Was the Uttarakhand tragedy waiting to happen?

Tehelka’s story in the June 2020 issue of the magazine drew attention of authorities on the dangers that fast melting glaciers could bring. Quoting scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, the report pointed out that among the most dramatic evidence that Earth’s climate is warming is the dwindling and disappearance of mountain glaciers around the world. 

A subsequent story in Tehelka in the December 2020 issue captioned “Glaciers: The hidden source of pandemics?” suggested that all stakeholders need to remain vigilant of the increasing glacier melting and subsequent disasters it could unleash.

While posted at Dehradun with the Indian Express newspaper, I extensively covered the massive earthquake in Uttarkashi region in 1991. Subsequently, Uttarakhand had witnessed flash floods at Kedarnath in 2013 wherein more than 5,000 lives had been lost. The gory images are still fresh in the memory of every one. More than 5,000 lives had been lost.

Before this, there were floods in the Bhagirathi in 1978 and Alakananda in 1970. And now has come the February 7, 2021 devastation in Chamoli which has led to instant comparison with the Kedarnath tragedy.

A 13.2 megawatt (MW) small hydro project on the Rishi Ganga river has been swept away in the glacier burst, which also damaged NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project.

Authorities are also looking at if glacier burst also harmed the 400 MW Vishnuprayag project near Joshimath and 444 MW Peepal Koti project at Peepal Koti.

After the Kedarnath tragedy, in 2013, a committee set up by the Supreme Court had recommended that no more dams be constructed in the State. However, despite that, many more dams have been built on Alaknanda river which suffered the glacier burst this time. 

This is a grim reminder to ignore warnings at your own peril and also that there is something amiss in the model of development.  There are 98 big, medium and small dams in Uttarakhand and of these 50 hydel projects are on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins alone.

No doubt this necessitates a debate about what led to the disaster and why no lessons were learnt from past blunders. According to environmentalists acts of nature could have caused less damage had fragile ecology of this Himalayan region been kept in mind while carving out the development models during commissioning big dams, hotels and creating other infrastructure.

The eco fragile region calls for a more sustainable path.  Unfortunately, most of the large dams don’t have disaster management plans in place.

According to the Central Water Commission, there are 5,334 large dams in India besides 411 under construction.

A report of the Auditor General in 2017 found that only 349 of these dams had disaster management plans in place. Indeed a matter of grave concern!