Uttarkashi Tunnel Collapse: The Havoc of Mindless Construction in the Himalayas

Tunnels, originally designed to relieve traffic congestion, have served as conduits for environmental deterioration.

4 min read

41 Indian construction workers have been stuck inside a collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi that they were building in the Himalayan Mountain ranges in the state of Uttarakhand for more than two weeks.

The catastrophe necessitates thoroughly reevaluating India's approach to development projects in this precarious region while authorities attempt to save them. 

The risky character of large-scale undertakings in the Himalayas is highlighted by the road tunnel collapse, which left workers trapped. The source of this disaster, which could be either a landslide or structural stress, highlights the need for care.

However, current trends indicate that national security, political populism, and the need to decarbonise energy sources have made India's approach less cautious and more rapid. 

Urgent Need for Prudent Development 

A problem that jeopardises the fundamentals of sustainable living and the delicate ecosystems of the Himalayas is located in the centre of the world's most powerful mountains. This pristine territory has been devastated by the unrelenting march of reckless development, exacerbating the effects of climate change and putting the Himalayas in danger of irreparable damage.

The Himalayas, often called the "roof of the world," have long captured people's attention with their magnificent scenery and exceptional biodiversity. However, the recent influx of infrastructural projects, especially the senseless tunnel building, has clouded this magnificent range.

In the Himalayas, tunnels—once considered engineering wonders that improved connectivity and shortened travel times—have drawbacks. An enormous network of tunnels cutting through the mountains due to unrelenting drive for development has severely disrupted the ecosystem. These tunnels, originally designed to relieve traffic congestion, have instead served as conduits for environmental deterioration.

Regional development has accelerated due to the ambitious ambition to connect venerated mountain shrines with a 900-kilometer highway network. Although the goal is to open these temples all year round, the unanticipated outcomes have sparked worries about the effects on the priceless Himalayan ecosystem and those who live and work there.

The position is further complicated by strategic considerations, such as duplicating the northern neighbour's supportive infrastructure and easing army movements. The smoother roads that Chinese troops have access to on the Tibetan plateau are in stark contrast to the rugged, rocky landscape found on the Indian side of the border.

Collateral Damage of Mindless Construction in the Himalayas 

Conscientious construction has an adverse effect that is amplified by climate change. The Himalayan ecosystem's fragile balance is currently gravely threatened. The disturbing realities of rising temperatures, unpredictable weather, and glacial retreat have been exacerbated by the damage caused by indiscriminate building. Once resistant to human interference, the mountains are now giving way to the combined effects of climate change and careless development.

Global warming is directly linked to increased glacier melting, one of the leading causes of concern. For millions of people in South Asia, the Himalayan glaciers are a vital water supply, and their melting seriously threatens the region's ability to secure water supplies.

This process is accelerated by the construction frenzy's disdain for environmental impact evaluations, which could result in a massive water catastrophe.

Another victim of this tunnel-visioned attitude is biodiversity, which has a bleak future. Numerous rare and endangered species, many already at risk of going extinct, can be found in the Himalayas. These species are pushed closer to the brink of extinction due to the ecosystems being fragmented by careless building, which also isolates populations and messes with migration paths.

We need to start thinking about long-term sustainability instead of just short-term gains. Maintaining a balance between environmental preservation and development is not only morally right but also economically necessary. The complex ecosystem network in the Himalayas is a gauge of the state of the world. It would be a dangerous gamble that humanity cannot afford to ignore their distress signals.


Pioneering Sustainable Progress for a Global Treasure

Eco-friendly and sustainable development practices must be prioritised as we negotiate the difficult path ahead. Any infrastructure project in the Himalayas has to incorporate community involvement, strict rules, and thorough environmental impact evaluations. Furthermore, because the problems this famous mountain range faces are transboundary, it is imperative to promote international cooperation.

It's time to change how we think about the Himalayas. We must abandon the narrow-minded quest of development at any cost and adopt a comprehensive strategy to protect this worldwide treasure's natural integrity. The Himalayas are the guardians of life, and we must preserve them for future generations. They deserve better than to be seen as mere tools of advancement.

Challenges also arise from the drive to diversify energy sources and use hydropower, which is made worse by climate change. The importance of hydropower increases, yet project implementation becomes more challenging due to climate change. Such endeavours carry significant environmental dangers, as demonstrated by the recent occurrences that forced the closure of a large hydroelectric plant and the washing away of a dam due to flash floods and landslides.

It is essential to reevaluate the present strategy and induct climate change into our project planning and implementation. Buildings in the Himalayas must meet international standards, and the data must be put in the public domain for peer scrutiny. It is impossible to completely ignore the construction activities in the Himalayas, but a more deliberate, systematic approach is necessary.

Every incidence increases the prospect of not only large-scale fatalities but also the financial costs of projects, as well as the possibility of irreversible harm to a unique ecosystem. It is not a question of whether or not to develop in the Himalayas; instead, it is about building more mindfully and responsibly to protect both the environment and human lives.

(Anjal Prakash is a Clinical Associate Professor [Research] at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business [ISB]. He teaches sustainability at ISB and contributes to IPCC reports. 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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