Uttarakhand and Climate Change: How long can we ignore this in the Himalayas?

The current disaster in Uttarakhand has exposed our unpreparedness in many spheres: be it disaster management, weather forecasting, early warning system, tourism management or transparent and participatory environmental governance of a fragile region.

However, we cannot ignore Climate Change and its associated challenges when dealing with these issues.

Himalayas are experiencing Climate Change at an unprecedented rate, this is increasing the incidents of flash floods, GLOFs, landslides and related disasters. India has a huge National Action Plan for Climate Change in place since 2009, under it is a special National Mission for ‘Sustaining Himalayan Ecology’, National Mission on Water, among six others. But what has happened down these years? Are we even considering climate change and its impacts while clearing hundreds of projects on hydel power, river bed mining , urban development, roads and related infrastructure in this region? We are not even assessing the impact of such projects on disaster potential in already vulnerable areas. 

In our earlier blog, we have said that there are a number of reasons behind the sudden deluge in Kedarnath and surrounding areas including Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) (https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/uttarakhand-deluge-how-human-actions-and-neglect-converted-a-natural-phenomenon-into-a-massive-disaster/). In the absence of precise weather monitoring or documentation, detailed analysis on this difficult.

Uttarakhand disaster linked to Climate Change However, a number of officials have accepted the climate change link with the current disaster. Secretary of Government of India Ministry of Earth Sciences Shailesh Nayak has now said that  the cloudburst that triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand read like a weather phenomenon brought about by warming. He also narrated how the high intensity rainfall is increasing while low and medium intensity events are decreasing. (See: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Earth-sciences-secretary-blames-Uttarakhand-rains-on-climate-change/articleshow/20709643.cms)

Shri M Shashidhar Reddy, Vice Chairman of National Disaster Management Authority, (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Need-to-assess-climate-change-Shashidhar-Reddy-says/articleshow/20749744.cms) speaking at the inauguration of South Asia Regional Consultation on Climate Change Adaptation, said: “Nothing more serious could have been witnessed. It is an example of extreme weather events we all are concerned about.” He also acknowledged the role of ecological imbalance: “There is no doubt that ecological imbalance has been created in the Himalayas… it made the impact higher.” Reddy also said precious lives could have been saved in Uttarakhand had the weather office made precise forecasts: “They [India Meteorological Department] need to develop a more precise observational and forecasting capability”. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/only-precise-forecast-of-rain-would-have-helped-says-ndma-chief/article4847316.ece?homepage=true)

However, it is an undisputed fact that climate change is impacting the Himalayas at much faster pace than what the global averages tells us. We take a look at our responses to adapt to and mitigate CC Challenges.

1. Unprecedented Climate Change in Himalayas

(This section is largely based on ICIMODs report: The changing Himalayas – Impact ofclimate change on water resources and livelihoods in the Greater Himalayas)

Warming in Himalayas is happening at an unprecedented rate, higher than the global average of 0.74 ˚C over the last 100 years (IPCC, 2007a; Du et al., 2004), at least 2-3 times higher than global averages.  Progressively higher warming with higher altitude is a phenomenon prevalent over the whole greater Himalayan region (New et al., 2002).

1.1          Impact on Precipitation: In many areas, a greater proportion of total precipitation appears to be falling as rain than before. As a result, snowmelt begins earlier and winter is shorter; this affects river regimes, natural hazards, water supplies, and people’s livelihoods and infrastructure. The extent and health of high altitude wetlands, green water flows from terrestrial ecosystems, reservoirs, and water flow and sediment transport along rivers and in lakes are also affected.

Throughout the himalayas, there is increasing perception and documentation that precipitation is changing, becoming more erratic and intense. “Flooding may arise as a major development issue. It is projected that more variable, and increasingly direct, rainfall runoff will also lead to more downstream flooding.”(http://lib.icimod.org/record/27016/files/c_attachment_782_6044.pdf, Changing With The Seasons: How Himalayan communities cope with climate change, Chicu Lokgariwar, People’s Science Institute)

 1.2       Retreating glaciers: As compared to global averages, Himalyan glaciers are receding at a rapid rate. Retreat in glaciers can destabilize surrounding slopes and may give rise to catastrophic landslides (Ballantyne and Benn, 1994; Dadson and Church, 2005), which can dam streams and sometimes lead to outbreak floods.

Excessive melt waters, often in combination with liquid precipitation, may trigger flash floods or debris flows. Available studies suggest changes in climatic patterns and an increase in extreme events. An increase in the frequency of high intensity rainfall often leading to flash floods and land slides has been reported (Chalise and Khanal, 2001; ICIMOD, 2007a).


