Nature’s fury and excessive rainfall due to “cloudbursts” provides but a partial rationale for why the ‘abode of the Gods’ — the Himalayan hill state of Uttarakhand — has been ravaged beyond measure in the recent past. For invasive human intervention and all of man’s excesses and follies have also been a major factor in the destruction that nature has wrought. Whole villages and communities, large stretches of roads and communication links have been nullified. Being the pilgrimage season as well, many thousands of people, including those from several other parts of the country who were on pilgrimages to religiously sites in the state remain stranded to date. In retrospect, it is understandable that poor soil stability on the steep slopes in this fragile region has been aggravated by man-made disasters-in-waiting like indiscriminate deforestation and mindless construction. Hundreds of buildings along the banks of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi have been swept away in Rudraprayag district alone. Downstream, the Ganga, Yamuna and other rivers have reached levels not seen in years, posing difficulties even to far away cities like Delhi. A tragedy that has become a national calamity indeed.

The longer term lessons this calamity teaches us are many. Our Towns, villages and other habitations in the Himalayan region need to conform to some rationale and logic, need to be better planned. There ought to be a comprehensive and constant oversight employed to monitor and evaluate construction techniques and methods employed. We need better systems of forecasting, and the dissemination of weather-related information. While the India Meteorological Department does issue routine warnings about inclement weather, one doubts if these communications were sufficiently stern, and it is also unclear whether the state authorities acted upon these warnings with alacrity and disseminated them promptly.

Interesting to note here is that a 2011 notification to declare a zone that extends to a distance of 130 km from Goumukh (where the Alaknanda begins) upto Uttarkashi as eco-sensitive, remains unenforced to this day. The Uttarakhand government’s misgivings on this move, based on the argument that it would impede development, today seems specious in retrospect. Strategies to ensure better overall management of water resources in the region are needed. However, observations by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2010 expressing concern over disturbance to the natural ecology and destabilisation of hill slopes caused by the construction of hydel projects along the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, and over the failure of the administration to plant enough trees to mitigate risks arising out of soil degradation, give fresh resonance to this point.

The unexpected heavy rains over Northwest India have killed over 1000 people and left at least 1,00,000 people stranded, damaged temple towns, and washed away roads and bridges in Uttarakhand. And we still don’t know the extent of deaths, injuries and damage, as the data is still flowing in, in dribs and drabs. In climate literature, rainfall more than 150mm in a day is termed a very heavy rain event. Some parts of Uttarakhand, during this recent patch of bad weather, registered record rainfall exceeding 300mm. This amount of rain in June has not been seen for several decades. This raises two questions: is this extreme rainfall due to global warming ? And what issues is it red-flagging ?
A study by scientists of the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory, Tirupati, showed a six per cent increase in the frequency of very heavy rain events in India over 1901-2004. The more recent period 1951-2004 shows a 14.5 percent rise per decade. They lay this at the door of ‘global warming’: the study talked of a “coherent relationship” between the increasing trend of extreme rainfall events in the last five decades and the increasing trend of Indian Ocean sea surface temperature. Another school of thought seeks to emphasise regional rather than global factors as a reason behind an increase in the geographical spread of rainfall extremes in India, like unplanned urbanisation, unregulated deforestation and other changes in land use, as more relevant than mere causal factors.

Like any other geological data, meteorological data like Climate Change too is measurable only as a trend over time. However, as extreme events become more and more frequent in the world, scientists are making an attempt to grapple with this problem. One such group tweaked the question a bit, and argued that certain recent extreme events — the heat waves and droughts in Moscow during 2010, and Texas, Oklahoma and northern Mexico during 2011 – were a consequence of global warming “because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small” They even showed that extreme temperatures exceeding 3-sigma (a measure of variability and volatility), which covered only 0.1~0.2 percent of the Earth’s land area in the 30-year period 1950-1980, occurred in as much as 10 percent of the planet’s landmass in recent summers. Would the heat waves they refer to have happened in the absence of this huge spread of extreme warming ? No.

Extreme climate, especially extreme rainfall events have been spreading in India. The Uttarakhand State Action Plan on Climate Change admits to a “few high rainfall events in the recent past”. People consulted did report erratic rains and increased frequency of intense rainfall events, and there is indeed not much doubt that this increasing variability and intense downpours are a consequence of global warming, due to the capacity of warmer air to hold more water vapour. It happened last year in Uttarkashi, it has occurred this year again. It’s going to continue to happen, frequently. This brings up three major questions.

One: Surely adaptation means not just reactive measures like embarking on desperate rescue missions during and after extreme rains, but rather in pro-actively preparing for them. Current levels of expertise tend to suggest that prior and advance warning systems are feasible, with reasonable investment. Given that there was no warning from the IMD, what technological or administrative improvement do we need to ensure that advance warnings are issued before such future events?

Two: Putting such a paradigm in place needs not just technology, but also political will. We need to collectively challenge the indifference that most political classes have for the lives and livelihoods of the poor.

And three: Even assuming a best-case scenario of capacity, efficiency and political will, what impacts and devastation are inescapable in a difficult and mountainous terrain like the Pan Himalayas ? What we are currently experiencing is in a world 0.9°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. Due to the lag between carbon emissions and global warming, a significantly warmer world is inevitable, as are more extreme events. What has happened this year is going to happen, again, often, and more intensely.

