Monday, February 8, 2021

Uttarakhand Floods | A disaster foretold


International geologists and glaciologists studying satellite imagery say the cause of the flooding disaster to be a landslide and not a glacial outburst 

February 09, 2021 / 08:22 AM IST

Multiple agencies are working at rescuing over 30 workers feared trapped inside a big tunnel at Tapovan. (Image: PIB in Uttarakhand)

Multiple agencies are working at rescuing over 30 workers feared trapped inside a big tunnel at Tapovan. (Image: PIB in Uttarakhand)

Climate Change? Glacier lake outburst flood? Natural disaster? Manmade calamity? Deforestation? Dams? Roads? Greed? Gods?

The jury is out on what caused the latest Himalayan disaster, when a part of Nandadevi glacier broke off in the Uttarakhand's Chamoli district on February 7 morning, causing massive floods in the Dhauliganga and Rishiganga rivers.

At the time of writing, at least 19 people have been killed, and 150 are missing. The floods also caused major damage to the National Thermal Power Corporation's (NTPC) recently commissioned Tapovan Vishnugad 520 MW hydro-electric project and the under-construction 13.2 MW Rishiganga mini-hydel project, as well as to several homes, roads and at least half a dozen bridges. Most of the missing persons were workers deployed at NTPC's hydropower site.

While media and commentators were quick to attribute the disaster to Climate Change and melting glaciers, specifically GLOFs (glacial lake outburst floods), activists and experts in the Himalayan region have blamed the ecological destruction caused by the unholy rush to build ill-advised dams and roads in this fragile region for the loss of life and property.

Meanwhile, international geologists and glaciologists studying satellite imagery say the cause of the flooding disaster to be a landslide and not a glacial outburst. Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary, who specialises in high altitude glacial and geologic environments, used satellite images from Planet Labs, captured before and after the disaster, and identified a steeply hanging bit of a glacier which likely developed a crack and caused a landslide, triggering an avalanche and the subsequent flooding. Images from the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite also showed the formation or opening of a crack in the Nanda Devi glacier that is believed to have triggered the landslide.

The truth is that Uttarakhand's upper reaches, source of several small rivers that feed the Ganga, already has 16 dams, and another 13 are under construction. The Uttarakhand government has proposed another 54 dams on these rivers. On the Dhauliganga River, eight back-to-back new hydel projects are proposed in addition to NTPC's Tapovan project. Blasting of mountains, stone quarrying and digging of tunnels in the fragile mountain system base for the two back-to-back under-construction dams on Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers has played havoc with the local ecology.

Incidentally, the Tapovan project started in 2006 and was scheduled to be commissioned in 2013, but the devastating flood in 2013 affected the construction process. Earlier, the project's cost was estimated to be Rs 2,978.5 crore, which was later revised to Rs 5,867.4 crore due to time and cost overruns. The NTPC has already spent more than Rs 4,467 crore on the site.

Although further investigations are required, the fingerprint of Climate Change cannot be ruled out; after all, the India Meteorological Department has recorded January 2021 to be the warmest January in Uttarakhand in six decades.

According to the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), in many high mountain areas, glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to further decrease the stability of slopes, and the number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase. Floods due to glacier lake outburst or rain-on-snow, landslides and snow avalanches, are projected to occur also in new locations or different seasons.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's resource centre on Himalayan glaciers reveals that glacier melting in the Central Himalayan catchment area, where Chamoli is located, has increased in the first 20 years of this century.

According to the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), co-ordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), glacier retreat (and some advance) in the face of Climate Change will make the fragile mountains more prone to natural disasters such as landslides, and will make the impact of other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, far greater.

Variations in rainfall will continue to rise, setting in place the possibility of catastrophic flooding. At the same time, springs have been reducing their flows in the hills, which may increase, leading to drought among communities that already have higher-than-national-average rates of poverty.

Ironically, lest we forget, Chamoli, home to Badrinath, Hemkund Sahib, Nandadevi Biosphere reserve and Valley of Flowers, is also the birthplace of the ‘Chipko movement’, and the famous slogan of Sunderalal Bahuguna, “Ecology is the permanent economy.”