Rapid retreat of Himalayan Glaciers as compared to global averages Courtesy: ICIMOD

1.3       Higher frequency of flash floods and GLOF events: In the eastern and central Himalayas, glacial melt associated with climate change, has led to the formation of glacial lakes behind terminal moraines. Many of these high-altitude lakes are potentially dangerous. The moraine dams are comparatively weak and can breach suddenly, leading to the discharge of huge volumes of water and debris. The resulting glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) can cause catastrophic flooding downstream.

There is an indication that the frequency of GLOF events has increased in recent decades. In the Hindukush Himalayan (HKH) region two hundred and four glacial lakes have been identified as potentially dangerous lakes, which can burst at any time (ICIMOD, 2007b)


Cumulative Frequency of Flash FLoods and GLOFs in Hindukush Himalayan region Courtesy: ICIMOD

(From: The changing Himalayas – Impact of climate change on water resources and livelihoods in the Greater Himalayas Perspectives on water and climate change adaptation. ICIMOD http://www.worldwatercouncil.org/fileadmin/world_water_council/documents_old/Library/Publications_and_reports/Climate_Change/PersPap_01._The_Changing_Himalayas.pdf)

2.            Our Response so far

2.1       National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem under the NAPCC:

The ambitious National Action Plan for Climate Change  has a separate National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco System (NMSHE) under the Ministry of Science of Technology, Government of India.

(There are several issues with this Action Plan itself. For a detailed Critique: http://www.sandrp.in/CRTITUQE_ON_INDIAs_CLIMATE_PLAN-There_is_Little_Hope_Here_Feb_2009.pdf, the link is not working, pl contact us for the file)

The NMSHE Mission document prepared in 2010 states:

“The mission would attempt to evolve management measures for sustaining and safeguarding the Himalayan glaciers and mountain ecosystem by:

• Enhancing monitoring of Himalayan ecosystem with a focus on recession of Himalayan glaciers and its impact on river system and other downstream socio-ecological processes.

• Establishing observational and monitoring network to assess ecosystem health including freshwater systems.

• Deploying technologies – for hazard mitigation & disaster management, development of ideal human habitats, and agriculture and forest sector innovations

2.1.1    Some Proposed Actions to address Objectives and Goals of the Mission:

  • Continuous Monitoring of the Eco-system and Data Generation
  • Enhanced implementation of guidelines for Priority Action in the National Mission on Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem
  • Sustainable Urbanization in Mountain Habitats:This includes:
  • Town Planning and Adoption and Enforcement of Architectural Norms:

Given the ecological fragility of mountainous areas, it was agreed that rather than permit the unplanned growth of new settlements, there should be consolidation of existing urban settlements, which are governed through land-use planning incorporated in a municipal master plan.

Further action points may include:

(a) Municipal bye-laws will be amended, wherever required, to prohibit construction activity in areas falling in hazard zones or across alignments of natural springs, water sources and watersheds near urban settlements. There will be strict enforcement of these bye-laws, including through imposition of heavy penalties and compulsory demolition of illegal structures.

(e) Construction activity will be prohibited in source-catchment areas of cities, including along mountain lakes and other water bodies. Their feeder channels will also be kept free of building activity.

In order to enable these decisions to be implemented urgently, it is necessary to draw up, as soon as possible, a comprehensive State-wide inventory of such water resources and their channels, which could then be declared fully protected zones.

Promotion of Sustainable Pilgrimage:

Measures for promoting the healthy and sustainable development of religious pilgrimage to the many sacred and holy sites scattered all over the Himalayas, are also necessary. Some of these actions are:

(a) A comprehensive inventory of key pilgrimage sites in each State would be drawn up, which would include analyses of the ecological capacity of each site, based on its location and fragility.

(b) In advance of the results of the above exercise, develop a plan to harmonise the inflow of pilgrims with the capacity of the local environment to cater to the needs of pilgrims. These include the source of several Himalayan rivers, sacred lakes and forest groves.

(c) The construction of roads should be prohibited beyond at least10 kilometres from protected pilgrim sites, thereby creating a much-needed ecological and spiritual buffer zone around these sites. These areas, like national parks and sanctuaries, will be maintained as special areas, where there would be minimal human interference, respecting the pristine nature of thesesites.

(d) Each designated pilgrimage site should have a declared buffer zone where development activity will be carefully regulated.

“Green Road Construction”The construction of roads must fully take into account the environmental fragility of the region. To this end, the concerned State Governments will consider promulgating, as soon as possible, the following guidelines for road construction in hill areas.

(a) Environmental Impact Assessment to be made mandatory for the construction of all state & national roads and expressways of more than 5 km length, including in the extension and widening of existing roads. This will not apply to inter-village roads.

(b) Road construction will provide for the treatment of hill slope instabilities resulting from road-cutting, cross drainage works and culverts, using bio-engineering and other appropriate technologies. Cost estimates for road construction in these areas will henceforth include estimates on this account.

