The tragedy in Uttarakhand | HT Editorial
On Sunday, the ecologically-fragile state of Uttarakhand witnessed yet another episode of natural disaster, which brought back memories of the devastating 2013 floods. The latest round of flooding, which took place in Chamoli district, has caused the destruction of lives, livestock, forests, and demolished critical infrastructure. Initially, scientists thought it was a glacial lake outburst, but subsequent satellite images suggest that the flooding was triggered by a landslide in the upper reaches. What may have happened, according to some glaciologists, is that the unseasonal melting of snow led to the loosening of sediments, which came down as slurry, and then blocked narrow paths of the Rishi Ganga-Dhauli Ganga river system, creating temporary mini dams. Similar cascading dams were created each time the water found an obstruction (either due to a bridge or hydropower project), and the water that accumulated behind these dams increased the force of the floods as it moved downstream. The sediments and construction debris only increased its destructive potential.
While the scientific community examines the real causes behind the flooding — a government team has been sent to assess the situation — there is a broad consensus on two issues. One, the glaciated region of the Himalayas is responding to global warming and will see similar incidents in the future. And, second, the construction-led development trajectory of the state is unsustainable, and is working as a force multiplier in the event of such disasters. Between the big tragedy of 2013 and Sunday, there have been several mini landslides in the area, killing people and blocking roads — yet, the Centre and the state have carried on with unsustainable construction in the name of development and security concerns.
Sunday’s flooding also raises questions on how much is known about glacial activity. While India carries out studies in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, the government needs to spend more resources in monitoring the region better on a temporal (yearly) scale so that there is more information about the changes taking place in the glaciers to assess their vulnerability. This must also be followed up by a disaster assessment of the area, while approving development projects. This information can help in developing better adaptation practices for the people, a critical skill set in the era of the climate crisis.