January 26, 2020
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The Hillsides Are Greying

Development is sinking its concrete teeth into the Himalayas—dangerously

The Hillsides Are Greying
The Hillsides Are Greying
  • Horror tale Uttarakhand, with its religious sites, draws pilgrims from acr oss the country, especially the southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka
  • 28 hundred pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh among those stranded in the hills


What caused this so called Himalayan tsunami and could the disaster have been averted? Experts say this kind of torrential rainfall is certainly ‘unprecedented’ but cannot be blamed on climate change, global warming or melting glaciers—not just yet. Unplanned construction on a large scale in the fragile Himalayas, already made vulnerable by rapid deforestation, was perhaps a big contributor to this disaster—one waiting to happen.

As for the unprecedented rainfall, L.S. Rathore, director-general of the Indian Meteorological Department, Delhi, says, “An unusual, rare and very unique combination of events led to this torrential downpour.” His team, he says, had correctly forecast “high to very high” rainfall in the region as early as June 14, 2013. The monsoon advanced early into the subcontinent, and this brought moisture-laden winds to the Himalayas. Simultaneously, a weather pattern from the west of India—the well-known ‘western disturbances’—closed in. The coupling of the two caused this dance of death. A whopping 440 per cent excess rainfall fell in the area in the first 18 days of June. But Rathore is wary of classifying this as an “extreme event” precipitated by climate change, as some environmentalists have been suggesting. What fuels this speculation is a landmark 2006 study published in Science by scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, predicting the rise of extreme rainfall events during the monsoon as a result of the climate warming up over the decades.

The met department did forecast heavy to very heavy rain in the region but, had special weather forecasting radars been in place, it could have made more pinpointed predictions—known as “nowcasting”. The Doppler-effect radars can make accurate estimates of rain-bearing clouds. But their installation was delayed. The Kedarnath temple and surrounding areas, situated at 3,553 metres, have borne the brunt of the disaster. The shrine itself is submerged in several metres of slush.

There has been speculation that rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers has contributed to this disaster. “But glaciers are not related to this disaster,” says D. P. Dobhal, a glaciologist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, who has studied the region for decades. It has also been hinted that a large part of what is called the Kedar Dome ice formation broke, causing a natural lake to break banks and flood the region. Dobhal, who has studied the Chorabari glacier, north of Kedarnath, says the glacial lake is unlikely to have caused such devastation: till early June it was still frozen, so it couldn’t have contributed to the floods.

But there is no denying that mushrooming construction and urbanisation, loss of vegetation, unplanned expansion of the road network have all contributed to the ruin. The Himalayas are a young mountain system, and the unique geology of the region makes them disaster-prone. The Indian subcontinent pushes under the Asian plate at about 5 cm per year. This causes the Himalayas to rise by about 5 mm every year, bringing much instability in the ranges.

Deforestation adds to the trouble: forests acts like sponges, soaking in heavy downpours and slowly releasing the water in streams. When vegetation has been cut back like it has been in the Kedarnath region, the water simply gushes down, causing devastating flash floods. When the mountain sides blasted for roads get saturated with water, they cause landslides, blocking all road communication. In Uttarakhand, whole mountainsides and river channels are being converted into concrete townships to cater to the ever-increasing flow of tourists. Anil Joshi, founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies & Conservation Organisation, blames “urbanisation, industrialisation, and unscrupulous development plans for such disasters”. He also blames the dams built in the Himalayan rivers for disrupting the ecological cycle. All these factors contribute to a vicious cycle that often ends in disasters of the sort Uttarakhand is facing today.  Integrated ecosensitive and inclusive development could offer some solutions. Definitely not the greed that is today overrunning the Himalayas. But, as Joshi puts it, “The government wakes up to disasters when they strike. Not before, and not after.”

(The writer is India correspondent for Science and the science editor for NDTV. The views expressed here are personal. He can be reached at pallava.bagla AT gmail.com)

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