Uttarakhand Tragedy: Cost of ‘Development’ & Climate Change

“There’s a sense of déjà vu; this has happened before. 2013 Himalayan Tsunami seems to have returned in 2021.”

5 min read
Hindi Female

First, a word for the rescue teams out there who have put their own lives in jeopardy to pull hundreds of people out of danger, even as the Himalayan Tsunami Part II unfolds in Uttarakhand. Without the support of the NDRF, ITBP and army columns on the ground, this tragedy would have seen a much higher death toll.

And yet there is a sense of déjà vu as we watch the horrific images play out on our screens on the afternoon of 8 February 2021. This has happened before. The Himalayan Tsunami of 2013 seems to have returned in 2021.


Despite Environmental Activism & Effort, Why Are Hydro Projects Still Being Cleared?

For years environmentalists have been crying themselves hoarse about the model of development being followed in these fragile mountainscapes, and yet the advice has fallen on deaf years. In 2012, I was following the river Ganga for a journalism project, documenting the threats the river was facing from source to sea. Every village I visited in the Himalayas, locals warned that the ‘mountain gods were angry’. Village after village, women were organising a second Chipko, this time in favour of Ma Ganga. Their river had been imprisoned and they wanted her to flow unfettered else they predicted many disasters would unfold.

At Chamoli, the epicentre of today’s crisis, I had met Chandi Prasad Bhatt, one of the founders of India’s first environmental movement, who echoed the warnings of the women of Mandakini Valley. “We were ready to give up our lives for these mountains and our forests and rivers and will do it again if we have to,” cried a now hoarse Chandi Prasad Bhatt who had sent several petitions to the government urging them to stop the massive tunnel and hydroprojects on the Ganga. And yet, eight years on, hydro projects continue to be cleared.


A Man-Made Disaster: Unravelling the Contractor-Based Model of ‘Development’

Just 24 hours before the February 2021 tragedy unfolded, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change cleared the Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) on the Yamuna near Lohari village in the district of Dehradun in Uttarakhand. As of today, more than 70 big and small projects are slated on different sections of the Ganga and its tributaries, and thousands of labourers who worked on these infrastructure projects are bound to die a nameless, faceless death.

If you are a reporter on the ground covering this disaster, some tough questions must be asked:

  • why are so many tunnels being dug despite the fragile ecology of the Himalayas?
  • Why are roads lined up with hundreds of dumper trucks, and where are the debris — from the construction of tunnels and dams — being dumped?

The answers to these questions will unravel the contractor-based model of development we have been pursuing in the mountains. It would be easy to blame this tragedy on ‘heavy snowfall’ or ‘an act of god’. But this absolves perhaps the most pertinent question that must be asked now: is this tragedy man-made, or is it a natural disaster?

Mallika Bhanot, who works for Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO for the protection of the river Ganga, says:

“Of course this is a man-made disaster; it is an accumulation of events happening together that has led this tragedy. We are building large-scale dams alongside the widening of roads for the Char Dham; it is the changes in the micro-climatic conditions that have led to this unprecedented disaster. We make the area disaster prone and then ask why has disaster struck? It doesn’t make any sense.” 
Mallika Bhanot, Ganga Ahvaan

Bhanot argues that while the government has been arguing in favour of constructing more roads to facilitate easy movement of traffic, the one bridge that connected this area to the border has been washed away, making rescue efforts tough.


‘Why Were People Not Warned On Time?’

Himanshu Thakkar, from the South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), who has closely studied the Himalayan rivers, rightly asks:

“It is now 24 hours since disaster struck, but we still don’t have any details of where the disaster originated? This is not the first time that such a tragedy has unfolded; why was no warning issued, with all the technology we have at our disposal? If indeed heavy snowfall had happened in the upper reaches, why were people not warned?”
Himanshu Thakkar, South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

How Hydro Projects Amplified the Impact of the Tragedy

Praising the teams out there involved with rescue operations, Thakkar argues: “Of course, our rescue teams are doing a brave job but we could have saved (more) lives if we had issued a warning at the right time.”

Geologist Dr Navin Juyal, who was incidentally at the site as early as last week, had this to say:

“First cut observations looking through Google images — I am unable to see any clear cut evidence of a glacial lake outburst event. However, in the proximity of the Nanda Devi glacier there are smaller glaciers that may have caused a break, but not of this magnitude or proportion. I am still awaiting satellite images of February 2021, but this is my preliminary analysis. What I can say at this point is that the barrages built by the hydro projects have amplified the impact of the tragedy. If these obstructions of the powerhouses were not in the way, the flooding would have been there, but not to such a great extent.”
Dr Navin Juyal, Geologist

Dr Juyal is a scientist who has retired from the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and was also part of a committee that was formed by the government to make suggestions on how to minimise the negative impacts of the hydro dams in the region in 2014.


What Climate Change Assessments Reveal

Dr Roxy Mathew Koll a climate scientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune states-

“The recent climate change assessment report for India shows significant melting and decline in glacier mass over the Himalayan region in the recent decades. This is due to warmer temperatures. It is not clear if an accumulation of glacial melt led to this burst. The western disturbances during last week did bring in a lot of snow to the region. This was followed by clear skies and warm temperatures. It is quite possible that climate change and melting of fresh snow led to piling up of water in this area. We need to investigate using satellite and on-site data to understand the real cause.”
Dr Roxy Mathew Koll, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune

Why ‘Courts Must Demand Accountability’ For Man-Made Disasters

Dr Ravi Chopra, based in Dehradun, who headed a committee set up by the Supreme Court had clearly recommended in 2014 that there should be no hydro projects in the para-glacial regions of the Himalayas. And yet the projects continue with impunity. The author makes it clear:

“We had made a clear recommendation in 2014 that these dams should not be built. I think the time has come for the courts to demand accountability; unless officers in charge are punished, this will keep happening.”
Dr Ravi Chopra

As the post-mortem of the tragedy is undertaken, we could start by acknowledging our role as human beings in this disaster. We cannot mince our words. This is a man-made tragedy.

(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist in search of a greener world. She is also the author of two books. She tweets @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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