If you ask anyone in Kedarnath valley in the Indian state of Uttarakhand about their worst nightmare, chances are they would mention the flash floods of June 2013. Even nearly a decade later, residents in the region wonder what caused the havoc that killed more than 5,000 people and damaged properties worth millions of dollars.
Now, researchers maintain that melting glaciers played a major role in the disaster.
A study by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur showed that the rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas can lead to sudden floods, which in turn causes serious damage to life and property.
Rapid retreat of glaciers also means the formation of glacial lakes, which pose potential threats to the population downstream. These glaciers can burst and cause massive destruction to lives and property. Scientists use the term ‘glacial lake outburst flooding’ (GLOF) to describe incidents when water breaches glacial lakes and flows into downstream rivers.
A 2019 study indicated that parts of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and western Himalaya sub-regions contain 2,420 glacier lakes, of which 52 are potentially dangerous.
Glacial lakes can burst as a result of an earthquake or rainstorm or if they are unable to contain water any longer, which was the cause behind the disaster in Kedarnath in June 2013. The region had received an unusual amount of rainfall, which led to the depletion of the Chorabari glacier and attendant landslides. Debris then filled the glacial lake and it could not contain water anymore.
Unregulated tourism and construction
In a 2020 report, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of the Indian government noted that the Indian Himalayan Region faces critical challenges while coping with the effects of climate change.
It also acknowledged that urban centres, towns and some villages in mountainous areas “are being burdened beyond their capacity by tourism and rural-to-urban migration.”
NDMA recommended a series of regulations that would create a buffer zone and restrict tourism in Glacial Lake Outburst Floods-prone areas and nearby regions in order to reduce the scale of pollution in those areas.
But in 2022, 100 million tourists, including pilgrims, visited Uttarakhand, and experts continue to caution that unregulated tourism that exceeds the region’s carrying capacity can have disastrous impacts.
“[The] government is planning massive tourism activities like the Char Dham project,” Hemant Dhyani, an environmental activist and former member of the Supreme Court-appointed High-Powered Committee on the Char Dham Project, told FairPlanet. “We are looking at the Himalayas as a major economic resource and exploiting it beyond its carrying capacity. This carrying capacity assessment was never done.”
Dhyani said that in 2022 more than 15,000 people were permitted to go to Badrinath and Kedarnath – two to three times more than the carrying capacity environmental experts have estimated.
For Uttarakhand, tourism is one of the major drivers of economic growth. Located in the lap of the Himalayas, this ecologically fragile region is known and revered for several Hindu temples that granted it the sobriquet of ‘Abode of Gods.’ The area is particularly famous for the pilgrimage circuit of Char Dham – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
But environmental activists and experts have continually raised concerns over the government’s revenue-driven over-exploitation of the tourism sector at the cost of ecological hazards.
Dhyani said that religious tourism sites, such as Char Dham, have been hugely commercialised and exploited to the point of becoming unsustainable.
In March 2022, a glacier slid down in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district and blocked a long stretch of the road. It took days before the road could be cleared of snow.
Environmental experts said the glacier broke off as an indication of human-made climate change in the Himalayan region, triggered by unplanned and unchecked development projects and unregulated tourism.
In the aftermath of the June 2013 tragedy in Uttarakhand, India’s Planning Commission published a Strategy Paper that mentioned that the disaster was aggravated due to the unplanned development in the region. The paper also called for regulating tourism and supporting infrastructure in eco-fragile areas like the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit.
Why glaciers melt
One of the biggest factors causing glaciers to melt is the emission of black carbon aerosols into the atmosphere.
Black carbon is emitted as a result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, the use of brick kilns, household cooking with firewood and the burning of animal dung and coal briquettes. The combustion of fossil fuels in motor vehicles and aircrafts also contributes to the emission of black carbon.
Scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous institution operating under the Ministry of Science and Technology, in a 2016 study conducted at Chirbasa station near Gangotri Glacier noted that black carbon from crop incineration and forest fires may influence the melting of Gangotri Glacier – the source of river Ganga, a site holding religious significance for millions of Indians.
