Was climate change to blame for India’s glacier flood disaster?
- Flash flood in Uttarakhand that washed away over 200 people is linked to avalanche and melting glaciers, experts believe
- Extreme weather in region has become more frequent, experts say, while hazardous construction practices amplify the destruction caused
Ten metres downhill from where Singh stood, his fellow workers were washed away by the water and debris. The power project too was destroyed. “I was saved by God’s grace. The pressure was such that I would not have survived had I been in its path.”
The furious flash flood that struck tributaries of the river Ganges in the upper reaches of the Himalayas on Sunday is thought to have washed away some 200 people. The government says 31 bodies have been recovered and 175 remain missing.
Twelve people were rescued from one side of the tunnel on Sunday but another 34 were still trapped at the other end, said police official Banudutt Nair, in charge of the rescue operation. Nair said rescuers were not giving up hope, believing that there were air pockets inside the tunnel, where the workers could still be alive.
CLIMATE CHANGE TO BLAME?
When this fell into the surrounding glacial lake (a lake formed by retreating glaciers), it caused the lake’s water levels to overflow.
The floodwater, mud and boulders roared down the mountain along the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers – tributaries of the Ganges – breaking dams, sweeping away bridges and forcing the evacuation of many villages along a 100km stretch while turning the countryside into what looked like an ash-coloured moonscape.
In addition to washing away the power plant Singh was working on the flood damaged a bigger one downstream on the Dhauliganga. A widening of the valley eventually slowed the flood’s momentum.
Scientists say that disasters like this have been made more likely due to human-induced climate change, as global warming has increased the number of glacial lakes. Traditionally, avalanches in winter are not common.
Himalayan glacier breaks in northern India, leaving at least 170 missing in deadly floods
“Prima facie this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming. The impact of global warming on glacial retreat is well documented,” said Anjal Prakash, lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report.
He said the disaster had once again brought into focus the vulnerability of the Himalayan regions to climate change. In 2013, large scale devastation in Uttarakhand was caused by another glacial flooding event during the monsoon months that led to the deaths of over 6,000 people.
The devastation caused by floods such as these is made worse by haphazard construction work on slopes and along river beds that leaves loose debris to be carried downstream.
“The Himalayas are fragile and weak, like a child,” said Atul Sati, an activist from the Joshimath region which was heavily damaged by the floods on Sunday.
“They are young mountains which are still growing. They are not stable. Road and dam projects which resort to blasting have broken the mountains here,” he said.
CONTROVERSY OVER POWER PLANT
Reni, the village near the source of Sunday’s flood where Singh lives, has a history of environmental activism. It is the birthplace of India’s most storied grass roots movement, the women-led Gandhian Chipko movement of the 1970s, which formed human chains to prevent the felling of trees.
In 2019, its residents filed a court petition alleging hazardous practices – stone crushing on the river bed and explosions – at the nearby power project could lead to an environmental disaster.
Despite the petition, residents claim the power project continued with the activities at an elevation of 3,700 metres above sea level – even though at this elevation the project should not have existed at all, according to the recommendations of a committee appointed by India’s top court after monsoon floods in 2013 killed more than 6,000 people.
The committee headed by scientist Ravi Chopra had advised that no power projects be built above a height of 2,000 metres. This, it argued, was the “para glacial zone” from which glaciers had retreated leaving behind unstable rocks and debris not suited for dams and highways.
However, both the projects damaged by Sunday’s floods were in the para glacial zone and continued despite the recommendations of the committee.
“Due to climate change, extreme weather events have become more frequent and development projects ensure that the damage that they cause is more severe,” Chopra said. He said the government had to start listening to the advice of scientists and environmentalists if such disasters were to be avoided.
Sunday’s disaster has reopened the debate on infrastructure projects in the Himalayas such as the 900km Char Dham highway project to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand.
Controversially, the government had used a regulatory loophole to avoid the need for an environment impact assessment on the project by dividing it into several smaller projects.
A committee appointed by the court to look into the environmental impact of the highway said it had already caused “irreversible damage” to the Himalayas.
Chopra, who is also the head of that committee, noted in his report, “If we make this a contest between the Himalaya and ourselves, if we bargain and justify, argue to mitigate, and believe that a compromise is possible between the future of the planet and future of the human race, let us clearly understand that there will be no winners.”
Additional reporting by AP and AFP