As India picks up the pieces from the worst-ever flash-floods in the Himalayas, the nation is beginning to wonder to what extent human intervention – specifically religious tourism and hydroelectric projects – contributed to the disaster.
About 1,000 people have been confirmed dead in Uttarakhand state from last week’s flooding, and state authorities say the actual toll could be three to five times higher.
The Himalayas are a relatively young mountain range with a fragile geology prone to landslides. The deluge on 17 June destroyed towns, villages, roads and bridges for more than 60 miles along the banks of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda, two important tributaries of the Ganges river.
The origin of the disaster is beyond dispute: a glacier ruptured under the pressure of water from a severe cloudburst, raining tonnes of ice, water and rock on the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath, on the left bank of the Mandakini.
Uttarakhand has experienced flash-floods in the past. The latest disaster occurred at the peak of the pilgrim season, increasing the number of casualties.
The boom in religious tourism has put a severe strain on the state’s shaky infrastructure. The region has some of Hinduism’s most sacred pilgrim destinations. Domestic tourist traffic has shot up by 300% in a decade, to more than 30 million a year. This number is expected to double by 2017.
“There’s a spurt in religiosity across India,” said the sociologist Arshad Alam. “After two decades of rapid economic growth, the middle class has expanded and has more money to spend. So pilgrimages have become very popular.”
As a result, hundreds of new multistorey hotels, apartment blocks and religious centres have sprung up in Uttarakhand, often on the flood plains of the capricious Mandakini and Alakananda rivers, in defiance of building regulations. Several were washed away last week.
“There has to be a check on the mindless, uncontrolled religious tourism in the Himalaya,” said Maharaj K Pandit, director of Delhi University’s centre for interdisciplinary studies of mountain and hill environment.
But most analysts believe restricting the number of pilgrims would be political suicide. “The desire to worship at Kedarnath is almost like an irresistible force,” said Pavan Srinath, of the Chennai-based thinktank Takshashila Foundation. “Despite the tragedy, people are already talking about when they will undertake the sacred journey. No government can bar the devout from the Himalayas.”
Pandit acknowledged it was a “ticklish issue”, but said the tourist boom was putting unbearable strain on the Himalayan ecosystem. During the season, for instance, there is bumper-to-bumper traffic spewing diesel smoke on badly constructed mountain roads. “I once counted 117 buses go over a bridge in eight minutes,” he said.
In recent years Uttarakhand has also seen a boom in hydroelectric projects. Seventy projects are up or under way in the mountain state, some of nearly 300 planned by Delhi for the entire Himalayas. A few come with dams, but a majority are run-of-the-river projects requiring tunnelling through the mountainside. A recent official audit revealed that in some parts of the upper Ganges basin there is a hydroelectric project planned for every three to four miles of river.
There were reports of serious damage to some of these projects in last week’s deluge, with the debris causing havoc to the neighbouring environment, both natural and manmade. One of the worst-hit towns was Shrinagar, downstream from a newly constructed dam on the banks of the Alaknanda tributary. Much of the low-lying town was buried under thick sludge three metres (10ft) high, destroying even large government buildings and warehouses.
A recent article in Science magazine warned against damage to the ecosystem from badly planned, poorly monitored projects. The region is known for its biodiversity – its flowers, butterflies and Mahseer fish. Science estimated that habitat degradation from dam building in the Himalayas could lead to the disappearance of 29 species of flowering plants and terrestrial and aquatic life.
“Nobody is saying there should be no dams,” said Pandit, the article’s co-author. “But the emphasis should be on securing the Himalayan landscape after understanding its fragility, not on uncontrolled development.”
Not all experts are in agreement. Srinath maintains that the devastation would have been even more widespread if the reservoir of the region’s biggest dam at Tehri had not contained a significant volume of the deluge. “Dams can also prevent disasters,” he said. “The critical issue is not dams, but proper dam management. In India, we just don’t have a culture of public safety.”
Pandit was not convinced. “Dams do hold water, but once they reach their maximum capacity they become ticking bombs,” he said. Tehri dam is dangerously full, even though the monsoon has just begun. Next month a million pilgrims are expected in Uttarakhand for the annual Kanwar Yatra at Haridwar, downstream from Tehri.
“The Himalaya is an earthquake-prone zone, so God forbid, if a major dam ever bursts, the destruction it will cause will be unimaginable,” said Pandit.
For the devotees of Dhari Devi, a local avatar of the fierce Hindu goddess Kali, the flash flooding might seem preordained. Dhari Devi’s tiny shrine in Shrinagar was to have been submerged by the water systems of a local reservoir, and national Hindu leaders appealed to the prime minister against its relocation. According to local lore, the goddess protected Uttarakhand from calamities, so her shrine could not be touched. But the power company moved the black stone idol on the night of 16 June to save it from the swollen dam reservoir. Within hours, disaster struck.
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