Tag Archives | Uttarakhand

NDTV’s We The People – On the Uttarakhand floods

Last Sunday, I appeared on NDTV’s We The People hosted by Barkha Dutt, to talk about the recent floods in Uttarakhand and on the “eco-insensitive” nature of politics in India. Here’s a clip of the comments I made during the show. You can watch the full recording at the NDTV website.

I also had the opportunity to underscore the same points during an interview by Maseeh Rahman of The Guardian.

But most analysts believe restricting the number of pilgrims would be political suicide. “The desire to worship at Kedarnath is almost like an irresistible force,” said Pavan Srinath, of the Chennai-based thinktank Takshashila Foundation. “Despite the tragedy, people are already talking about when they will undertake the sacred journey. No government can bar the devout from the Himalayas.”

Not all experts are in agreement. Srinath maintains that the devastation would have been even more widespread if the reservoir of the region’s biggest dam at Tehri had not contained a significant volume of the deluge. “Dams can also prevent disasters,” he said. “The critical issue is not dams, but proper dam management. In India, we just don’t have a culture of public safety.”
[The Guardian, June 28, 2013]

The comment the regulation of pilgrims, however, isn’t just about political feasibility – but about policy realism. In all likelihood, a strict regulation of official pilgrims to the holy sites will lead to a large number of illegal traffic of tourists and pilgrims, with much less safety.

Also, this blogger thinks that it’s more likely that the Tehri dam was empty and capable of receiving flood waters more by circumstance than by intent – nevertheless, it demonstrates the positive role well-managed dams can play in disaster risk reduction.

Related posts: Not every disaster is man-made | We are still vulnerable to climate variability

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We are still vulnerable to climate variability

Samanth Subramaniam writes in UAE’s The National on the floods in Uttarakhand and quotes me on the link between flooding and climate change.

But Pavan Srinath, a policy researcher at the Chennai-based Takshashila Institution, who has written extensively about climate change, told The National that cause and effect were difficult to establish in such situations.

“Theoretically, if you mess around in mountain systems, you can increase chances of landslides or floods, yes,” Mr Srinath said. “The question is: How much does the risk go up? We don’t know that yet.”

Similarly, Mr Srinath hesitated to draw a link between global climate change patterns and the early monsoon rain that triggered Uttarakhand’s floods.

“One of the theories is that global warming increases the intensity of the monsoon rains,” Mr Srinath said. He acknowledged that climate change was causing “extreme weather events” but argued that it was difficult to conclusively prove that these floods were one such event.

“I would say, instead, that our towns haven’t even adapted to regular variations in climates, let alone climate change-induced ones,” Mr Srinath said. “Really, that’s the conversation we should be having.”
[Samanth Subramaniam, The National]

I cannot stress the last point enough. The sad truth is, even without climate change, our towns, cities and villages are deeply vulnerable to the natural variability in climate. Be it droughts that hit parts of India like clockwork every few years, or how Assam or Orissa get inundated by floods regularly – we see constant evidence that we aren’t even resilient to what we ought to be. We should be talking about adapting to local climes, to variability and finally to climate change. Talking excessively of climate change alone shifts the focus instead to mitigation, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other issues that serve as distractions.

For a nation that is one-sixth of the world’s population, we have but contributed to 3% of greenhouse gases emitted globally since the industrial revolution. Our most important goals need to be of climate adaptation, and building disaster resilience and good emergency services.

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Not every disaster is man-made

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.

Map_of_Hydroelectric_Projects_in_Bhagirathi_and_Alaknanda_Basin

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

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.

Mandakini150411

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

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?“.

Update:
Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.

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