(c) Plans for road construction must provide for disposal of debris from construction sites at suitable and identified locations, so as to avoid ecological damage and scarring of the landscape. Proposals for road construction must henceforth include cost estimates in this regard.

(e) All hill roads must provide adequate roadside drains and, wherever possible, be connected to the natural drainage system of the area.

(f) Alignment of proposed roads should avoid fault zones and historically landslide prone zones.Where this may not be possible, adequate measures will be taken to minimize associated risks, in consultation with experts.

Water security:

The importance of the Himalayas as a natural storehouse and source of water must be acknowledged fully. The region is already under water-stress, with the drying up or blockage of many water sources and natural springs. The following immediate actions, appear to be necessary:

The Himalayan eco system is vulnerable and susceptible to the impacts and consequences of a) changes on account of natural causes, b) climate change resulting from anthropogenic emissions and c) developmental paradigms of the modern society.

Recognizing the importance of scientific and technological inputs required for sustaining the fragile Himalayan Ecosystem, the Ministry of Science and Technology has been charged with the nodal responsibility of coordinating this mission.”

Unfortunately, we saw that NONE of the above is currently happening in the Uttarkhand Himalayas, or for that matter any of the Himalayan States. There are no clear action plans, timelines and budget breakups of this program available and at best, this seems like a vague wish list, rather than an urgent program.

2.2          Uttarakhand State Action Plan for Climate Change:

Uttarakhand has submitted a State Action Plan for Climate change in June 2012, with the help of UNDP. (http://www.uttarakhandforest.org/Data/SC_Revised_UAPCC_27june12.pdf)

Relevant sections of this Plan:

“Extreme precipitation events have geomorphological significance in the Himalayas where they may cause widespread landslides.  Increase in rainfall is likely to causes fresh floods land slides and damages to the landmass. Winter precipitation has become extremely erratic and unpredictable. Increase in the flooding varying between 10 to over 30 percent of the existing magnitudes is expected in all the regions. This has a very severe  implication for the existing infrastructure such as dams, bridges, roads, etc., for the areas  and shall require appropriate adaptation measures to be taken up.


“The UAPCC recognises that scientific knowledge and evidence base on impacts of climate change to the water sector is limited. As such, a comprehensive water data base in public domain and assessment of the impact of climate change on water resource through the various agencies responsible for different aspects of water resources management in the State will be developed, and updated and analysed on an on-going basis.

Strategies towards this will include:

  • Review of network of hydrological observation stations
  • Review of the network of automatic weather stations and automated rain gauge stations
  • Collection of necessary additional hydro-meteorological and hydrological data for proper assessment of impact of climate change in Himalayan region including other improvements required in hydrometric networks to appropriately address the issues related to the climate change.

Such data will include:

o Hydrological and hydro-meteorological data in low rainfall areas

o Hydrological and hydro-meteorological data above permanent snowline, glaciated areas, seasonal snow areas in Himalayan region

  • · Improved network for collection of evaporation and rain gauge data using automated sensors
  • · Establishment/strengthening of ground water monitoring and geohydrologynetworks
  • · Collection of data about river morphology for monitoring erosion and carrying capacity, and
  • · Surface and ground water quality data collection, etc.

Other initiatives will include adoption/development of modern technology for measurement of flow in hilly areas, development of water resources information system, and reassessment of basin wise water situation, apart from projection of water resources availability as a result of impact of climate change which would inter-alia include the likely changes in the characteristics of water availability in time and space.

Other necessary studies to improve understanding of climate impacts to the sector will also be carried out from time to time, and robust data mechanisms will be established. Currently, Uttarakhand does not have a State Water Policy. As such, it will be a priority agenda for the State to develop an appropriate policy framework, with explicit cognisance of climate concerns.”

Unfortunately, here too we did not find evidence that ANY of the strategies were put in practice. As we have said earlier, we still do not have a picture of how much rainfall occurred where and when. Rudraprayag district seems to have a single raingauge station, and high density tourist spots like Kedarnath, which are already vulnerable do not even have a raingauge. There exists no early warning system and as clarified by CAG report on Disaster Management, 2013, the State Disaster Management Authority has not met even once since its constituion in 2007.

3.    Hydropower and Climate Change: Time to bust the myths

 Hydropower projects are being aggressively pushed for their supposedly benign role in global warming and climate change. However, world over, there is increasing consensus that Hydropower dams are not only extremely vulnerable to climate change but (http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1007423&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F2195%2F21734%2F01007423), but actually contribute to global warming and climate change, depending on their size and nature. They are being increasingly recognized as being ‘False Solutions to Climate change.’





