One year after the worst disaster recorded in the Himalayas, the residents of the upper reaches of the Ganga are still trying to come to terms with it. When incessant rains in the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini valleys and the bursting of a rock barrier surrounding a glacial lake above Kedarnath led to the death of at least 5,600 people in June 2013, the country was shocked. However, a year later it doesn't seem the government administration has learnt the proper lessons.
It appears that the major reasons for the scale of the disaster were the many hydro-electric projects being implemented in the upper reaches of the Ganga, which weakened the structure of the mountains, the vast increase in religious tourism, which put an unsustainable burden on the roads and the ability of the religious centres to hold so many people, and the insidious effects of climate change being felt in the Himalayas.
Uttarakhand state, where the floods occurred on the tributaries of the Ganga, has planned 450 hydro-electric projects to harness a potential 27,000 Mw electric generating capacity. Of this 6,900 Mw capacity is either completed or under construction.
During the June 2013 floods, according to reports, the catastrophic collapse of the barrage of the 400 Mw Vishnuprayag hydro-electric project (HEP) on the Alaknanda river on June 16 wiped out the local market, parts of Govind Ghat and Pandukeshwar towns, a bridge and the road to Joshimath.
Many other HEPs in the flood hit areas were destroyed, damaged or shut down by the excessive silt and debris. A power project on the Mandakini river below Guptkashi town was badly damaged and was being repaired a year later. Another project that diverted water through a tunnel starting after Sonprayag had to be closed after it was blocked by large boulders and vehicles swept down from Sonprayag.
In Srinagar town on the road to Rudraprayag, the barrage held back a massive 26 million cubic metres of debris from the dam site until the floodgates were opened without warning and sections of the town were covered in several metres of sand, rock and rubble. The residents of Srinagar believe that the improper disposal of muck generated by the HEP was largely responsible for the flood. This debris still covered many parts of the town nearly a year after the disaster when I drove through it.
Following the disaster, the Supreme Court directed the ministry of environment and forests to set up an expert body to present its conclusions. In its lengthy report submitted in April 2014, the 11-member expert body made many suggestions, some of which were expected and some quite radical.
The report noted: "Today, the Himalayan mountains, rivers and communities are in crisis. They are being rapidly encroached upon for their resources. The challenges of the global climate change and the burgeoning development activities pose a grave threat to the very existence of the mountain region and the people living there." Among its many observations were the following:
- The construction of multiple dams has led to a fragmentation of the river's length, affecting riverine biota and diversity.
- It recommended sustaining environmental flows of 50 per cent during the lean season and 30 per cent during the remaining non-monsoon months. "Sustaining the integrity of Uttarakhand's rivers and their eco-system is not negotiable."
- It believed that 23 out of 24 HEPs would have significant impacts on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins and should be rejected if they either fall within wildlife protected areas, fall within the Gangotri sensitive zone, encompass critical wildlife habitats, or fall within 10 km of protected areas.
- Stepping lightly on the sensitivities of religious pilgrims the report observed, "The June 2013 disaster compels us to analyse the entire economic growth being followed in Uttarakhand and search for new answers." It further recommended "a draft Himalayan policy for Uttarakhand be submitted for a wider debate" and it strongly suggested that "a detailed study of the impact of hydropower projects in terms of deforestation/tunnelling/blasting/reservoir formation on the hydro-geology of the area should be carried out."
Tourism has become a real threat even though it is critical to the state's economy. The deluge of religious pilgrims who undertake the char dham circuit of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, travelling from one to another along crowded mountain roads have put an unbearable strain on the fragile mountain environment. As many as 28 million tourists (in a state of 12 million people) visited the state last year, most of them to the Bhagirathi-Alaknanda valleys between May and November.
Mira Kaintura, disaster management officer, Rudraprayag district, says that on the day of the disaster there were over 30,000 people in and around Kedarnath. Now the administration is trying to restrict the number to just 500 at a time.
The disaster has been a warning that the blocking of the rivers by dams and the blasting of the mountainsides to build highways for religious tourists are not viable. It puts the fragile environment to great stress and can lead to a breakdown as happened not only in 2013 but also in 2010 and in 2012 near Kedarnath at Ukhimath when torrential rains led to land-slides that wiped out two villages.
There is also a case that the concentrated periods of rain are the result of climate change. Local residents say that during 2013 it rained in sharp outbursts all through the year. Moreover, a 2012 study Widespread Climate Change in the Himalayas and Associated Changes in Local Ecosystems, quoted in a Nature report of September 2013, states that between 1982 and 2006, annual mean temperature in the 25-year period increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius and average annual precipitation went up by 163 mm, while the length of the growing season appears to have advanced by 4.7 days.
These changes are much more rapid than in other ecosystems, around three times the global average, and as the concentrated periods of rainfall indicate, disasters can happen more often. They call for fast and co-ordinated action from government agencies. There is no indication that the magnitude of the changes needed has been absorbed by the administration.