPCC report claimed that the himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. Fortunately, the CFG was shut down in july last year. The inner himalaya consists of some 9000 glaciers. The International centre for Integrated Mountain Development has found that the number of glaciers have been gradually increasing in Hindu Kush Himalayan(HKH) region due go the fragmentation of existing ones which indicated the severity of the glacier melt down. Since 1950’s the glacier area has been only decreased.

The glaciers have been melting faster than anticipated. In HKH region some 203 lakes have potential to to cause the Glacial Lake Outbursts Floods(GLOF) which are becoming too frequent in recent times. It’s just like a ticking time bomb waiting to burst out unprecedented and unexpectedly. Faster snow and glacial melting due to global warming is already manifesting in formation of GLOF that are causing huge casualties and local infrastructure. Further, the Uttarakhand area falls under the zone lV and V of the earthquake risk map of India. This makes the most developmental infra and Hydroelectric projects more vulnerable.

However, it is was unclear how much water is being stores in them. The himalayan ecosystem needs continuous monitoring to see the changes in the seasonally. Even in the recent burst it was unnoticed as of the amount of water accumulated. ISRO runs an institute of remote sensing in dehradun that monitors all disasters. All this prove to be inadequate. Lapsing of CFG, absent of a dedicated nodal agency and continuous monitoring shows reluctances in fragile ecosystem.

Also, the guidelines of National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA) have not been followed or implemented. The guidelines mainly focus on risk reduction. The NDMA suggests the system of synthetic aperture radar imagery to automatically detect changes in water bodies. Early warning system also could have reduced the loss of life at least. It was very surprising that the NTPC early warning system was failed due to no-time reaction where many lives could have been saved if worked & responded on time.

Further, pre 2020 the Environmental & Social Impact Assessment (EISA) was to conduct a thorough study of the environment, biodiversity and social dimensions of consulting with various stakeholders. In the EIA draft notification,2020 this provision was removed.

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