Five Years After Uttarakhand Floods: Five Years of Disregard for the Himalaya

The Uttarakhand floods reflected the damage we had dealt to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Five years later, this ecosystem teeters on the brink, and we're one mistake away from precipitating a potentially irreversible catastrophe.

The Himalaya represents a dynamic, changing landscape. The roles played by tectonic and climate forces in making it what it is are evident. A product of millions of years of crustal shortening, the Himalaya sustains the brunt of geological stresses leading to great earthquakes on occasion and more frequent moderate earthquakes. A dynamic balance, however, exists between the forces that help raise the mountain and the opposing erosive forces like glaciers and rivers that wear it down.

One can also glimpse the contrasting external extremes of glory and squalor in the mountains – the wretched human existence in those villages amidst the uplifting beauty of the distant snow clad peaks. The writer Bill Aitken, who traveled extensively in the Himalayas, has remarked that “the art of beholding the Himalaya lies in accepting the paradox of aesthetic wealth alongside economic poverty, of reconciling the glory of aliveness with the evenly poised mischance of death.”

The earthquakes, avalanches and floods are part of recurrent natural processes, which can turn into natural disasters because of the impact it will have on the unplanned settlements in ecologically sensitive regions. The greater intensity of any calamity – be it an earthquake or a massive flood – is proportional to the population density and the level of expansion of construction activities in the vulnerable areas. The irony is that, in spite of the so-called ‘developmental spree’, the majority of the local population continues to live in abject poverty constrained by the depletion of natural resources.

For example, the innumerable dams across the Himalayan rivers provide no relief to the local population, who must trudge many kilometres to collect water. Moreover, there is a huge influx of visitors from the plains, estimated to be more than 20 million a year, adding to the burden of sustaining 10 million local inhabitants. The hills of Uttarakhand are also losing their people thanks to migration from the hills to the plains. According to the 2011 Census, among the 16,793 villages in Uttarakhand, 1,053 have no inhabitants and another 405 have a population of less than 10.

These numbers reportedly spiked after the flash floods in 2013. This was a disaster in the making, and illustrated gaping deficiencies in our path to sustainable development. High-velocity water flows washed away buildings, roads, people and vehicles, and smothered a river valley that had already become a crowded place dotted with hotels and shops. The rise in tourism had led to a construction boom in unsafe zones, such as in river valleys and floodplains and slopes vulnerable to landslips. A major consensus that emerged after the 2013 floods was to adopt appropriate land-use planning and watershed management practices betted suited for mountainous regions, and to follow “best practice” norms for constructional practices in order to minimise damage to ecosystems.

The tragedy should have taught us some valuable lessons. Most importantly, it should have taught us not to meddle with the fragile balance that exists within the Himalayan environment. It should have taught us what happens when we don’t respect a floodplain’s relationship with rivers by allowing unhindered construction. It looks like the greed for revenue has forced authorities to throw caution to the wind, forgetting the varied long-term benefits to be gained from sustaining the natural environment. We must pause to think why an unprecedented water crisis is gripping various parts of the Himalaya. Shimla attracted media attention only because of its tourism; water scarcity has been a glaring reality for many years in innumerable villages in the region.

And after five years, it has still been business as usual. Construction activity still continues at a frenzied pace, often violating land-use regulations. Disregard for the environment is visible in other aspects as well. At the state government’s request, the environment ministry wanted to amend the 2012 Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone notification, which essentially restricts construction activities, including that of 10 hydroelectric power projects that could affect the natural flow of a river from Gaumukh to Uttarksahi. The ministry, through this amendment, also sought to redefine “steep hill slopes” so as to allow construction on hill slopes as well as ease restrictions on riverbed mining along this stretch to facilitate mining up to a depth of two metres.

At another level, a massive road building work has been planned – a 900-km-long all-weather Chardham highway project – at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. If implemented, this project will have serious consequences for the Himalayan ecosystem, including the loss of a vast tract of forested land. A case against the project is currently pending in the National Green Tribunal. The Uttarakhand high court has also ordered a stay on all construction activities along the riverbanks, including the construction of hydropower and road construction projects in Uttarakhand, until disposal sites for the excavated material are identified. Our priorities look lopsided, and the Chardham highway project is part of that lopsidedness.

Now, we need to rethink how to mitigate disasters that will hit the mountains by using lessons from our past, and using a healthy mix of technology, scientific studies, trained and committed manpower, professionalism and the development of appropriate engineering skill sensitive to the Himalayan ecology and, of course, public awareness and education. At the same time, we also need to introspect about the different paths to sustainable development that will put the Himalayan environment at its centre. In this regard, a major initiative in 2006 by the Government of Nepal is worth mentioning. It handed over the management of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area to local communities. It has been reported that the pressure on local forests has lessened and that the people have become more proactive about conserving forests and wildlife.

Experts believe that the resilience of the Himalayan ecosystem is likely to overshoot thanks to an unprecedented combination of climate change and its consequences (e.g. flooding, drought, wildfire, etc.), along with other global change drivers (e.g. land use, pollution, fragmentation of natural systems and over-exploitation of resources). The melting of Himalayan glaciers is also likely to impact local rivers, either in the form of massive seasonal flooding or forcing them to dry up. But we must remember that the Himalayan environment is on the brink of collapse. It may not be able to withstand another push.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.