Dirty Hydro: http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/dirty-hydro-dams-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2648

Many hydropower projects being planned, under construction or commissioned in Uttarakhand ( and across Indian Himalayas) are storage dams with reservoirs. Even the so called ‘run of the river’ projects involve reservoirs and big dams. These reservoirs emit methane (21 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and carbon dioxide.  It is now proved that methane is not only emitted from reservoirs, but that it is  boosted at each dam turbines and draw-down (Ref: http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=32301)

 4.            Environmental Clearances to Hydropower Dams do not consider Climate Change impacts or mitigation methods:

Despite the burgeoning literature, debates around the world, several submissions from civil society including SANDRP, there is not even as assessment of the impacts of hydel projects on climate change, leave alone mitigation measures. The Expert Appraisal Committee on River valley and Hydropower Projects constituted by the MoEF which recommends Terms and Reference and further Environmental Clearances to these projects has not included the impacts of climate change or the mitigation measures against impacts while recommending TORs or granting Environmental Clearances. It also does not include assessment of impact of the projects on disaster potential of the region or adaptation capacity of the people. The EAC in fact has zero rejection rate even when we know we do not have credible EIA, SIA or CIA for any projects or basins.

5. Carbon Credits: Incentivising destruction, pollution, discounting impacts

Many of the Hydropower projects in the Himalayas, including Uttarakhand have applied for carbon credits under the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism. Under this, clean energy projects in developing countries get millions of rupees as incentives from developed world, which in turn get carbon offset credits, which are a license to pollute further. The entire system, put in place after the Kyoto Protocol is inherently flawed due to absence of due attention impact of projects on adaptation of local people, to local voices and due to market based approach. Many destructive hydropower projects in Uttarakhand are being certified as clean projects, making a mockery of climate change adaptation and sustainable development. Notable among-st these include the 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari HEP , 76 MW Phata Byung HEP, both on Mandakini river (epicenter of current disaster), 300 MW Alaknanda (GMR) hydropower project, 330 MW Alaknanda Srinagar Hydropower project, 414 MW Rampur project in Himachal Pradesh, where the World Bank played an active role in getting it registered for Carbon credits.

Carbon credits to large hydropower projects in fact accelerate climate change and its impact on ecosystems and communities and is unacceptable.

6.            Dubious role of World Bank and Asian Development Bank

 World Bank is being reported to have come up with a report which says that “An extremely wet monsoon that at present has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of this century,” It also projected a rise in severe floods within the next 25 years.

The same organisation is pushing some of the biggest and most destructive hydropower projects in the Himalayan region like the 775 MW Luhri HEP, in addition to 2 large Hydel projects upstream on Luhri in the Sutlej Basin in Himachal Pradesh. Luhri HEP will have one of the longest tunnels in Asia and there is no impacts assessment of the impact of this blasting and tunnelling on the villages above, or geological stability.

World Bank is also pushing and financing the 440 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydropower in Uttarakhand. Incidentally, Pipalkoti region experienced some severe impacts of the current deluge and also suffered damages as per MATU report. The World Bank is supporting these projects even when there are no credible project specific ESIA or cumulative impact assessment studies or carrying capacity studies or studies on the impacts of these cascade projects on disaster risks or climate change.

Asian Development Bank is also supporting a number of hydropower projects n Uttarakhand (they are reported to have suffered damages) and in Himachal Pradesh on similar lines.

Cascade projects along the rivers, with no distance between two projects effectively means that the entire landscape surrounding the rivers is blasted, submerged and tunneled.

There is a huge gap between what World Bank’s says and what it does as far as hydropower and climate change is concerned.

In Conclusion:

Current Uttarakhand disaster has seen government officials to the World Bank suggesting that impacts of climate change are severe, but ironically, when asked specifically if they would link current disaster with climate change, they say that cannot be established and hide behind ‘scientific uncertainity’.

As has been seen world over, the poor and most vulnerable sections of the society and the ecology are worst impacted by climate change. It is high time that we adopt no regret strategies to cope with impacts of climate change, through mitigation and adaptation.

(Uttarakhand Floods: Lessons for Himalayan States: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/uttarakhand-floods-disaster-lessons-for-himalayan-states/)

National Action Plan of Climate Change needs to be audited for its efficacy and work from organisations like CAG. MoEF urgently needs to include impacts of climate change while it is busy sanctioning all the projects that come to it. Organizations like World Bank need to walk their talk on climate change and stop financing destructive hydro projects in this fragile region, in absence of any studies on their impact on Climate Change and lives and livelihoods of millions dependent on natural systems.

Climate change is knocking at some of our doors, while it has already arrived through other doors. We can choose to close our eyes and ears and say “this is normal and expected in this region”. But if we do not respond to challenges posed by Climate Change urgently, it wont be just politely knocking, but causing extreme damage, as it is being witnessed.

 Parineeta Dandekar

7 Comments on “Uttarakhand and Climate Change: How long can we ignore this in the Himalayas?

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