States and the Centre need to take a long-term approach on infrastructure project-planning. This will have to start with mapping of vulnerable areas and choosing the least disruptive, least environmentally-exacting course of action, even if it means dedicating significantly higher resources.
Reducing the carbon output of the national economy may be ‘doing our bit’, but the time for piecemeal action is long over.
Scientists are yet to conclude what caused the sudden flooding of the Dhauli Ganga river in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on Sunday—150 people have been reported missing and the entire Tapovan hydel project has been washed away. Experts cited in various media reports, however, say the blame squarely rests with the failure to draw a balance between fragile ecosystems & topography and development imperatives, compounded by climate-change effects. While ‘glacial lake outburst flooding’ triggered by a recently reported avalanche in the region has also been suggested, some experts are sceptical since no big glacial lakes have been mapped there.
Even so, the possibility that warming could have led to formation of hitherto undetected proglacial lakes would indicate some role played by climate change, which could have been exacerbated by development projects upsetting a topography that is sensitive to what may seem as minor changes.
A 2019 study published in Science Advances spanning 40 years of satellite observation of swathes of India, China, Nepal and Bhutan had warned of climate-change related shrinking of Himalayan glaciers, with considerable ice-melt. The study found that, since 2000, glaciers have been facing twice the amount of annual ice-loss that they did between 1975 and 2000.
One of the authors of the study, The Hindu reports, estimates that the Himalayan glaciers are likely to have seen a quarter of the volume of ice melting way over the past four decades. Indeed, climate change scientists fear some of the worst consequences of greenhouse gas emissions that has occurred hitherto may already be manifesting now, decades earlier than estimated in previous studies.
The shrinking of the world’s ice is now following the worst-case climate change scenario outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; a study by researchers at the University of Leeds has found that the world has lost a whopping 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017.
For perspective, that is over 1.2 trillion tonnes of ice lost per year over a little more than two decades, while the ice-loss figure was 800 billion tonnes till then. Various experts, both government and private sector, cited in an article in the Times of India, have voiced concern about climate change effects in the Himalayan ecosystem, saying there are clear signs of temperature increases that add to the risk of glacier-related flooding.
Against this backdrop, the construction of hydel projects, and related development activity, in vulnerable regions needs closer scrutiny and careful weighing against alternative models. In the 2013 floods in the state, scientists had raised questions over the assessment of environmental impact of such projects and their role in exacerbating natural disasters.
The role of unplanned development was also flagged in Kerala floods of 2018 and the Kashmir floods of 2015. Indeed, a Supreme Court appointed committee, as per media reports, had warned against hydel projects over an altitude of 2,000 metres, saying such developments could result in disasters; it had recommended the cancellation of 23 out of 24 projects under way at the time.
Without reassessing the environmental cost of development—more so in hilly regions—and factoring in much-earlier-than-anticipated effects of climate change, India is likely to see more such disasters. States and the Centre need to take a long-term approach on infrastructure project-planning. This will have to start with mapping of vulnerable areas and choosing the least disruptive, least environmentally-exacting course of action, even if it means dedicating significantly higher resources.
As India tries to change course on energy production, it will also need to aggressively push a climate-forward agenda for the rest of the globe. Reducing the carbon output of the national economy may be ‘doing our bit’, but the time for piecemeal action is long over.