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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Uttarakhand glacier burst root cause – Everything you got to know.

Climate scientists and disaster management experts are yet to evaluate what caused the flash floods in this specific case. The recurring theme of disasters are mainly caused by climate change and overstretched developmental plans.

Uttarakhand glacier burst root cause: A rapidly changing climate worsened by overly developed infrastructure.

Uttarakhand is a land to approximately 15000 glaciers and these glaciers are said to be retreating at a rate of 100 to 200 feet every decade. This alarming rate of retreating feeds make thousands of lakes vulnerable to a sudden glacier bursts causing floods down the stream. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development classified a large number of lakes as dangerous in the in the Himalayan range.

On top this, India is heavily invested in creating a series of economic development projects including roads and hydro electric projects in already fragile valleys.

Uttarakhand glacier burst root cause #1 – Rapidly changing climate:

A rapidly changing climate constitutes one of the main causes of frequent Uttarakhand glacier burst. A 2018 report from the World Bank has warned that climate change could sharply diminish living conditions for up to 800 million people in South Asia. The report is based on a detailed study of the six South Asian countries. “South Asia is highly vulnerable to climate change. Average temperatures have been rising throughout the region, and rainfall has become more erratic. These changes are projected to continue accruing over the coming decades.” The report put more focus on the day to day weather changes and identified hot spots that could take biggest hit from this rapid climate change.

Climate change - Uttarakhand Floods
Annual Average Temperatures Are Projected to Increase Dramatically by 2050. Source: Mani et al. 2018

The study looked at all six countries of South Asia, where average annual temperatures are rising steadily and rainfall patterns are already changing. It concentrated on changes in day-to-day weather, rather than sudden-onset natural disasters, and identified “hot spots” where the deterioration is expected to be most severe. The India supplement of the report clearly points out and calls out glacier bursts:

“Low-lying coastal areas are at risk from sea-level rise and tropical  storms, while mountain areas are at risk due to changes in snow, melting glaciers, and natural disasters. India also contains hidden hotspots—areas that are economically at risk from climate change but that are not often discussed.” – Source: Mani et al. 2018 India Supplement.

Uttarakhand glacier burst root cause # 2 – Development of Infrastructure:

A overly excavation and ill planed development projects in the valley region further worsen the climate impact. A 2012 expert panel appointed by the government recommended no dams should be built in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, including one on the Rishiganga. “But the government has gone ahead and chosen to build them,” As Ravi Chopra, the director of People’s Science Institute in Uttarakhand mentioned in his NYTimes interview.  According to the article, both of the hydroelectric projects hit by this recent floods are located in that vulnerable zone.

Dams in the valley:

According to one estimate, the Himalayas will host one dam for every 32 kilometers in a few years if the current national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys is realized. This will be highest density of dams in a given area anywhere in the world. Given Uttarakhand is known for earthquakes, monsoon aberrations and high impact floods, a plan to build infrastructure at this scale may not be a good idea. Experts also point out, while procuring clearances for these dams, the life of dams is often shown in inflated years.

Roads in the valley:

India is very keen to improve road connectivity to various pilgrimage sites in the valley. Pilgrimage sites such as Gangotri, Yamunotri and Badrinath and Kedarnath are some of the included sites. One estimate tells, the government wants to build more than 500 miles of highways in the valley. And this road building project is met with various court interventions.

The project seeks to improve road connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage sites, Gangotri and Yamunotri, near the source of the rivers, and the temple towns of Badrinath and Kedarnath. A report by the Scroll points out out an attempt was made to build roads up to 10 meters when the recommended width is only 5.5 feet. The justification for wider roads is increased ability to deploy large scale military equipment and more economic dividends. By the time The Supreme Court sided with the scientific committee to go with narrower roads (5.5 mts), hundreds of acers of forest has already been cleared. The article further reports.

Uttarakhand a land with a history of natural disasters:

The 20 October 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake killed over a thousand people and caused extensive damage to property in the Garhwal Himalaya region. The 1998 Malpa landslide of the region is one of the worst land slides in the history of India. On 18 August 1998 at 3.00 a.m., massive landslides wiped away the entire village of Malpa in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. The landslide generated around one million cubic meters of rock fall and debris flow. In less than an year, in 1999, an earthquake occurred on 29 March in the Chamoli district. The quake was said to be the strongest that hit the Himalayan foothills. Approximately 103 people died in the earthquake. And as recently as in June 2013, a cloudburst caused devastating floods and landslides in the region. This eventually  becoming the country’s worst natural disaster since 2004 Tsunami that hit the India’s east coast.

At the moment, a panel of glaciologists and experts in rock sciences are working hard to identify the specific cause of this incident. Whatever caused this staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi mountain, we should be reminded of how this geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted.

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