Uttarakhand Floods disaster: Lessons for Himalayan states

Many in the media and outside are calling the current Uttarakhand floods disaster of huge but as yet unknown proportions as Himalayan Tsunami somewhat erroneously. By that very name, we connect the combined fate of all Himalayan states and lessons that are inherent that other Himalayan states need to learn from this tragedy.

Similarities between Uttarakhand and Himalayan state like Arunachal Pradesh In fact one article[i] has already been written that draws some parallels, predicting what Uttarkhand experiences today[ii], Sikkim may tomorrow and Arunachal day after. The article did not realize that Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir are ahead of North East in this queue. Indeed there are a lot of similarities between the situation in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh in particular and Himalayan states in general:

A view of the under-construction dam tunnels at the site of National Hydroelectric Power Corporation's 2000 megawatt Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh state, India, Friday, Aug. 21, 2009. It is the biggest hydroelectric power project in India, located on a disputed border between Arunachal Pradesh state and Assam state. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

A view of the under-construction dam tunnels at the site of National Hydroelectric Power Corporation’s 2000 megawatt Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh state, India, Friday, Aug. 21, 2009. It is the biggest hydroelectric power project in India, located on a disputed border between Arunachal Pradesh state and Assam state. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

  • Both Himalayan hill states are fragile, part of new mountain that is prone to high intensity rainfall events, including cloud bursts. In fact the average rainfall in Arunachal Pradesh is much higher than that in Uttarakhand.
  • Both states are also prone to flash floods and landslides.
  • Both states are home to very large number of rapidly flowing silt laden rivers that can turn into ravaging, eroding, force of destruction if not handled carefully. Again Arunachal Pradesh has much large number of major rivers than Uttarakhand. Arunachal rivers are also known to carry more silt than Uttarakhand rivers.
  • Both states are in seismically active area in zone IV and V, with tectonic activities that can lead to impact on land, rivers, increasing the disaster potential.
  • Both states have very high proportion of area under forests, which is necessary for the sustained existence of the local environment, people and biodiversity. Livelihood and water security of people in both states majorly depends on these natural resources.
  • Both states are prone to climate change impacts in major way, Himalayas have already seen increase in temperature that are 2-3 times higher than the average global temperature rise of 0.9° C. These climate change impacts include greater frequency of high intensity rainfall, including cloud bursts that can also increase the potential of landslides and flashfloods.
Broken flood protection walls, Karcham Wangtoo a few km downstream of dam_10.11.2010

Broken flood protection walls, Karcham Wangtoo Hydel Project, Himachal Pradesh a few km downstream of dam. Photo: SANDRP Partners

Lessons from Uttarakhand tragedy Some of the lessons that Uttarakhand and other Himalayan states can draw from the current tragedy include:

  • Ensure credible environmental and social impact assessment of all activities including all dams and all hydropower projects of above 1 MW capacity, such assessments should also include how the projects can increase the disaster potential of the area, how they will affect the adaptation capacity of the local people in the context of climate change, how the projects themselves would be affected in changing climate, among other aspects. Currently, we do not have credible environmental and social impact assessment for any project.
  • Ensure credible environmental compliance mechanism in place for each project in which local people have a key role. Today we have NO credible environmental compliance in place.
  • No projects should be cleared until and unless there is credible cumulative impact assessment for all projects in any river basin and sub basin, which includes carrying capacity study. None of this was done in Uttarakhand and none is in place in any river basin of Arunachal Pradesh.
  • An urgent review of under construction and under planning projects should be taken up, stop projects awaiting such a review. The review should include various environment and river governance policies. Moratorium on dams and hydropower projects til above conditions are satisfied. 
  • Certain rivers and certain high risk zones should be declared as no project areas in each basin.
  • In any case, there should be at least 5 km of free flowing rivers between any two projects. At least 50% of river flows in lean season and at least 30% of river flows in monsoon should be released on daily changing as environmental flows as recommended by IMG recently, pending project and river specific studies. This should be applicable for all projects, including existing and under construction projects.
  • Put in place system of early warning, forecasting and dissemination for all kinds of disasters, particularly those related to rainfall and landslides. It is technologically feasible to predict even cloud bursts at least 3 hours in advance, a Doppler radar system was sanctioned for Uttarakhand since 2008 that would have enabled that, but due to lack of coordination between NDMA, IMD and Uttarakhand government, this was not in place.
  • Put in place a clearly defined monitoring system in place that will give prompt report of actual rainfall events even as the event starts so that the downstream area people and administration can be alerted. This again was absent in Uttarakhand.
  • Protection and conservation of rivers, riverbeds and flood plains, including aquatic biodiversity.
  • Do not allow encroachment of riverbeds and floodplains.
  • Prepare clearly defined space for rivers, have river regulation zone in place and remove all illegal encroachments in river beds and flood plains in a time bound manner urgently through legislative, followed by executive action.
  • Do not allow unsustainable mining of riverbeds.
  • Do not allow blasting for any development activity (Uttarakhand Disaster Management & Mitigation Centre made this specific recommendation after the Rudraprayag disaster of Sept 2012 that lead to death of 69 people) as such blasting leads to increase in landslides.
  • Protection of catchments including forests, wetlands and local water bodies that can play the role of cushion during high rainfall events.
  • All states, including those in North East must have an active state disaster management authority in place that will have key role in all development decisions.

