U’khand floods: All eyes on experts’ panel

U’khand floods: All eyes on experts’ panel

The Supreme Court’s order on hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand is indeed welcome. However, whether the State Government and the Centre would...

The insatiable greed for monetary gains and haphazard constructions near the river banks and hills, widespread deforestation have disturbed patterns of weather

Dhurjati Mukherjee

The Supreme Court’s order on hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand is indeed welcome. However, whether the State Government and the Centre would honestly comply with it and spare the people another catastrophe needs close scrutiny. In the name of development, authorities brazenly brush aside warnings by experts in the field. The past bears this out, but whether we will ever learn is the big question.

All eyes in Uttarakhand would be on the multi-member expert body to be constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, as directed by the apex court. It should include representatives of the State Government, the Central Water Commission and expert groups to make a scientific study and fresh environmental impact assessment of the 24 ‘under construction’ hydro projects in Uttarakhand, especially of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins. Until further orders, the Ministry and the Bahuguna government should not grant any further environment clearance or forest clearance for any hydro-electric projects in the State.

Additionally, Uttarakhand’s Disaster Management Authority will need to submit a report within three months as to whether it had any disaster management plan in place and how effective it is for combating the present unprecedented tragedy.

The expert group would do well to keep in mind that climate change has been occurring in different terrains all over the country, as predicted by various scientific studies and also by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A year ago in May, a study pointed out that the Himalayas were vulnerable to ecological disaster as scientific evidence proved that the majestic mountains were warming faster than any other part of the world.

The average annual mean temperature in the 13 eco-regions in the Himalayas in a 25-year period (1982-2006) has risen by 1.5 degrees. This is roughly three times the rise in global temperatures in the same period, as per the study conducted by Boston-based University of Massachusetts and Bangalore-based Asoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE).

The team found there was a rapid rise in temperature and average annual precipitation rose by 163 mm. This impacted vegetation and many species changed their natural course. Also, the average start and duration of the growing season both advanced by five days. Being a biodiversity hot spot, the Himalayas are sensitive because of ice locked up in the glaciers and the extreme variation in temperature.

The recent floods in Uttarakhand coupled with the massive devastation may obviously be attributed to the effects in climate change, as also the ruthless expansion of construction activities in an extremely sensitive and fragile region. According to preliminary reports of the Geological Survey of India, hydro projects such as Vishnuigad project (IC 400 MW) in Alaknanda, barrage of Phat-Byung project (IC 76 MW) and barrage and powerhouse area of Singoli-Bhatwari project in Mandakini Valley have been damaged. As has emerged, the catastrophe shows how unplanned development created unprecedented havoc. The insatiable greed for monetary gains and haphazard constructions near the river banks and hills, widespread deforestation have disturbed patterns of weather. Besides, there have been incidents of blasting hills to accommodate hydel projects. In fact, all ecological and sustainable parameters have been breached over time.

Meanwhile, a series of dam projects have been cleared without regard to the environmental consequences both in Uttarakhand and also in Arunachal Pradesh, which met with massive protests from a section of the scientific community. It was argued that the building of dams would increase deforestation and soil erosion and disturb patterns of natural drainage, making floods more likely. And this is obviously expected to displace many villages and cause more hardships than the benefits of setting up dams. Notably, the recent floods and landslides were possibly the most severe since 1970. At that time the Alaknanda Valley witnessed another massive flood inundating 100 sq km of land, washed away bridges and roads and destroyed crops. The impact was severe enough to be felt in the plains as well. It was attributed to unprecedented inflow of water into the river and the bursting of these dams.

In spite of a technical report where scientists recommended monitoring of landslides and fissures and potential blocked sites using satellite techniques and identification of degraded slopes through planting of tree species among others, the State government allowed expansion of roads, buildings and hotels in the upper Alaknanda Valley. Continuous felling of trees added to the problem. In August 2012, there was a tragedy due to exploitation of mountain resources, leaving over 29 dead and many more missing. The Uttarakhand State Mitigation and Management Centre’s report then had stated it was highly important to strictly regulate development initiatives in close vicinity of streams and rivers.

Similarly in September 2012, Okhimath in Rudraprayag saw monsoon-related landslides which killed around 69 persons. Again, the Centre’s report of this tragedy recommended reduction of the risk of landslides and even blamed explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructural development. In fact, Rudraprayag faced monsoon-related major disasters seven times in the past 34 years, each resulting in numerous deaths and heavy destruction.

Despite warnings by different agencies, no concrete action has been taken, either by the concerned State Governments or the Centre, and so-called infrastructural development has been allowed to continue to the detriment of ecology, especially of the hilly terrains of Uttarakhand.

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