Amita Bhaduri, Ritika Gupta

The below are the excerpts of the presentation by Sunidhi Agarwal, Nishi Verma, and Indranuj Pathak, researchers, IMPRI  in the panel discussion on Uttarakhand Flood Disaster 2.0: From Analysis to Action organized by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar.

On February 7, 2021, the climate wrath was witnessed as response to the devastating effects of climate change. A portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district triggering an avalanche. This sudden flood in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers which are all intricately linked tributaries of the Ganga triggered widespread panic and large-scale devastation in the high mountain areas. This deluge not only led to enormous human suffering but also created problems in terms of infrastructure projects, water supply and significant economic disruption.

Two power projects – NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and the Rishi Ganga hydel project were extensively damaged with scores of labourers trapped in tunnels as the waters came rushing in. About 134 people are missing while the official death toll is 70. This event of glacier burst in Uttarakhand has not only turned the spotlight on climate change and its impact on ecology but also brought attention to the development sphere of this fragile ecosystem. It also begs the question if devastating climate related catastrophes being faced by Uttarakhand is becoming the new normal for the state.

Timeline of Uttarakhand Catastrophes

The timeline of catastrophic events collates the disasters witnessed by the state in the last twenty years; the nature of it and the scale has been unpredictable. The 1998 Malpa landslide in the district of Pithoragarh should have been a wakeup call for everyone. The 2012 and, the much worse 2013 floods, infamously known as the Kedarnath floods, because of the damage it did to the temple premise, killed thousands of people along with destruction in social and physical infrastructure. Following it were the forest fires which although occur every year took destructive forms in the year 2016 and 2020 and even led to loss of human lives. These huge climate disasters were finally followed by the 2021 floods in the state. 

Timeline of Uttarakhand Catastrophes
Timeline of Uttarakhand Castastrophes
Source: Prepared by Indranuj Sarkar

After the 2013 floods, the state and Union government started taking adequate measures such as the introduction of the Uttarakhand Disaster Recovery Project and the Uttarakhand Emergency Assistance Project to “restore housing and rural connectivity, building resilience of the local communities increasing the technical capacity of the state entities to respond promptly and effectively to an eligible crisis or emergency and reconstruct the damaged infrastructure”.

The Supreme Court also intervened and set up an expert committee in 2014 to advise on the ongoing 24 hydro-electricity projects. It has appointed a ‘High Powered Committee’ in 2019 to look over the environmental and sociological impact of the ongoing Char Dham project. The Vision 2030 document also gives some important mitigation and adaptation points, if not concrete, for climate action and disaster risks.Along with these, the conscience for climate action grew and the state came out with a cess to be applied upon export of energy outside the state and to industries. The much-required Action Plan on Climate Change also came into being that year.

However, the staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttrakhand’s Nanda Devi Mountains came as a deadly reminder that this fragile, geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted. While these are natural disasters, yet with their rising frequency, anthropogenic climate change has been the exacerbating factor. The major environmental concerns that can be identified in the context of Uttarakhand disaster are global warming which is leading to a rapid warming of Himalayas at an unprecedented rate resulting in melting of glaciers and extreme weather rainfall events.

Along, with it deforestation is leading to soil erosion which is another factor which aggravates the impact of floods in the state. It also leads to forest losing moisture resulting in fire incidents. Weakening of mountains and lack of awareness of ecologically sensitive nature of Himalayas are other areas of concern resulting in landslides. Most of these issues can be linked to human activities such as huge expansion of hydropower projects and infrastructure such as construction of dams, power and mining projects, large scale tourism, diversion of rivers through tunnels and finally, weak implementation of environmental laws.

The Uttarakhand catastrophe and the other climate related disasters has led us to discuss the ever pressing topic of if we can pursue economic growth at the expense of the environment. There is a need to understand our interdependency on the environment and to find a balance between economic growth without disrespecting mountains character of state. To address the question better, the various concerns can be grouped under four issues at hand, which include policy paralysis, implementation issues, responsibilities of stakeholders and finally monitoring and transparency issues. The main question is how we can combine all these issues and go forward from here?

Acknowledgment: Manoswini Sarkar, a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and Masters Candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland

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