Monday, June 24, 2013

The cost of development in Himalaya

The cost of development in Himalaya

Author(s): Sunita Narain
Date:Jun 23, 2013

There is a link between the disaster and the manner in which development has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region
Govindghat(Courtesy Indian Army)

The extent of the Himalayan tsunami is still unfolding as I write. It is clear that we do not know how many people are still trapped under rubble; cut off by landslides and desperate for food and water. The human cost of this calamity will be horrendous, it is feared.

But even as governments and the army work on rescue and relief work, we must ask the question if this is only a natural disaster or has human action and inaction exacerbated the scale and magnitude of the tragedy?

Himalaya are the world’s youngest mountain range; they are prone to erosion, landslides and seismic activity and brutal rainstorms lash the region. Therefore, this region is vulnerable and fragile. But two human-induced factors make it even more risk-prone today.

Risk multipliers

First, there is a clear link between climate change and changing rainfall patterns in the Himalaya. Scientists are now, more than ever, certain that rainfall in India will become more extreme – in other words, there will be more rain but it will come in smaller number of rainy days. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, which has extensively studied the trends in monsoons in the country, finds that “moderate” rain events are on the decline and intense rain events are increasing. This is bad news for the Himalaya, as it means that there are higher possibilities of cloudbursts and “unprecedented” high rainfall over the region – as it happened on June 15 when in just 24 hours, over 240 mm lashed parts of Uttaranchal and Himachal.

Even though it cannot be said that this particular Himalayan tsunami is caused by climate change, the link to this event and the growing trend of intense and extreme rain events is clear and undisputable. Climate change is caused by fossil fuel use and emissions, needed for economic growth. So, this tragedy is human-induced.

Second, there is a link between the disaster and the manner in which “development” has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region. Over the past few years, particularly since the creation of the new state of Uttaranchal, the state government – be it Congress or BJP – has had only one interest – to exploit natural resources of water, forests or minerals without any care of the consequences. What is clear is that this kind of development has come at the cost of the environment.

Why do I say this? Take hydropower projects, as an example. There is no doubt that generation of energy is an important economic activity for the region – water is its natural wealth. But the question is if the Central or state government ever considered the cumulative impact of the hydropower projects on the rivers and the mountains. Currently, there are roughly 70 projects built or proposed on the Ganga, all to generate some 10,000 mw of power. The projects are being built bumper to bumper – where one project ends, another begins. In this way, the river would be modified—through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs — to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”.

The projects do not plan to release water in the river during the lean months. As a result, large stretches of the river would be completely dry. The construction itself, at this scale, would have devastating impacts on the mountains – because of blasting to build tunnels and barrages. Worse, invariably, construction is carried out without the necessary precautions so that the risk of landslides is minimised.

Comment by Anumakonda Jagadeesh

Very critical, considered view of the worst disaster Madam.

Landslides and flash floods are an annual affair in Uttarakhand. The monsoon of 2010 brought with it such massive losses of lives, property, crops and infrastructure that the state said its development clock had been set back by a decade. Things are much, much worse this year. With many highways damaged, bridges washed away, electricity and phone networks down, several ravaged places continue to be marooned. Expect the final tally to be horrifying.

The growing frequency of extreme climactic events is emboldening the claim that hydropower projects, encroachments of riverbeds by buildings, and blasting of mountains to build roads are making hill states more susceptible to disaster.

Even as rescue operations are in full swing with the IAF personnel undertaking the massive task of evacuation of countless pilgrims and tourists stranded in various spots (Kedarnath being the worst affected), the media has aptly highlighted the considered view of environmentalists, experts and activists that the very scale of the disaster was the result of causes which were palpably man-made. In this context unplanned development and rampant deforestation—the direct consequence of the nexus between politicians (across party lines) and vested interests (representing the builders’ lobby, timber merchants, and quarrying and mining mafia)—have come in for all round condemnation as these were carried out turning a blind eye to the ecological and environmental costs of such acts.

Three years ago the CAG had, in an environ-mental assessment of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers, cautioned the country of the severe hazard for natural ecology posed by the mushrooming hydel projects on the rivers. These projects were damaging the hills and enhancing the prospects of flash floods—was the warning. But that went unheeded.

Is it not a clear case that Climate Change is real?

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