One of India’s respected newspapers, “The Hindu”, carried an Op-ed entitled “NATURE Avenges Its Exploitation”, in its analysis of the Uttarakhand catastrophe. It placed the responsibility for this mammoth human tragedy squarely at the feet of deforestation, unchecked construction of dwellings and large-scale building of big dams.

Deforestation: There is not much doubt that the present Himalayan disaster has been triggered by natural events, but the catastrophe is by and large man-made. Let us address the various man-induced drivers. One, there is ample scientific evidence that the Himalayan watersheds have witnessed unprecedented deforestation over a long period. Deforestation as a commercial activity began during the British Raj and has continued unabated after independence. While official estimates say forest cover has increased in the Himalaya, a number of credible independent studies have found significant discrepancies in this claim. The fact is that forests have been diverted for a host of land use activities such as agriculture, human settlements and urbanisation. Massive infrastructure development such as hydro-power construction and road building has taken place. Scientific studies indicate that at the current rates of deforestation, the total forest cover in the Indian Himalaya will be reduced from 84.9 percent in 2000 to no more than 52.8 percent in 2100. Dense forest areas, on which many forest taxa (groups of species) critically depend, would decline from 75.4 percent of the total forest area in 2000 to just 34 percent in 2100, which is estimated to result in the extinction of 23.6 percent of taxa restricted to the dense Himalayan forests.

Global Warming: Vegetative cover slows the speed of falling rain, prevents soil erosion and gully formation which are the precursors to landslides and flash-floods. Dense vegetation, by evapo-transpiration, also stops nearly 30~40 percent of rainwater from falling to the ground, thereby significantly reducing run-offs. Besides holding the soil together, forests and soil soak water from the rain, release it slowly and prevent water flowing as run-off. So, deforestation brings about slope destabilisation, landslides and floods. Given that the Himalayan range is geologically young and still rising, it makes the area most vulnerable to erosion and instability. Therefore, it is all the more necessary to take land use change more seriously. Two, there is mounting evidence that global warming is fast catching up with the Himalaya. In a recent study, it was reported that Himalayan ecosystems have experienced faster rates of warming in the last 100 years, much more than that experienced in the European Alps or other mountain ranges of the world. In such a scenario, we can expect faster melting of glaciers causing higher water discharges into all Himalayan rivers.

Expanding Settlements: Expanding human settlements and haphazard urbanisation which brings about land-use changes tend to offer themselves as easy targets and usually bear the brunt of the fury of natural elements and forces in extreme weather events. While it is important to appreciate the aspirations of local people and encourage the furtherance of their economic activities, there cannot and should not be a lack of enforcement of land-use control laws on the part of local governments and officials. Large building construction, cheap hotels and individual dwellings at Uttarkashi, on the banks of the Assi and Bhagirathi rivers have been allowed. There is very little buffer between the river and the human settlements. Another cause for worry is the large-scale dam building that has happened in recent years, which has caused massive land-use changes with ensuing problems in the Himalayan watersheds. Hydro-power and allied construction activities are potential sources of slope weakening and destabilisation. Massive intervention in the Himalayan ecosystems through manipulation of rivers and their hydrology is linked to what we are witnessing today. Most downstream damage in otherwise flood-free areas is caused by dams and barrages, which release large volumes of water to safeguard engineering structures. Dam operators often release more water during rains than the carrying capacity of downstream areas, causing flooding.

Pilgrims: Neo-religious movements linked to changing socio-political developments in India, are also in large part responsible for significant human movement into the Himalaya beyond the region’s carrying capacity, whether it is Amarnath in Jammu & Kashmir, or Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Hemkund in Uttarakhand. The heavy pilgrim influx and the resulting floating population has also resulted in the mushrooming of shanty towns, cheap accommodation and numerous ramshackle buildings along river banks.

We need to have an integrated policy on the environment and development of the Pan Himalayan Region. In this context, suffice to say that enough information is available in the public domain, which only needs to be put together and looked at in a cohesive manner. Himalayan State governments need to consider imposing higher environmental taxes on visitors, particularly during summer and monsoon months. Though distasteful to many, a heavy sizing down of pilgrim numbers in fragile areas needs to begin. All vulnerable buildings need to be either secured or relocated away from rivers. Governments must consider imposing penalties on building structures within 200 metres of river banks. Hydro-power policy makers must consider building fewer dams and prioritise those that have the least environmental and social costs. Independent and serious monitoring of the catchment area treatment plans proposed by Forest Departments with funds from hydro-power companies needs to be carried out and reported to the Green Tribunal.
In fact, if we are to work toward preventing the kind of losses that Uttarakhand is experiencing today, we will need to turn the Government’s approach towards disaster management upside down. Pre-calamity ops need to be initiated as the norm in order to minimise losses and casualties in case of recurring (therefore predictable) natural disasters, and the relief machinery, which today lacks adequate training and management and is often found wanting in pre-planned contingency measures, needs to be restructured and equipped appropriately, so that this present reliance on ad hoc measures that diminish the efficacy of its operations may be done away with. In sum, India’s ‘below-par’ policy framework for disaster management would become the precursor of nature’s wrath. So, will this Uttarakhand national calamity act as a spur to usher in policy changes ?

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