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INTERVIEW: Expect More Avalanches in Uttarakhand, Says Top Geologist

Rashme Sehgal |
The hill state of Uttarakhand is facing a very grim situation due to Modi government’s development model, and scientific warnings not being heeded, says SP Sati. Kedarnath has seen 3 avalanches, the latest is in Uttarkashi.
 ‘Expect More Avalanches…This Dispensation Isn’t Heeding Scientific Warnings’

Fierce avalanche behind Kedarnath temple. Image Courtesy: National Herald

The hill state of Uttarakhand has been in the news of late for the rising number of natural disasters, such as landslides, flash floods and avalanches. The recent death of at least 10 mountaineers, with many more feared trapped after an avalanche in Uttarakashi district is the latest. There are also reports of three avalanches in Kedarnath in the past few days -- all within a 3-4 kilometre distance from the famed Kedarnath Temple.

NewsClick spoke to Dr SP Sati, a leading geologist who heads the Department of Basic and Social Sciences in Uttarakhand University and also belongs to the rare group of scientists who speaks out openly against the `development’ model being pursued by the Narendra Modi government.  Sati, who is also a member of the Indian Seismological Society, blames the unbridled construction activity going on in the Garhwal Himalayas, among other things, for the alarming rise in such incidents. Edited excerpts:

RS: Kedarnath has witnessed two avalanches in the last six days of September. What is that indicative of?

SPS:  For two avalanches to have occurred within a span of six days is a very unusual phenomenon. This could have been caused by seismic jerks, where ice from glaciers above Kedarnath on the southern side of the Kedar Dome (22,770 ft height), become unstabilised. These were slow avalanches but more fast moving (and destructive) avalanches can also occur. We will witness more avalanches of this kind in the future also (this interview was held before the Uttarkashi avalanche).

During the 2013 calamity, we witnessed the temporal shifting of the monsoon which came in early that year. This year, we were witness to heavy rains at the end of September. The IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) report 2022 has warned that the sub-continent will witness a temporal and spatial shifting of the monsoon.

Generally in the past, heavy rainfall has not been reported from Kedarnath. Now it is witnessing torrential rain. Condensation is being reported in higher altitudes, so we can expect even more avalanches.

You are warning us that avalanches are going to increase in and around Kedarnath?

A. It has been observed that there has been a 0.16 increase in temperature per decade globally. But this rise of temperature doubles as we go to the higher elevations of the Himalayas -- the 0.16 temperature increase becomes 0.32.

The temperature has already gone up 1.25 degrees from 1850 but we are set to see a temperature increase of 1.25 degree in the next decade itself. The biggest consequence of this will be felt in the Himalayas where glacial melting will increase. What that means is that the 100 dams or so that have been built, or are presently being built in the Himalayas, will face severe challenges. These dams have been designed to receive a certain level of water. When water flow increases, the siltation will increase which in turn will reduce the age of the dam.

Further heavy rainfall events will result in increasing landslides. Retreating glaciers will see an increase in moraines which are para glacial sediment and are not static. These moraines get mobilised due to heavy rainfall events. That is why we are warning against doing heavy construction in these regions because the construction is taking place on unstable foundations.

There is a huge spurt in construction activity in and around Kedarnath with JCBs being brought in reportedly by Chetak helicopters. This construction is reportedly taking place under the direct supervision of Prime Minister Modi. Your views?

Heavy infrastructure construction is taking place in and around Kedarnath with no understanding of the sensitivity of the terrain. The government has come up with a Kedarnath Master Plan and a Badrinath Master Plan and these are being `redeveloped’ with concrete structures including hotels and resorts.  Hundreds of crores are being spent on these master plans. But the 2013 accident was not something unexpected in these terrains. We saw that in 1882, the Mandakini river changed its course. This can happen to any of the rivers in these altitudes. The floating population in these towns has also increased and there is a huge influx of tourists.

No importance is being given to scientific facts.  

When we point out the dangers of executing these mammoth infrastructural projects in such areas, we are called anti-development and urban Naxals. But globally, scientists across the world have expressed concern at these developments.

One hears gold plates are being drilled on to the walls of the Kedarnath temple even as several priests there have opposed this. The Archaeological Survey of India has not been though this temple is said to be around 1,500 years old and is a protected monument.

Yes, all this is being done under the garb of beautification. This kind of temple beautification goes against the sentiments of the local people for whom Lord Shiva is an ascetic.

It must be emphasised that it is the height of stupidity to build multi- storied complexes in these areas. The government has gone ahead and allowed a helipad in Hemkunt Saheb claiming this will increase tourism, but what it will end up doing is further disturbing the slopes in a para glacial zone. There is a similar helipad functioning in Kedarnath also.

Are you saying the entire upper Himalayas are at risk?

There are 614 rivers across the entire upper Himalayan belt. The sediment flow of all these northern rivers has drastically decreased because of the construction of these dams. Vital river connections stand broken. This will cause havoc in the long run.

A river is not just a flow of water but also a flow of sediment. The sediments of these rivers are piling up in these dams. This will disturb the key isostatic equilibrium, thereby increasing the possibility of earthquakes. When our ecosystem service gets hindered, it will also affect the quality of soil across north India.

According to the Kedarnath and Badrinath Master Plans, there are plans to construct underground tunnels to facilitate parking of cars of tourists.

Tunnels are being constructed not only in Kedarnath and Badrinath but also in Gaurikund and Hanuman Chatti in a mountain zone, which is very fragile and is known for its seismic activity.

That is why I must emphasise that we are going to witness an irreversible disaster in this region which will impact the whole of North India.

Is it true that a number of key cities in Uttarakhand hills are sinking?

Joshimath, which is the gateway to the Badrinath temple and to Hemkund Saheb, is sinking because it has been built on a thick cover of landslide material which is inherently unstable. The  water  acquifers  under it have been punctured due to all this construction activity. Joshimath is located at the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers and both these rivers are cutting into the mountain slopes.

Not only is a major part of Joshimath sinking but Bhatwari and Uttarkashi are also sinking. Both towns are in danger, as are Gangotri and Gopeshwar. With all this uncontrolled tunneling taking place to construct a railway line between Rishikesh and Karnaprayag, crucial springs and acquifers feeding the rivers and providing water to villagers have dried up. The villages located in the upside slopes of the areas from where the railway line will traverse are already facing acute water shortage.

Irreversible damage is being caused and the size of the area under threat is increasing every year. We are facing a very grim situation where all scientific warnings have gone unheeded by the present dispensation.

The interviewer is a senior freelance journalist.

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