The terrible floods in India’s tiny north Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which killed more than 1,000 people, left 70,000 stranded for days and destroyed livelihoods, have been officially termed a natural calamity caused by cloudbursts and unprecedented heavy monsoon rainfall.
However, the true causes of the epic tragedy lie in the grievous damage recently wrought on the region’s ecology by the runaway growth of tourism, unchecked proliferation of roads, hotels, shops and multistory housing in ecologically fragile areas, and above all mushrooming hydroelectricity dams that disrupt water balances. Underlying the disaster are multiple governance failures, too.
These man-made factors turned an extreme weather event into a social catastrophe. True, the region experienced heavy rainfall of 340-370mm within 24 hours on June 16-17, leading to flash-floods. But such precipitation isn’t unprecedented. Uttarakhand has recorded single-day rainfall in excess of 400mm several times, including 450mm in 1995 and 900mm in 1965. Cloudbursts, floods and rapid swelling of fast-flowing rivers aren’t uncommon.
But this time the floodwaters, laden with tens of thousands of tonnes of silt, boulders and debris from dam construction, found no outlet. The routes they took in the past, including ravines and streams, were blocked with sand and rocks. The waters inundated scores of towns and villages, submerging some buildings under several feet of mud, smothering life.
Aggravating the devastation were two downpours of water and rocks from the higher mountain ranges, in all probability caused by glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which deluged the Kedarnath temple, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre. GLOFs, or the explosive bursting of glacier lakes, are thought to be a consequence of human-induced climate change, which is causing rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, themselves warming at twice the global rate.
Such a massive loss of life could have been greatly reduced if an early warning system, effective evacuation plans and a responsive disaster management system were in place. They weren’t. In fact, as the comptroller and auditor general pointed out in April, the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority, formed in October 2007, has never met or formulated “rules, regulations, polices or guidelines”. Modestly priced radar-based technology to forecast cloudbursts would have saved lives. But it wasn’t installed. Nor were emergency evacuation plans drawn up.
There was local-level governance failure, too. Haphazard, unregulated construction of roads and bridges was allowed on crumbling, landslide-prone ridges and steep slopes, ignoring the region’s fragile geology and high earthquake vulnerability. Forests were destroyed on a large scale. Hundreds of buildings were constructed in the flood plains of rivers, their “natural” terrain, which should be no-go areas. Riverbeds were recklessly mined for sand. As construction debris accumulated, land contours and flows of streams and rivers changed.
Indiscriminate building of hydroelectric dams was the worst culprit. These involve drilling huge tunnels in the hills by blasting rocks, placing enormous turbines in the tunnels, destroying soil-binding vegetation to build water channels and other infrastructure, laying transmission lines and carelessly dumping excavated muck. Many dams have been built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for its regeneration.
Dams steal water from local people. They alter the hydrological cycle and natural course of rivers. Uttarakhand’s 70 completed large dams have diverted more than 640km, equivalent to half the length of its major rivers. They have profoundly destabilised its ecology. Yet another 680 dams are reportedly in various stages of commissioning, construction or planning, mainly by private companies, which would be largely unaccountable.
A 2009 CAG report complained that the government was “pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately”, ignoring the damaging “cumulative effect” of multiple run-of-the river dams. Technically, India’s environment ministry follows an environmental impact assessment process, but that’s badly compromised by the Indian elite’s insatiable appetite for electricity and promoters’ pressure.
When I was on the expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley projects in the 1990s, none of the dozens of projects we examined had adequate documentation on the impact on forests, wildlife, hydrology or rehabilitation. All were rejected. The present EAC has approved all 262 projects placed before it over six years, without seriously evaluating their impact or the rivers’ carrying capacity. This is a recipe for yet more Uttarakhands.
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