Big Dams and Climate Change Drive Uttarakhand India Avalanche – Costing Lives Immediately
3D rendering of San Francisco based earth imaging company Planet Labs released images of the incident that shows movement of ice before the flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. Image vetted by Climate Data Concierge Project of the Brown Institute for Media and Innovation.

PUNE, INDIA – For Anjal Prakash, a climate scientist based in India, the flash floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand this past week did not come as a surprise. 

“The writing was on the wall,” said Prakash, a research director at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, of the 7 February rockslide and avalanche that killed over 32 people with nearly 204 still missing.

The resulting downstream flood washed away a 13.2 MW hydro-electric project on the Rishiganga River and another larger project by the NTPC – India’s largest power utility company that is run by the government. 

The uncertainty about the exact cause of the incident shows the “total lack in the monitoring of these glaciers”, said Prakash.

“We need to have more high-altitude meteorological monitoring to generate data,” said Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor of glaciology and hydrology at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Indore. “Currently we have only 12 to 15 glaciers under monitoring.” 

Image released by India’s Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that shows the damage caused downstream due to the flash floods.

The Hindu-Kush Himalayan region is the third largest reservoir of frozen water outside the two poles. Ten of Asia’s largest rivers originate there, providing an estimated 1.3 billion people with water. 

But local and international studies have pointed out that nearly 75% of the glaciers are retreating at an alarming pace due to climate change. 

While scientists are still unpacking the intricate links between glaciers, groundwater and spring systems here, the regional conflicts between India, Pakistan and China also stand in the way of research, data-sharing and mitigation. 

In 2015, Prakash and his colleagues waded through over 7,000 research papers and concluded that climate change was causing drastic changes in the Himalayan region and warned of more extreme events. 

The findings were a part of the special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body formed to assess science related to climate change. 

Infrastructure Projects in a Fragile Ecosystem

As the Indian Himalayas are densely populated, it has been necessary to put in infrastructure for the mountain communities here, including hydropower dams.

“One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the climate policy discourses globally has been a reacceptance of large dams by governments as a viable non-fossil fuel source of energy,” said Manju Menon, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a policy think tank.

“This reacceptance is ironic because climate change has also made hydrological flows in the Himalayas erratic and unpredictable, in terms of the impacts on glaciers and monsoon patterns.” 

Menon added that experts have been warning about the impact of engineering on Himalayan rivers for decades; now more than ever, development and environment policies need to be designed so as not to put people at a greater risk than they already are in due to climate change.

“The construction of the dams generates local pollution and black carbon [tiny particles of soot] which settles on the glaciers. But in the long run they reduce carbon emissions and are helping save the environment at the global scale,” said Azam.

But black carbon also is a climate-changer, speeding up the rate of melting of ice, and Azam said it was time to reconsider the siting of such dams to minimize the damage. 

India was ranked as the seventh most vulnerable country in the world for extreme weather events in 2019 by Bonn-based think tank Climate Watch.

The country urgently needs more investment in primary healthcare including at address the health impact of climate change. But India’s health sector has seen little real increase this year, according to the data journalism initiative IndiaSpend

Following the flash floods India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the authorities in the state and promised all possible support to the affected in Uttarakhand. The United Nations has offered to contribute to the ongoing rescue and assistance efforts if necessary. A team of scientists from India’s defence research organisation DRDO-SASE were flown in to survey the area.

It will be another few days – or even weeks -before the government scientists present their official assessment of the incident.

Image Credits: Planet Labs.

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