We were warned.

Shailendra Yashwant is senior advisor, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal. 

First published in Moneycontrol Opinion


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Budget 2021 could have gone ambitious with green initiatives


At a time when countries including the United States and China are increasing their climate change ambitions ahead of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, sadly, there was no mention of ecosystem restoration, forest and wildlife protection, phaseout of coal, etc

February 01, 2021 / 08:07 PM IST

Early in the morning on February 1, I spoke to a few experts in the environmental and climate change movements regarding their expectations from the Union Budget 2021, and got the usual checklist of fantasies of the ‘green lobby’: clean air, clean water, plastic ban, phase-out of coal, wildlife and forest protection, ecosystem and river restoration, renewable energy and resilience building.

With no personal expectations, except counting how many times 'climate change' is mentioned in the speech — in 2020 it was five —I settled in front of the TV for an afternoon of no surprises.

First the good news. In the background of the pandemic and increasing climate-induced disasters that has exposed the abysmal conditions of India's public health infrastructure, various health experts and doctors were expecting an increase in the outlay for the health sector, and their expectations have been fulfilled to a large extent with a whopping increase of about 137 percent in healthcare spending totalling ₹223,846 crore.

To tackle air pollution, ₹2,217 crore had been allotted for 42 urban centres with a population over one million to tackle the crisis. Also mentioned was the reduction of air pollution by effectively managing waste from construction and demolition activities.

For clean water, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission Urban programme with an outlay of ₹2.87 lakh-crore for five years. The minister also said that as the World Health Organization has repeatedly stressed the importance of clean water, sanitation, and a clean environment as a prerequisite to achieving universal health, the mission aims at better water supply across India. About 4,378 urban local bodies would benefit, and liquid waste management would be carried out across 500 AMRUT cities.

Stressing on 'Swachch Bharat, Swasth Bharat', the further strengthening of the 'swachhata' (cleanliness) campaign of urban India, to focus on complete faecal sludge management, wastewater treatment, source segregation of garbage, reduction in single-use plastic and bioremediation of legacy dump sites, was announced. The Urban Swachch Bharat Mission 2.0 has been allocated Rs 141,678 crore.

On renewable energy, the focus seems to be on capturing the emerging energy transition trends — from hydrogen to smart metering. The sector received an additional infusion of Rs 1,000 crore to Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and Rs 1,500 crore to Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA). She also announced the launch of a National Hydrogen Mission in 2021-22 for generating hydrogen from green power source.

The Budget also lays focus on an increased outlay for the expansion of the City Gas Distribution (CGD) network and Ujjwala beneficiaries, to cover over 10 million more families. This will ensure that India has a 100 percent blue fame coverage of all willing household access to clean cooking fuel — that’s up from 55 percent households with access in 2014.

A new scheme will be launched on public transportation at the cost of Rs. 18,000 crore to support the augmentation of public bus transport services. It is unclear whether this will be for electric buses or not, and one hopes it is to tackle air pollution and improve mobility.

The Indian Railways will soon be a major contributor to India's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as the eastern and western dedicated freight corridors will be commissioned by June 2022 and 100 percent electrification of broad-gauge routes will be completed by December 2023. According to the World Resource Institute, dedicated freight rail corridors can lower India's cumulative railway emissions over the period 2019-2046 from 1.26 billion tonnes to 0.29 billion tonnes.

So in general that was it on the environment and climate change front. It was more or less business as usual, with no vision of a green recovery or a post-pandemic new world that many were expecting.

In the 75th year of Independence, a year after the hottest year of the century, at a time when countries including the United States and China are increasing their climate change ambitions ahead of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, sadly, there was no mention of ecosystem restoration, forest and wildlife protection, phase-out of coal, adaptation or resilience building and to my personal dismay, 'climate change' was not mentioned even once in the almost two-hour-long budget speech.

Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

 Published in Money Control Opinion on 1st Feb 2021.