A statement by the ministry noted that black carbon concentration in the region had increased by 400 times during summer, and crop burning and forest fires were the reasons behind this seasonal increase, according to the study.
“This can trigger glacial melt because of the light-absorbing nature of black carbon,” the statement further read. Since 2000, fires have damaged over 44,554 hectares of forest area, according to data from the Uttarakhand State Forest Department.
Frequent helicopter rides to and from pilgrimage sites in the area also contribute to the emission of black carbon, which in turn accelerates the recession of glaciers.
The situation is similar in the region of Kashmir, where unregulated tourism activities play a role in glacier retreat.
A joint study from 2020 by the University of Kashmir and Nichols College in Massachusetts revealed that the Kolahoi glacier, the biggest in the region and which feeds most of its agricultural land, had lost nearly 23% of its area since 1962 and has fragmented into smaller parts.
The study warned the glacier recession has resulted in the formation of proglacial lakes, which could potentially become prone to glacial lake outburst floods.
In 2022, at least 365,000 Hindu pilgrims trekked along the treacherous routes across the mountainous terrain in southern Kashmir to pay homage to an ice stalagmite in a cave, which is regarded as a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. This annual pilgrimage called Amarnath Yatra went on for 44 days.
Environmental activists have repeatedly warned about the environmental hazards of allowing a large number of pilgrims to visit the cave in such an ecologically sensitive area.
In a 2017 report, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society noted that several glaciers, which were not far away from the pilgrimage site, were being damaged due to the over-exploitation of the region by pilgrims.
“The ecology, the environment and the health of the glacier can be under severe threat in case the Baltal route to the holy cave was frequented by thousands of pilgrims,” the report read. “The Thajiwas glacier which is not far away from the helipad at Neelgrath is at threat due to the helicopter sorties. There are three huge glaciers on the Baltal side, en route to the cave and with constant trampling by the Yatris [pilgrims], have been damaged extensively.”
Despite the serious concerns raised by environmental experts, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the Amarnath pilgrimage as beneficial for the tourism sector.
Disaster mitigation efforts
After reports emerged that the town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand was sinking, the government announced it would conduct a carrying-capacity study of different hill towns. It also said that it would immediately halt construction projects in areas where the carrying capacity is exceeded.
Environmental activist Hemant Dhyani said that this is an issue of policy intervention. “We should rectify our approach to development in the Himalayas.”
In 2014, the government in Uttarakhand published an Action Plan on Climate Change, in which it stated the administration will “put into motion a process of building awareness on climate change and its impacts among the population and communities in general,” and that “the state will examine the possibility of incorporating climate change – related modules into the educational curriculum across various levels.”
“Appropriate external agencies will be co-opted as necessary to support the awareness and capacity-building processes,” the action plan further stated.
Dhyani maintained that the initiatives referenced in the government’s climate change action plan and the government’s 2012 notification to declare the Bhagirathi river an eco-sensitive zone should all be implemented.
“That is the blueprint and that should be replicated across all river valleys in the Himalayas to protect the massive land-use change in the region,” he said.
Ayush Joshi, an environmental technologist and climate change researcher, told FairPlanet that there is an urgent need to “stop current forms of infrastructural growth in sensitive regions.”
“[The government should] establish an independent Himalayan Commission that can permit, regulate and prohibit various shapes and forms of development and establish a 100 km buffer [from glaciers towards downstream] as Sensitive Zones across the state,” Joshi added.
In Kashmir, the administration launched an initiative in 2022 to reduce the amount of trash along the route of the Amarnath pilgrimage. It stationed over 300 volunteers along the pilgrimage route who collected and processed the waste, and the organic waste was then converted into compost.
As a pilot project, a start-up based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh installed six solar cookers on the Amarnath route last year, with the goal of reducing the use of firewood for making tea and other food items for pilgrims.
Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri are independent multimedia journalistß based out of New Delhi.
This investigation has been supported by the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC).
This article was originally published on FairPlanet and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.