Nearly two weeks after disaster struck Uttarakhand’s remote villages in Chamoli district, the search and rescue operations are still far from over. While several army personnel, battalions of Indo Tibet Border Police (ITBP) and staff of state and center disaster response forces (NDRF and SDRF) persevere to rescue workers and villagers along the basin of two rivers – Rishiganga and Dhauliganga, the hope of finding survivors is diminishing with each passing day.
According to the information provided by the government on Friday 61 bodies and 28 body parts had been recovered, out of which 34 bodies and one part have been identified. According to the local police, a report of 204 people missing has been registered. Villagers living in proximity, shocked by the magnitude of disaster, do not want to live in these areas in fear of more such catastrophic events. The Uttarakhand SDRF, to allay such fears, have moved to install an early warning system upstream in the Rishiganga river. This system, the state administration says, will alert people up to a kilometre away to any sudden rise in water levels in the river.
Adding to the fears, however, is the fact that a new lake has reportedly formed near the location where the flash flood was triggered. A team of the ITBP has been deployed to the site to evaluate its risks and explore options for safe drainage.
Amidst all this, the questions of climate change impacts in ecologically fragile landscapes, and the need for preparedness to deal with these, are receiving some long overdue attention.
The heights of vulnerability
The Himalayan slopes of Uttarakhand are highly vulnerable and they fall in an ecologically sensitive zone. Flash floods, landslides, lake bursts and earthquakes have been regular phenomena in this region. Recent floods that swept away two hydropower dams – one was still under construction – is a grim reminder of Kedarnath disaster of 2013 which claimed more than 6,000 lives in Uttarakhand.
Expert reports suggest that the impact of global warming is accelerating the glacier melt rate in the Himalayan region and increasing the magnitude and frequency of such disasters.
Studies have warned about the impact of rising temperature in the Himalayan region. According to a research published in 2019 (based on US spy satellite images), the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers has doubled since 2000.
Another report by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) said that even if the carbon emissions are rapidly cut and the temperature rise is contained within 1.5ºC threshold, at least one-third of ice of these Himalayan glaciers will melt away by 2100. If the temperature rise is 2ºC half of the ice will melt.
A review published just a few days before the recent flash flood in Chamoli is the latest in series of studies to have pointed at the increased vulnerability of Himalayan slopes in response to shrinking and weakening glacier mass in the Himalayas as temperatures keep ticking upwards.
According to a detailed report published in The Guardian, rapid melting of glaciers will increase the risk of high-altitude glacial lake bursting, meaning that incidents of flash floods, the likes of which we saw in Kedarnath in 2013 and Chamoli this month, are set to increase. These added pressures are likely to contribute to the rapid emptying out of Uttarakhand’s mountain villages. This is important as Uttarakhand is already facing unsustainable levels of out-migration from its villages. Today, more than 1000 villages are declared ‘ghost villages’, registering zero populations.
Questions on development model
Expert reports have repeatedly raised questions on the development model in this ecologically sensitive landscape. Be it the road construction projects or building of large hydropower dams. In 2014 – after the Kedarnath floods – a supreme court-appointed expert committee held that the big hydropower dams had a role in aggravating the 2013 disaster. It recommended dropping as many as 23 dam projects in eco-sensitive areas situated at a height of over 2500m in Uttarakhand. Many such pleas and recommendations from locals and experts alike have fallen on deaf ears. While state and central governments defend the dam and road projects citing development and strategic interests, people working with communities stress more on sustainability.
“We cannot expect similar nature of infrastructural development across various geo-climatic zones. The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountains in the world and frequent landslides in the region show fragility of the terrain,” Manu Gupta, co-founder of SEEDS, an NGO working on sustainability and disaster resilience said.
“As climate change makes the Himalayas even more vulnerable, we need to put ecology at the centre of our development paradigm in Uttarakhand and across the country,” Gupta added.
Atul Sati, an activist who lives in Joshimath, advocates for “smaller dams” instead of large hydropower projects which will provide a “people centric development” to benefit locals. “It is imperative that government involves local people to create an ecosystem (of development) that provides livelihood to them and enables the nature to absorb the impacts of extreme weather events triggered by climate change,” Sati told Carboncopy.
The urgent need for better early warning and risk assessment
Recent floods have also raised the issue of disaster management, particularly in the light of climate change impacts. Carboncopy spoke to experts to understand whether India’s disaster management authorities have kept abreast with the increasing magnitude and frequency of such challenges. Some officials admitted that disaster management in the country, led by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and state authorities, still limit their scope of assessments to “historic data and only on traditional kind of disaster” and not “new challenges” often posed due to climate impacts.
The NTPC Visnugad-Tapovan hydropower project, which was left totally destroyed in the wake of the flash flood, did not have any early warning system to warn of inclement weather or surges in river levels upstream, closer to the glacier snout. An early warning system has only just been installed following the recent flash flood. However, this situation throws light on the fact that none of the 65 projects operating in the Himalayas have any early warning system.
Although India has built a good early warning system to deal with cyclone related disasters at coastal areas, much remains to be done to build an efficient warning mechanism for glacial outbursts, flash floods and extreme weather in the Himalayan region.
“For a good early warning system, we need an effective and comprehensive risk assessment, and that is where we are lacking,” an expert closely working with the government said, on the condition of anonymity. “Without assessing the risk accurately, there can be no warning system.” Another official said that India has invested “more in disaster response than disaster risk reduction.”
Stressing on the need of revamping the agencies N Vinod Chandra Menon, one of the founding members of NDMA, says that “the challenges of tomorrow” cannot be dealt with the “solutions of yesterday.”
“Technology is changing and new tools are available, new approaches are available and so need to really to look up IT-enabled tools which can really help us understand nature better. That is one of the fundamental aspects we need to do because for most of the people who have actually been there working for 20 years in various institutions need to also do a lot of learning and unlearning and for that we need to be very humble,” Menon said.
Battling climate crisis, “holistic approach” needed
Experts are stressing on a “holistic approach” to deal with climate crisis and treat mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage as a continuum of our response to climate crisis.
“If we don’t mitigate in time and adequately which mean we will see more disaster and we will have to put more efforts and resources in adapting to those climate impacts and if we do not put resources in anticipating the disaster and gazing their impact and prepare for that we will see more loss and damage,” said climate change expert Harjeet Singh, who is also Action Aid’s global lead on climate change.
Climate change mitigation is referred to as reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, while adaptation means adjusting to and preparing for actual or expected future climatic changes and their impacts.
“Uttarakhand floods is a clear example of how the world failed to mitigate in time and how the Indian government has not yet taken adaptation seriously, and did not do risk management in time. That is why we are incurring loss and damage. Now we are seeing people being killed and villages have to be displaced,” he said.