Updated: February 11, 2021 10:00:56 am
Nearly four days after flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district swept away the Rishiganga Hydel Power Project and inflicted substantial damage on the Tapovan Power Project, scores of workers remain trapped in the debris and slush. The muck deposited by the wall of water, the difficult terrain and the marshy floor have hobbled search teams and 13 villages on the border with China remain cut off from the rest of the country. Technological aid such as drones and laser imaging have been pressed into service to surmount these difficulties, and glaciologists, geologists and teams from the armed forces have been roped in for the rescue operations. The immediate task before the government is urgent. But the tragedy also frames another imperative — of reexamining the ways in which mountains and high-altitude regions have been positioned in the country’s development discourse. It’s a call to the country’s science and environment academies to investigate the myriad nuances of Himalayan glaciology and to policymakers to be abreast with such research while taking decisions that impact fragile ecosystems.
Landslides, avalanches and flash foods aren’t unusual in Uttarakhand. A growing body of literature, including ISRO data, shows that almost all the 1,000-odd glaciers in the state are on the retreat. The downstream journey of the melting masses of ice becomes even more perilous because of the rocks they accumulate on the way. The first hypothesis for Sunday’s flash floods pointed to the bursting of one such pocket of snow, water and rocks. Another early explanation has linked the incident to a landslide caused by a fracture in a hanging mass of ice. Though the jury is out on these theories, the link between glaciers and Sunday’s flash floods seems likely. And, that should drive home the urgency of consolidating the disparate data on glaciers and mountain systems in the country and developing a mechanism to coordinate endeavours in this field. As glaciologist D P Dhobal said in an interview to this paper, “we need a nodal agency to coordinate all the research…in this region”.
The Himalayas are a young and therefore volatile mountain system. Even a minor change in the orientation of its rocks can trigger landslides. The mountains regulate temperatures in the Subcontinent and, at the same time, the snow-covered ranges are affected by changes in the climate system due to global warming. Currently, DPRs (detailed project reports) of a variety of infrastructure projects in the region — from hydropower to road construction — do not factor in the idiosyncrasies of this mountain-climate dynamic: They do not account for the frequency of landslides, snow avalanches and lake bursts. This gap must be plugged swiftly, and detailed studies should be conducted to understand which of the 12,000-odd glacial lakes in Uttarakhand are prone to flooding. Such research should feed into environmental impact assessment reports and guide decisions on developmental projects in the region. Sunday’s tragedy is a warning that the Himalayan mountains demand more sensitivity in research and policy.
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