While rainfall and cloud bursts are natural phenomena, the disaster potential of such events directly depends on what we have done on ground over the years. Uttarakhand, by, allowing indiscriminate building of roads, buildings and hundreds of hydropower projects without doing basic assessments and participatory decision making processes, have allowed the disaster potential of current high intensity rainfall in the state increase manifold. While some in the media are calling this as Himalayan Tsunami, many people of Uttarakhand are seeing it as a trailer of such Tsunami, if Uttarakhand does not wake up, much bigger tragedy may await the state.

Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Jammu & Kashmir have gone rather too far down that road, but still can wake up and review its development plans and policies and possibly reduce the disaster potential in the respective states. Similarly Arunachal Pradesh has signed over 150 MOUs for big hydropower projects, each of them will entail big dam, long and huge tunnels, blasting, mining, roads, townships, influx of people, transmission lines and so on, without any credible assessment in place. These projects are being pushed under one pretext of another, including the China bogey.

Hydropower Dams in various stages in Arunchal Pradesh. Photo Courtesy: International Rivers

Hydropower Dams in various stages in Arunchal Pradesh. Photo Courtesy: International Rivers

Other Himalayan states like HP, J&K, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram are following the same footsteps. This is surely an invitation to major disaster that will engulf whole of Himalayan region. For Uttarakhand and all Himalayan states there is still time to learn all the lessons that the Uttarakhand experience offers. This is also applicable to neighboring Himalayan countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and China (Tibet).

Teesta_Dam_1

Notice the extensive deforestation and unstability of land at an under construction Teesta Hydel Project in Sikkim

If these are not learnt, what could visit Himalayas could actually make the Uttarakhand disaster like a trailer.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

Landslides in Sikkim in 2012, following earthquake in 2011. Locals blame these on extensive blasting, tunnelling and deforestation for Teesta Hydropower Projects. Photo: Live Mint

Landslides in Sikkim in 2012, following earthquake in 2011. Locals blame these on extensive blasting, tunnelling and deforestation for Teesta Hydropower Projects. Photo: Live Mint

Tunnel for Teesta VI HEP in Sikkim, blasted in the mountains. Photo: Smair Mehta, International Rivers

Tunnel for Teesta VI HEP in Sikkim, blasted in the mountains. Photo: Smair Mehta, International Rivers

Dams underconstruction and planning in Teesta Basin, Sikkim. Map by SANDRP

Dams underconstruction and planning in Teesta Basin, Sikkim. Map by SANDRP

Tunnelling at the 330 MW KishenGanga HEP, Gurez, Jammu and Kashmir Photo: Panoramia.com

Tunnelling at the 330 MW KishenGanga HEP, Gurez, Jammu and Kashmir Photo: Panoramia.com

 

6 Comments on “Uttarakhand Floods disaster: Lessons for Himalayan states

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