Chamoli disaster was also human-induced

The glacial burst in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand may well be nature’s way of telling humans that it can strike back when the ecological balance is destroyed. High-intensity stone quarrying, frequent blasting of mountains and digging of tunnels through the base of the fragile mountain system for the back-to-back under-construction dams, each on the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga rivers, have played havoc with the local ecology. More tragically, at least 150 people were reported missing. Amidst search and rescue operations, confusion persisted about exactly what had caused the staggering surge of water. Above all, the many uncertainties spoke to how heavy duty infrastructural push in this ecologically sensitive region is taking places without rigorous enough local research. 
The climate crisis may have aggravated the situation. A new report by Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) said that 36% of the volume of glaciers in Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region will be gone by the end of 2100 even if the world manages to keep the temperature rise within the 1.5 degree Celsius target of the Paris Climate Agreement. Though the disaster region does not fall in the HKH, the findings confirm other studies on faster melting of glaciers feeding the perennial Ganga from the upper reaches of Uttarakhand and China.
Data from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s resource centre on Himalayan glaciers reveal that melting of the glaciers in the Central Himalayan catchment area, where Chamoli falls, has increased in the first 20 years of this century. Research-based on the study of 650 glaciers, spanning 2,000 km and published in Science Advances in June 2019, said that glacial melting has doubled since 2000 as compared to 1975-2000. The faster melting of Ganga glaciers will impact the livelihood of close to 600 million people living in Ganga river basin, extending from Uttarakhand in the north to Bangladesh in the south.
A majority of the glaciers in the Himalayas are known to be receding, leading to the formation of several proglacial lakes. The climate change hotspot would require a generous dose of resources to monitor the region better and recommend policy changes. The course correction hopefully would be more effective than the cold treatment to suggestions, by a 2014 committee constituted by the apex court, to turn down the proposals to build hydel projects above an altitude of 2,000 metres, citing various risks. The fact is that the simultaneous pursuit of environmental and economic goods in a democracy does involve complex calculations. In this, the importance of expert knowledge cannot be overstated. Policy decisions shaping such projects must be swayed by scientists, not contractors and builders. This challenge is hardly limited to Uttarakhand. Several calamities in the south are correlated to disdain for the Gadgil committee’s counsel on the Western Ghats. Our cities need to be saved from drowning, our rivers from drying, everything is interconnected. This is why India must do a much better balancing act. 
 

- -Prabhakar Purandare

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