The Himalayas need special policy attention, given their strategic importance and unique vulnerabilities.
The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted increased global warming, with a 1.5-2.0 degree rise in surface temperature by the end of the 21st century. This will not only make coastal regions vulnerable to sea-level rise but also make the sensitive Himalayan ecosystem more vulnerable. The increase in temperature will have a direct bearing on Himalayan glaciers, the source of several perennial rivers. It is also believed that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and climate events will increase in a warm world.
The IPCC report also predicts the increased frequency of extreme weather events. Although extreme weather and/ or climate events have been reported in the geological record of our planet, the frequency and intensity of such events increase in a warm world. Such events have been reported on centennial to millennial time scales in the past geological record, called Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles and Heinrich events. The frequency of such extreme events has increased over the past century or so.
Last June’s Kedarnath disaster was one of the worst in the past century and led to the loss of many human lives and caused damage to property in the Mandakini (Kedarnath) valley. The loss of life and property was also reported in the Alaknanda, Gangotri and Yamunotri valleys, although on a relatively smaller scale. Several fauna and flora also suffered irreparable damage. The entire state of Uttarakhand witnessed the fury of nature, with heavy precipitation triggering widespread landslides, flash floods, destruction of roads and buildings and felling of trees. The damage was unprecedented. This meteorological event took the entire state and the country by surprise.
The Kedarnath event was a swift and shortlived meteorological event that occurred in a few minutes. Three factors contributed to the Kedarnath disaster — the bursting of Chorabari lake due to an avalanche of snow, unprecedented rains in the valley, and the melting of surface (about 1.5m) snow and glacial debris. These triggered flash floods that washed away everything along their path. A heavy boulder and the excellent construction of the Kedarnath temple saved it from the flash floods to a great extent. Approximately 330 mm rainfall in the Kedarnath valley in 24 hours during June 16-17, 2013 was reported by the observatory of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun. The Mandakini and Saraswati rivers changed their courses and now confluence on the eastern side of the upper Kedarnath valley.
Earthquakes, glacial debris and glacial lake outburst flows, river silting, landslides, heavy rains and cloud bursts are not uncommon in the Himalayas. Besides, anthropogenic activities contribute to the fragile and sensitive terrain of the Himalayas. Improper road alignments and the use of poor quality road construction materials, the construction of hydroelectric plants and the flux of pilgrims and tourists with vehicles, all contribute to human-induced disasters in the Himalayan region. The improper dumping of loose materials from the construction of hydroelectric power plants in river channels is a dangerous practice followed by hydroelectric power companies. It not only adds to the silting problem of rivers but also increases the risk faced by the downstream population due to the transport of this material by flash floods.
Older pilgrimage routes in the Alaknanda and Gangotri valleys go through the safer zones of the Himalayas on harder rocks and are almost free from the landslides. On the other hand, the modern routes, with metalled roads, are frequented by landslides. Why is it that modern engineers with better expertise did not consider the past routes worthy of use for road construction? Civil engineers have not been able to cure the Kaliasaur landslide near Rudraprayag. Our ancestors followed a different route to the Alaknanda valley, switching to the other side of the Alaknanda river to avoid the Kaliasaur landslide. This suggests that earlier humans were more sensitive and had great respect for nature; they knew that fighting with nature would be futile.
Many towns with mushrooming hotels and guesthouses in the higher Himalaya are built either on or at the base of glacial debris. Also, several river terraces and river beds are occupied by human settlements. People do not realise as how dangerous it is to build structures in such vulnerable zones.
Any new policy must be unique to the Himalayas, since mountains have different problems and requirements than plains. The government must enact a land-use law for the entire Himalayan region so that no construction is allowed in such danger zones. There should be a vulnerability map of the Himalayan region to be used in any development of the cities/ towns. Providing safe drinking water to the Himalayan people is another priority. The region is studded with numerous water springs that have vanished over the years with developmental and construction activities. Cities in the Himalayas are not spared polluting solid plastic waste either. One can see solid plastic waste littered on the roads and river courses all over the Himalayan region, except Sikkim.
In recent years, people have been vacating high-altitude regions and there is increased migration of people downstream in search of better incomes and greater comfort. The government should give serious thought to arresting this trend since the Himalayas are also strategically important. There is an urgent need to provide better education, medical facilities, earning avenues and incentives to people living at high altitudes. A separate council of Himalayan states or a ministry is the need of the hour.
The writer is director, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun