The apprehension of the local people of Raini village of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district with regard to the construction of the 13.2 Mega Watt Rishi Ganga Hydro Electric Project (HEP) has come true with the devastation triggered in the region by the flood in Rishi Ganga river on Sunday morning (February 7).
In the summer of 2019, Kundan Singh of Raini village, where the famous Chipko movement was started by one of its residents, Gaura Devi in 1973, to save trees from felling, had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Uttarakhand High Court against Rishi Ganga project. Following this, the court had stayed the blasting in the project area till further orders.
It should be noted here that the calamity on Sunday has washed away the Rishi Ganga project site and just 4 km away, damaged the barrage of the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project on the river Dhauli Ganga. The death toll rose up to 31 on Tuesday, while rescue operations were going on in full swing. The Rishi Ganga merges into the Dhauli Ganga, a tributary of the Alaknanda.
A number of hydro power projects are being constructed on river Alaknanda and its tributaries, which flow through Chamoli, Rudraprayag, and Pauri Garhwal districts in the state. These projects are Vishnuprayag HEP (400 MW) near Joshimath, Peepal Koti HEP (444 MW) near Peepal Koti, Srinagar HEP (330 MW) and Tapovan Vishnuprayag HEP (520 MW).
Also read: Explainer: Glacial Burst of Uttarakhand That Caused Massive Flood
It must also be noted that the project site in Raini village area falls under Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, close to Nanda Devi National Park. The Wildlife Institute of India had submitted its cumulative assessment report in 2012 which had termed all 24 HEP coming up on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin in Uttarakhand extremely detrimental to biodiversity.
In 2014, the Supreme Court had appointed an expert committee headed by noted environmentalist Ravi Chopra to examine the role of the 24 existing and under-construction HEP in further aggravating the impact of Kedarnath flash flood disaster in 2013 in Uttarakhand. The committee in its report had recommended closure of 23 out of 24 projects. It also cautioned about perilous geographical conditions of such para-glacial zones in Himalayas where any glacial activity and their deposits could unleash devastation. In such a scenario, the hydro power project structures and negligent muck dumping by the proponents can exacerbate the magnitude of destruction, the report had pointed out.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), too, had accepted that a study with regard to carrying capacity of the Himalayas should be conducted before conceptualising and enforcing development policies. The expert committee had also submitted a draft of a Himalayan policy to the MoEFCC recommending similar eco-sensitive zones in Uttarakhand on the lines of Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, which would clearly demarcate prohibited, permitted and regulated activities in such fragile areas.
“Professor GD Aggarwal (popularly known as Swami Sanand) sacrificed his life after observing 118 days fast at our ashram in 2018, demanding closure of all the HEP projects on river Ganga in order to ensure its free flow for the benefit of humanity, nature and wildlife. But the Centre and the state government, driven by monetary greed, has been insensitive to the issue till date,” said Swami Shivanand, head of the Haridwar-based Matri Sadan.
The state government has targeted to construct 450 hydro projects to harness 27,039 MW.
Commenting on this, Hemant Dhyani, environment activist also deplored the callous attitude of the government towards the fragility of Himalayan biodiversity by saying, “Besides forcing HEP, the government machinery is hell bent upon cutting precious trees, destabilising mountains with blasting and deforestation and as a result, triggering soil erosion and drying up of water resources to widen 889 km Char Dham road across the state. The Chamoli calamity is another grim reminder in the series.”
Alluding towards other cascading detrimental effects he said that the forests are losing their moisture which is why the fire incidents even in winter is on increase. “In this winter season alone, some 250 fire incidents took place in the state forests. The scientists too have corroborated that the black carbon arising out of these fire incidents deposit on the glaciers and destabilise them in the long run,” he added.
Cause of the devastation and its relation with climate change
Teams of scientists from various institutes are engaged in studying the exact cause of flood in Rishi Ganga. Various theories like glacial burst or landslide triggered by avalanche are rife. However, experts are not denying the impact of climate change on this matter.
Dr Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor, Glaciology & Hydrology, IIT Indore, said, “It's a very rare incident for a glacial burst to happen. Satellite and Google Earth images do not show a glacial lake near the region, but there's a possibility that there may be a water pocket in the region. Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event. We need further analysis, weather reports and data to confirm if this indeed was the case. It is unlikely that this was a cloud burst, since weather reports in Chamoli district show sunny weather till today with no record of precipitation.”
Also read: Uttarakhand Disaster: 5 More Bodies Found, Toll Rises to 31, Workers Still Trapped in Tunnel
He further added, “There is no doubt that global warming has resulted in the warming of the region. Climate change driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall, warmer winters has led to the melting point of a lot of snow. The thermal profile of ice is increasing, where earlier the temperature of ice ranged from -6 to -20 degree C, it is now -2, making it more susceptible to melting."
The Research Director and Adjunct associate professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, Dr Anjal Prakash, reportedly said, "The IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) reports that climate change has altered the frequency and magnitude of the natural hazards. The scientists have reported that in some regions snow avalanches involving wet snow have increased while the rain on snow floods have also increased at lower elevations in springs. We do not have the data now to give you information on what has caused the avalanche in the Chamoli district but what we know, prima-facia, is that this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming.”
He also said that the impact of global warming on glacial retreat is well documented. The recent assessment report called the HI-MAP report facilitated by Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development has also pointed these out. “The report shows that temperatures are rising in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region and the rise in global temperature will have more impact in the Himalayan region due to elevation-dependent warming. If the world can keep the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in the HKH region it would translate to at least a rise of 1.8 C, and in some places, above 2.2 C,” he added, pointing out that Himalayan regions are least monitored and this event actually shows how vulnerable it could be. He also requested the Centre and the state government to spend more resources in monitoring the region.
Prakash is an IPCC author who was coordinating the special report on Oceans and Cryosphere, 2018 and lead author of the ongoing 6th Assessment report of IPCC.
(Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh based independent journalist who writes on environment, climate change, wildlife , social and gender issues)