Uttarakhand Disaster: Lessons we refuse to learn

Uttarakhand Disaster: Lessons we refuse to learn

As we continue to denude the Himalayas to build ever more roads and power projects, we should expect more frequent natural disasters

Rising water levels in the Rishiganga river. Credit: PTI Photo

The Himalayas are young and highly fragile mountains where more than 50 hydroelectric power projects in the river basins of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda have been built. Despite the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013, which claimed more than 5,000 lives, the government has launched a massive project to widen roads along the Char Dham (Yamunotri-Gangotri-Kedarnath-Badrinath) route, increasing tourism and uncontrolled development of hotels, shops and other tourist infrastructures. Thousands of trees have been cut and the ecosystem has been disturbed. Many green hills now look barren.

The glacial flood and debris in the Rishiganga river on February 7 washed away bridges connecting dozens of villages, two power projects, along with the people at work. More than 60 people have already been confirmed dead and nearly 200 more are missing. The area is quite vast and its deep gorges and valleys are inaccessible. It is unlikely that the bodies of many missing persons will be found. The removal of debris from a 180-m long tunnel at the Tapovan project has proved quite difficult despite the ITBP, NDRF, SDRF and other agencies doing their best.

The Union Budget for 2021-22 focuses on heavy investment on infrastructure development such as roads, railways, hydroelectric projects, fossil fuel-based power projects, many of which would ignore environmental concerns. The money for infrastructure development is proposed to be raised by privatising government assets. Attempts to revive the economy and achieve higher GDP growth without ensuring proper environmental safeguards and conserving nature will be suicidal. Climatic catastrophes like the glacial flood in Uttarakhand will occur more frequently and more destructively.

The Budget allocation for environment and forests, on the other hand, has been slashed. The Prime Minister has called for reforestation of 26 million hectares of degraded forest land in the country by 2030 to keep up our Paris climate accord commitment. The UNEP’s emission gap report puts our annual greenhouse gas emissions at 3.7 Gigatons. We made three major nationally determined contribution (NDC) commitments in the Paris accord. One, to cut down GHG emissions by 33-35% by 2030, from 2005 levels; two, to increase the share of renewable electricity to 40% by 2030; and three, to enhance our forest cover by 2030 so as to absorb 2.5-3 Gigatons of CO2 annually. While the country is on track to achieving the second commitment, we have to do much more to achieve the other two.

The first NDC can be achieved only by reducing fossil fuel-based power projects, and is linked to the third NDC. The more we depend on a fossil fuel-based economy, the more will be the GHG emissions and thus rise in temperature. To neutralise the emissions, we have to have more forests for carbon sequestration. If we do not achieve the first NDC, we will have to increase the target of the third NDC.

Reforesting 26 million hectares of degraded forest land is quite a challenge for state forest departments. The vulnerability of areas to fire, grazing, illicit cutting of trees and encroachments are the main reasons for degradation. A large proportion of it, nearly 10.5 million hectares, is under occupation of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. Rights are already recognised in their favour over 5.2 million hectares, in accordance with the provisions of Forest Rights Act, 2006. The Budget should have allocated money for reforesting remaining areas in control of Forest Departments.

Union Environment and Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar, quoting biannual reports of the Forest Survey of India, has said that the country has added 6,000 sq km of forest cover since 2014. Decoding the reports, we find however that natural forests are being lost and in their place are coming up horticultural crops and agroforestry on private lands, which are being counted towards the nation’s forest cover. The old and diverse trees that came up in the forests naturally have larger stem volume and capture more carbon than the monoculture of young plantations that are replacing forest areas.

Millions of trees sacrificed for infrastructure, mining and industrial projects cannot be compensated through plantations. Like the 900-km road network connecting the Char Dham in Uttarakhand, a number of roads and rail projects are in the pipeline in the Western Ghats, too. Sacrificing so much of our natural forests will not help us to meet the third NDC target, let alone raise it. A rise in average temperature is inevitable, and climatic catastrophes like the Rishiganga floods will strike with greater frequency.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences’ own report for the subcontinent projects a 4.40 Celsius rise in average temperature by the turn of the century. The study, which looked at data from 1986 to 2015, concluded that during those 30 years, the temperature of the warmest day and coldest night rose by 0.630 C and 0.40 C respectively. In the future, heat waves would be three to four times more frequent than it used to be 30 years ago; sea levels will rise by 30 cm over the 1990 level. In business-as-usual conditions, the report projects, the temperature of the warmest day and the coldest night will rise further by 4.70 C and 5.50 C respectively by the turn of the century.

Experts continue to study the causes of recent disasters and pinpoint whether it was caused by an avalanche of snow, a landslide or a glacier lake. A study titled “Melting of Himalayan glaciers” published in June 2019 in the journal ‘Science’ indicates that ice of half-metre height is melting annually from the glaciers due to warming, threatening the water supply of millions of people. Forest fires and the burning of a greater load of fossil fuels are to be blamed for accelerated glacier melting post-2000.

The way forward is to stop the sacrifice of natural forests for infrastructure projects, allocate more funds to reforest 15 million hectares of degraded forest lands still in the control of state forest departments and to phase out the expansion of fossil fuel-based power projects.

(The writer is a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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