A Himalayan warning
31 August 2015
The government has not heeded the lessons from the 2013 Uttarakhand floods.
(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.)
Even after two years, memories and scenes of the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013 – possibly the worst floods in the Himalayan region – are still terrifying. It is not just the number of deaths or the intensity of the raging river that generates this feeling. It is the possibility of such disasters occurring again that creates both fear and an urgency to learn lessons. Yet, the right lessons haven’t been leant, especially in official circles within Uttarakhand, other Himalayan states in India and the neighbouring countries with Himalayan terrain. Indeed, the Nepal earthquakes of April-May 2015 should be a reminder. In the quake affected areas, a number of hydropower projects were damaged, exposing their vulnerability to natural disasters. Yet, we still do not want to read these signs.
Humans and their follies
There is little doubt that human activity exacerbated the Uttarakhand disaster in multiple ways. While unseasonal rainfall of high intensity was the immediate cause of the flood, such rainfall is itself linked to human-induced climate change. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in its annual extreme-weather report of September 2014, listed 16 extreme weather events of 2013 where the role of climate change was undeniable. The list includes the Uttarakhand disaster. Even some of India’s bureaucrats, such as the secretary to the Ministry of Earth Sciences, agreed that there was undeniable climate-change footprint in this event.
Besides this link between global climate change and the floods, more immediate human interruptions also amplified the destruction. Uttarakhand, like most of the Himalayan region, is vulnerable to flash floods, landslides, erosion and earthquakes. In such a region, major infrastructure interventions need to be undertaken keeping these vulnerabilities in mind. But this hasn’t happened. A report prepared by the National Institute of Disaster Management of the Government of India titled ‘Uttarakhand Disaster 2013’ acknowledges the region’s ecological and socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and notes: “Developmental activities across the State, apparently devoid of focus on ecological balance and sustainable development, possibly resulted in enhancement of risk and vulnerability across the State.”
In the case of Uttarakhand, major developmental interventions increased the scale of destruction, according to the media, activists and scientists. However, it was the process that started with the Supreme Court of India’s order on 13 August 2013 and culminated in India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests agreeing that the existing and under-construction hydropower projects played a major role in the disaster. But this has been a long, tortuous battle and is ongoing.
Regardless, the governments, both at the central and state level, are still pushing for more hydropower projects in Uttarakhand, even though numerous committees (appointed by the courts) have already said no. Yet the government, in search of a committee that would agree with it, has appointed another committee in its bid to manipulate and mislead the apex court.
The Uttarakhand state government’s Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, in their reports after the August 2012 flood disaster in Uttarkashi and September 2012 landslide disaster in Ukhimath (spelled Okhimath in the report), had warned that riverbed encroachments and blasting for development activities in Uttarakhand would be an invitation to disasters. Well known environmental geologist Professor David Petley of the University of East Anglia, UK, has noted that in the Himalayan region, large dams are coming up in already vulnerable areas, unlike in other parts of the world, increasing their hazard potential:
Note that in most of the world these very large dams are located in areas with comparatively low landslide incidence in the DFLD dataset. However, in Asia these very large dam/reservoir projects are generally located in areas with high rates of fatality-inducing landslide occurrence, suggesting a different level of landslide hazard associated with these programmes in this region.
Yet another major failure was the absence of local, state and central disaster management apparatus on ground during the floods. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the official national auditor, had warned just before the disaster that the state and district disaster management authority in Uttarakhand were non-functional. During the disaster, numerous observers noted how the state bureaucracy was unresponsive to the needs of the affected people.
In fact, the Dehradun-based State Meteorological Office had put out a daily forecast on 14 June 2013, which said the state is likely to face heavy rainfall in many regions. And on the morning of 15 June, it advised that the Char Dham Yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage, should be postponed till this heavy rainfall passes. Had the state disaster management apparatus been active, they could have taken immediate steps and halted the pilgrimage, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people. The central government, including its National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), could also have pushed the state government in this direction. But neither the central, nor the state government agency, took any such steps. This and other instances showed how the absence of responsible disaster management increased the human suffering and physical damage.
