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Manmade Disaster: Floods in Indian Himalayas Are Warning of Future Events

The northern Indian state of Uttarakhand is seeing unprecedented flooding. On June 15, in just 24 hours, over 240 mm of rain lashed the high Himalayan region; leading to flash floods, landslides, blocked roads and stranded people. As I write this, an estimated 70,000 people have been rescued; another 20,000 are still trapped in rubble and over 1000 are estimated to be dead. It is feared that the final toll will be much higher. But the question being raised in India is if this Himalayan Tsunami is only a natural disaster or have human actions and inaction exacerbated the scale and magnitude of the tragedy? Is this a manmade disaster?

Himalaya are the world's youngest mountain range; they are prone to erosion, landslides and seismic activity and brutal rainstorms lash the region. Therefore, this region is vulnerable and fragile. But two human-induced factors make it even more risk prone today.

First, there is a clear link between climate change and changing rainfall patterns in the Himalaya. Scientists are now, more than ever, certain that rainfall in India will become more extreme. In other words, there will be more rain but it will come in smaller number of rainy days. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, which has extensively studied the trends in monsoons in the country, finds that 'moderate' rain events are on the decline and intense rain events are increasing. This is bad news for the Himalaya, as it means that there are higher possibilities of cloudbursts and 'unprecedented' high rainfall over the region - as it happened on June 15. Even though it cannot be said that this particular Himalayan Tsunami is caused by climate change, the link to this event and the growing trend of intense and extreme rain events is clear and undisputable.

Second, there is a link between the disaster and the manner in which 'development' has been done in this ecologically fragile region. Over the past few years, particularly, since the creation of the new state of Uttaranchal, there has desperate drive for extraction of the regions resources - water, forests and minerals. What is clear is that this kind of development has come at the cost of the environment.

Why do I say this? Take hydropower projects, as an example. There is no doubt that generation of energy is an important economic activity for the region -- water is its natural wealth. But the question is if the Central or state government ever considered the cumulative impact of the hydropower projects on the rivers and the mountains. Currently, there are roughly 70 projects built or proposed on the Ganga, all to generate some 10,000 mw of power. The projects are being built bumper to bumper -- where one project ends, another begins. In this way, the river would be modified -- through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs -- to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be "affected".

The projects do not plan to release water in the river during the lean months. As a result, large stretches of the river are rendered completely dry for many months, impacting riverine ecology and societal needs. The construction itself, at this scale, has devastating impacts on the mountains -- because of blasting to build tunnels and barrages. The combined impact is huge as the mountains collapse, landslides block rivers and natural dams are created. Then when the force of the water builds against the natural dam, it bursts and erupts and takes a deadly toll.

Why build 70 projects? Why build without consideration for ecology? Our research has shown that it is possible to provide 50 percent ecological flow in the river during six months of lean periods and 30 percent during the high discharge season and still be able to generate energy. In this way energy generation would mimic the flow of the river. This e-flow regime, if accepted (the report is with government presently for its finalization) would mean re-evaluation of the projects and even scrapping many. But it would mean that we would still have a river that flows at all times. Energy generation would not come at the cost of the environment.

The question also is how the projects should be constructed so that impacts can be minimized. The bottom line is to ensure that this development does not lead to destruction and increase vulnerability of this already fragile region.

Clearly, the need is to do things differently. The region needs development -- people who live there need basic amenities like roads, electricity, health care and education. They need employment and livelihood options. But equally it is clear that the economic future of the Himalaya and its people can never be secured or safeguarded if makes the already vulnerable region more hazard-prone and more deadly. Development cannot come as the cost of environment, not in any region of the country; but particularly not in the Himalaya. The result is otherwise dire and deadly. Something we just cannot afford.

It is also clear that 'coping' with these natural disasters will require disaster preparedness and weather forecasting systems

We need to build forecasting system to inform government of impending cloudbursts or high rainfall events. Then state government must have disaster warning systems to inform people about impending disasters or what should be done in these circumstances -- even in this extremely remote and inaccessible region. The Comptroller and Auditor General had already noted that the state's disaster preparedness paraphernalia was shockingly unequipped. In this case, the warning about possible high rainfall came late, it was inadequate in terms of its information and then state governments did nothing to stop tourists and pilgrims from going up the mountains. Local people were caught completely unaware.

What we are seeing is challenges of an increasingly climate-risky world; where already ecologically fragile and vulnerable regions are made more vulnerable and more disaster-prone. In all this, human mismanagement of natural resources compounds the tragedy; takes precious human lives. We have no options but to fix it all -- from greenhouse emissions that increasingly put our world in jeopardy to resource management that is sustainable -- and fix it all quickly.

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