Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.
The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.
What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.
One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.
The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.
Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.
On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.
In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.
We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.
All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.
Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.