There is also little coordination between India Meteorological Department (IMD), which makes weather forecast, and Central Water Commission (CWC), Government of India’s premier technical institute for flood forecasting. When credible flood forecasts are available to people and administration in the affected region, it can help reduce the damage. During the Uttarakhand disaster, CWC failed to forecast floods for any of the affected areas. When the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) highlighted this and the media also picked it up, CWC were on the defensive. Later in September 2014, during a flood in another Himalayan region, Jammu & Kashmir, this failure of CWC was repeated. This time, under fire from the Prime Minister’s Office, they had to put together a plan to add all Himalayan rivers in their flood forecasting regime, which until then only forecasted floods on selected rivers mostly in the plains.
An often asked question is the role of hydropower projects in increasing disaster potential in the Himalayan regions. Hydropower project involves building dams, submergence, deforestation, drying up of rivers, disruption of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, tunneling, blasting, mining, generation of large quantities of muck, and building of roads and townships. Each of these components increases the probability of erosion and landslides in the hills. The cumulative impact of multiple projects in the same river basin is likely to be even higher and one needs to ascertain the carrying capacity of the river basins. This means we need to have credible environmental, social and disaster impact assessment for every single project. However, this is not being done either at the project, or at basin level. The appraisal, monitoring and compliance of the environmental norms, plans and laws are very poor.
While environmental impacts assessment (EIA) for projects with installed capacity above 25 megawatt is required as per law, the EIAs usually lack credibility. Further, a detailed cumulative impact assessments and carrying-capacity studies are not mandatory.
A government appointed expert body, headed by Dr Ravi Chopra, following the apex court directions, in its report showed how the damage was so much greater in the immediate vicinity of existing and under-construction hydropower projects in the Uttarakhand disaster. The report went a step further and highlighted how the moraine and muck originating from para-glacial zones create a greater hazard if major interventions occur in such zones. They also showed that the riverbed levels in Uttarakhand have gone up in many places. This means, firstly, the carrying-capacity of the rivers are reduced and, secondly, the riverbed load will travel during floods in the future, creating new risks for downstream areas.
This is exactly what happened in Uttarakhand in the last week of June 2015, when large number of landslides not only disrupted the Char Dham pilgrimage, but the power generation by hydropower projects was reduced by about half. Most tellingly, the 400 megawatt Vishnuprayag project on Alaknanda River was again filled up by the muck and boulders brought by the river from upstream riverbed, reportedly damaging its gates and tunnels. The project is yet to restart generation.
However, official agencies in India, instead of accepting the role played by hydropower projects in the Uttarakhand disaster, have been claiming that, in fact, it was due to the Tehri dam that downstream towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh were saved from being washed away during the disaster. Our own analysis at the SANDRP shows these claims to be without foundation. Even the expert body report has questioned these claims. More pertinently, the report reiterated that the mismanagement at Tehri Dam led to unavoidable consequences in the upstream. In the downstream area, Tehri Hydro Development Corporation’s own under-construction Koteshwar Dam suffered damages. In fact, on 5 December 2014, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), in an affidavit it submitted to the Supreme Court, accepted that the hydroelectric projects in the area “aggravated the impact of floods.”
Rivers as destroyers
During the Uttarakhand disaster, sensational scenes of multistorey building collapsing in the rising river waters played by 24-7 television channels were indeed frightening. But similar scenes had played out a year earlier in August 2012, when buildings in Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand were seen collapsing in the same way. The Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC) had recommended that since buildings on and near the riverbed were at risk of being washed away, the government should plan to remove them from the hazardous river bed and flood-plain area. However, Uttarakhand government has not demarcated the path that the river would need, and has not yet formed any plans to remove the buildings. The result was a bigger disaster in June 2013. Yet, even two years after the worst such disaster to date, there is no move in that direction. With the rise in riverbed at numerous locations in Uttarakhand, there are even larger areas in hazard zones now. This is a sure recipe for rivers to turn destroyers.
