A small statistic about flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district tells a big story of how unplanned development creates unprecedented havoc.
In seven years since 2005, Uttarkashi had three major flash floods. In 27 years before 2005, it had one — in 1978.
What happened after 2005 was wanton development — hydroelectric (hydel) power projects, roads, hotels — triggered by the creation of Uttarakhand state in 2000, which weakened the foundation of an already fragile mountain system.
Hydel projects require constant blasting of hills to build dams and tunnels, disturbing the rock structure, which starts rolling down once the top soil is uprooted by rains. The muck fills the rivers and flows down with the water, intensifying the river’s rage. Huge diversion of forest cover for these dams also reduces the capability of the local ecology to retain rainwater. And when bumper-to-bumper dams are built, the impact multiplies manifold.
Adding to the misery of the eco-system, seven new dams were built, work started on another nine and 19 more were proposed in the biggest district of the young state. More than 100 new roads were built in an unscientific manner and hundreds of tourist spots mushroomed, resulting in a four-fold hike in the inflow of tourists into the region.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. As many as 31 more dams were added in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand and rampant mining of rivers was allowed and hundreds of kilometres of new roads were added.
“When you change the course of a river by mining, cut trees indiscriminately and build roads in a haphazard manner, such a calamity is bound to take place,” said PP Dayani, director of the Almora-based GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development.
“A lesson to be learnt for policymakers from the biggest human tragedy in Garhwal’s history since the 1805 earthquake is to not to disturb nature. “Nature has capacity to recover and rejuvenate,” said Ravi Chopra, director of the Dehradun-based People Science Institute and IIT-Bombay alumnus.
Because preventing cloudbursts and resultant flash floods are not possible, experts emphasise two important aspects.
First, mapping of all disaster-prone areas in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand and linking them with an alarm system for bad weather should be done, like in some parts of Himachal Pradesh. Second, proper and scientific construction of roads linking remote parts of the state to the mainstream should be undertaken, considering that washing away of roads hampered rescue work this time.
“You cannot build ramshackle roads on hills and think they will work. The concept of all-weather green roads in hills needs to be instilled in the local public works department,” said Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur, who has worked extensively in the Ganga river basin.
Dayani said the pivotal issue was that India did not have any national policy to preserve and conserve the bio-diversity-rich mountain areas and management during natural calamities. “We should have a central ministry for all mountain states as their needs and problems are different from the rest of the country,” he said.
What these measures could do is reduce human casualties in such situations, which according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will increase in the coming years because of global warming. Or else, repeats of Uttarakhand-like disasters, maybe of lower intensity, will become a regular affair.