Uttarakhand tragedy: The mountains strike back
- India’s Himalayan floods linked to environmental negligence
- Repeated warnings were ignored by Uttarakahand state
- The state needs a sustainable environment policy
A faded black and white photograph of India’s Kedarnath temple, taken in 1888 by the British Geological Survey of India, shows the ancient shrine in splendid isolation with the lofty, glaciated Himalayas forming a magnificent backdrop.
Today’s television footages are equally dramatic: the area is now littered with concrete debris in the aftermath of a devastating flood of 16 June, evidence of criminal environmental negligence. The flood in the Alaknanda river valley in Uttarakhand was naturally triggered by a localised cloud burst, but it needs to be analysed why it turned into an environmental disaster and see what lessons it holds.
Land of majestic peaks and powerful quakes
The Himalayas form a dynamic, changing landscape. The writer Bill Aitken, who travelled extensively in the Himalayas, has remarked that “the art of beholding the Himalaya lies in accepting the paradox of aesthetic wealth alongside economic poverty, of reconciling the glory of aliveness with the evenly poised mischance of death.” The roles of contrasting forces of tectonism and climate in the making of the Himalayas are evident. Although the Himalayas resulted from huge tectonic forces generated by the collision of Indian and Eurasian plates, their growth is tempered by erosional forces unleashed by the annual monsoons.
A product of millions of years of crustal shortening, the Himalayas bear immense tectonic stresses and occasional temblors. Four great earthquakes have struck the Himalayas during the last 200 years and the central Himalayas are considered ripe for yet another great temblor. One must respect the dynamic balance between the forces that support it and the opposing erosional forces that wear it down. Earthquakes, avalanches and floods are part of natural processes, which can turn into natural disasters for humans who live on the fringes of the Himalayas.
The Alaknanda river, which was in spate on the day of the tragedy, draws its water from what is now called “Gandhi Sarovar,” a lake formed at the snout of Chorabari glacier at 6,705 metres in the higher reaches of the mountains behind the Kedarnath shrine. Local scientists say the lake was already brimming with glacier melt water before the cloudburst which breached a natural dam and turned into a mammoth flood downstream. The high velocity flow washed away buildings, roads, people and vehicles. Most of the deaths occurred in Kedarnath as the slurry of water and rocks tumbled down the valley with great force and smothered the river valley that had become a crowded place dotted with hotels and shops.
Cloudbursts and consequent floods have occurred in the past. The 1803 Uttarakhand earthquake partially damaged Kedarnath and nearby Badrinath too; and the devastating floods of 1804 and 1894 damaged the then capital town of Srinagar. So what was new this time?
Irresponsible development, inadequate disaster preparedness
The greater intensity of the present calamity is proportional to the higher population density and unprecedented expansion of development activities in the flood plain. It is reported that more than 20 million tourists/pilgrims have visited the hills in the last couple of years, adding to the burden of sustaining 10 million local inhabitants. The rise in tourism led to a construction boom in unsafe zones such as the river valleys and flood plains and slopes vulnerable to landslips. Frenetic building activity replaced forests and farmland, violating laws on land use.
The Uttarakhand disaster shows that repeated warnings were ignored. Obviously, much needs to be done by way of disaster preparedness along with a sustained outreach programme at its core. The central Himalayas require special attention in terms of potential for earthquakes as well as flood disasters and land use management. A special effort needs to be mounted to develop hazard scenarios and models as also land zonation maps that demarcate areas prone to floods and landslides.
Human habitation should be restricted to safe zones, away from the flood plains and maximum river inundation levels. Today’s computing packages can balance demands with sustainability and provide optimum scenarios within acceptable levels of risk. A realistic mitigation strategy should be based on a blueprint that strikes a balance between development and acceptable levels of risk and economics.
Window of opportunity
The Uttarakhand tragedy may be seen also as a window of opportunity to embark on a new strategy for sustainable development in ecologically fragile areas. Although one cannot deny that tourism has been the state’s major source of revenue, the importance of agriculture, agro-based cottage industries and animal husbandry cannot be ignored. Many issues concerning the mountain population confront the social conscience — despite claims of a successful tourism policy. The majority of the local population continues to live in abject poverty and the innumerable dams across the Himalayan rivers provide no relief to the local women who must trudge miles to collect water. The state's future development must be based on a sustainable environmental policy and it could take lessons from neighbouring Bhutan, and to some extent, from India's Sikkim state.
The current predictive capabilities of natural disasters remain underutilised in India. The Doppler Weather Radars capable of detecting cloudbursts are not operational and the national disaster communication network and informatics system remains on the drawing board. India needs an online disaster information network that will use archival data on past events in conjunction with current data. The Himalayas are a fantastic natural laboratory where earth processes can be captured live for new insights. Tackling future natural disasters will require a healthy mix of technology; scientific studies; trained and committed manpower; professionalism and the development of engineering skill and public awareness.
C.P. Rajendran is Ramanujan Fellow at the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.