Over 70 people died after the February 7 floods that occurred after a lake breached at Nanda Devi glacier in the upper reaches of Himalayas(HT_PRINT)
Over 70 people died after the February 7 floods that occurred after a lake breached at Nanda Devi glacier in the upper reaches of Himalayas(HT_PRINT)

Experts slam claim that human activity not behind Chamoli disaster

  • Dhyani added that the burden on the ecology due to construction on Himalayan slopes made the region prone to disasters.
By Neeraj Santoshi, Jayashree Nandi, Amanjeet Singh Salyal
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 06:09 AM IST

Experts on Wednesday criticised a statement by a top official of a research body under the DRDO who said human activity was “not the immediate cause” for the glacial breach and the deadly floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district last month, and that there was a need to look at “demographic pressures”.

Over 70 people died after the February 7 floods that occurred after a lake breached at Nanda Devi glacier in the upper reaches of Himalayas, triggering flash floods that hit Raini village and nearly washed away two hydropower plants downstream.

The Defence Geo-Informatics Research Establishment – a premier research body under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that is studying the reasons for the February floods – said the tragedy was not “immediately” a human-induced disaster.

But global warming and heating up of the Himalayas, which scientists say are decisively caused by human actions, could be the main reasons for the glacial breach in Chamoli district, Lokesh Kumar Sinha, director of DGRE, told HT at the body’s headquarters in Chandigarh.

“There is a need to look upon the demographic pressures in a systematic way but as far as this particular tragedy is concerned in our preliminary investigations the role of human activity is not the immediate cause,” said Sinha. “It [glacial breach] was far away from the area where several constructions [NTPC hydel power project in Tapovan and Rishi Ganga hydel plant] are taking place,” Sinha added.

Experts have repeatedly pointed out that glacial retreat due to climate crisis along with infrastructure projects such as dams could lead to large-scale disasters in the ecologically sensitive regions, while the proximity of human settlements could exacerbate loss of life and damage to property in Uttarakhand.

Hemant Dhyani, member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert body to study the environmental impact of hydropower projects after the deadly 2013 Kedarnath floods, questioned how the February disaster was not linked to human activity.

“Tragedy happened because over 200 people were working in two dams quite close to the glacial region. Had these dams not been here, the flash floods would have subsided without any loss to life and property”, he said.

Dhyani added that the burden on the ecology due to construction on Himalayan slopes made the region prone to disasters.

“And our expert body had also said that these paraglacial zones (sediment hot spots in Himalayas close to the glaciers) are vulnerable areas and warned that such disasters can take place in these areas...” he said. The environmental activist was referring to another SC-appointed committee, of which he was a part and which had recommended against development projects in the Rishi Ganga catchment area in 2014. But all recommendations of the panel were not accepted by the government. “The Chamoli tragedy happened because they built dams so close to the glaciers. And this is the main human trigger in this tragedy,” said Anil Joshi, founder of Dehradun-based NGO Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO).

Experts echoed their views.

“It’s a preposterous statement. The official is belittling the tragedy... How can one ignore the impact of human induced climate change on the Himalayas... Any more unplanned construction or anthropogenic pressure on Uttarakhand will be suicidal,” said Mallika Bhanot of the Ganga Ahvaan NGO.

Professor Anil Kulkarni of the Divecha Center for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science also cautioned there was a need to study the issue first. “We need to study the issue very critically before passing any judgement on this disaster. What was the distance between the Rishi Ganga power plant and the ice or rock which fell? Whether during the construction phase the project caused any micro-tremors? We don’t know anything yet and there should be scientific rigour in investigation before concluding anything,” said Kulkarni.

On Wednesday, Sinha also said, “There are certain indications before such disasters take place and for forecasting them we need to develop gadgets which can map such indications...”

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