The Nepal earthquakes of April-May 2015 should have been a warning that such events in Himalaya can turn into multiple cascading disasters, involving landslides which block rivers and dam breaches. The evidence that large dams can trigger seismic activity and increase the hazard potential should have also been taken into account. A recent article in Scientific American by Madhushree Mukerjee argues that the Nepal earthquakes also destabilised the region to the west (Uttarakhand and rest of North Indian Himalayan region). “Destabilization makes a great earthquake, which is defined as having a magnitude of 8.0 or higher, more likely to occur sooner rather than later.”
She adds, “Government-affiliated scientists and engineers claim that Tehri Dam can survive an 8.5 shock, but outside experts are not so sanguine. Any of hundreds of dams could be in danger of bursting when the next big one hits. If that were to happen during monsoon season, when the dams are full, the consequences could be catastrophic.”
Mukerjee thus argues for increased public scrutiny of these projects. She highlights that India and China are secretive about hydropower dams and rarely allow evaluation of these structures by independent engineers. However, the few evaluations that are permitted reveal unsettling results.
Pancheshwar dam, the preparations for which were accelerated during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014, lies in a highly seismic zone to the west of the region affected by the 2015 Nepal earthquake. The Kosi High dam that has been on the India-Nepal agenda for decades is also sought to be expedited as per an Indian minister’s statement in July 2015. Meanwhile, China has started work on the world’s tallest, 314-metre-high Shuangjiankou dam on a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River. Both China and India are in a race to help Nepal achieve its large hydropower projects. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are already trying to push such projects in Nepal. Recently, USAID has joined other bilateral agencies.
A number of other factors are playing a role in pushing hydropower projects, dams and other major infrastructural interventions in the Himalaya. Many economists have seen such projects as a sure-fire way to tackle the global economic downturn. Among several economic instruments proposed to achieve that, one of the favourite in current times is the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) model, which many see as public risk for private gain. This is particularly relevant in the context of vulnerabilities of the Himalayan region.
Betting on hydropower
Although climate change is increasing risks in the Himalaya, there are some people who see an opportunity in this.
First, hydropower projects are being pushed as a climate-friendly option, with the claim that these projects do not emit greenhouse gases. While this claim itself is suspect since reservoirs in tropical and subtropical climate are proved to be source of methane emission, these projects also destroy forests which act as carbon sinks. More pertinently, these projects destroy natural resources like forests, rivers, biodiversity and hills which are sizable resources helpful in changing climate.
Second, some advocates suggest that building big reservoirs can help achieve better ecological security with rainfall patterns changing and becoming less reliable. The advocates for these projects forget that for water storage large reservoirs are not the only options. India’s water lifeline is groundwater, but groundwater aquifers are being emptied out. These aquifers are the most benign storage options from a social, environmental and economic perspective. Since rainfall is decentralised, so are the aquifers. Hence, harvesting rain where it falls and recharging the aquifers would help provide water at the demand points. The groundwater recharging techniques are fairly well-known. Since recharging such aquifers could reduce the energy costs of pumping out groundwater, they are also the most appropriate option in the context of changing climate.
A crucial thing to note about the Uttarakhand flood is that, apart from few isolated reports, we do not have a comprehensive report from any state or central agency that helps us understand what happened, the role of key actors, or even the lessons one can learn from this disaster. The Ravi Chopra report, for example, was commissioned specifically in the context of hydropower projects. One would have thought that the Uttarakhand disaster would be taken as a warning and it would have an impact on policies and decisions all across the Himalayan states of India. That could have also helped other Southasian countries in taking appropriate steps. That, at least for now, seems like a tall order.
~ Himanshu Thakkar is currently the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People and editor of Dams, Rivers and People.