Himalayan blunders

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

imageThe floods in the Himalayas have been ferocious and deadly. Fears are that the final body count could run into several thousands. There is no clear estimate of the number of villages wiped out, property destroyed, roads washed away and hydropower projects damaged in the mountain state of Uttarakhand. The mountains are bleeding and its people have been left battered, bruised and dead.

We know that the Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range, prone to landslide and flash floods. But what we do not easily comprehend is that two factors have made the already vulnerable region more hazardous. One, climate change-related extreme weather events; Indian monsoon has become more intense. Studies show extreme rain events are becoming more frequent as compared to moderate rain events. Rainfall is also becoming variable and unseasonal. This is what happened in Uttarakhand on that fateful June 16. It rained without a break; some 200 mm came down within hours at a few places like Kedarnath. It brought down the mighty Himalayas. Rain was also unseasonal. June is still not considered the beginning of the monsoon season, so pilgrims and tourists thronging the region were caught unawares.

What really compounded the disaster—made it truly man-made—is the scale of development intervention in the past decade or so. This Himalayan region has seen unchecked construction activity, illegal and legal mining, unscientific road building and, of course, hydropower projects built next to each other. In Kedarnath large-scale construction has been done on the land evacuated by glacier in the past few years. It is small wonder that the water, moraine and stones came crashing down and took all with it. Many human lives were lost that morning and families shattered. This is the deadly and painful cost of environmental mismanagement.

Will we learn from this? Will we learn how to live with the excesses and shortages of water, particularly in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem? Will we learn that extreme rain conditions will require us to build a new water culture?

In 1991, environmentalist Anil Agarwal, after months of research for the publication, Flood, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths, brought to attention facts, which were then considered inconvenient. He wanted to understand why floods occurred, with greater intensity, in the plains of India. The common perception was deforestation in the Himalayas caused floods in the plains. Planting trees upstream would “fix” the problem. His research showed that the Himalayas were geologically dynamic, prone to landslides, which would in turn block rivers and create natural dams. The bursting of these dams made of rubble, stone and silt, would wreak havoc downstream. He then went on to argue that we needed to consider a Himalayan policy that took into account the fragility and vulnerability of the region. By then, road activity had started to scar the hills and landslides were increasing. This, in turn, was making it more dangerous for people to live there.

His message was tough: stop blaming the people living in the Himalayas for the floods in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Instead, focus on building a management system to live with floods; to harvest the excess water in ponds, tanks and groundwater recharge systems. It was the willful destruction of the flood plains through unchecked construction of buildings and drainage systems that had exacerbated floods. The Himalayas, he said, would remain vulnerable to landslides and flash floods and development would not work if it did not take into account the true nature of the region. Learn, therefore, to live with the hazards of the Himalayas. The bottom line is that we need to learn to live with nature and not have the temerity to think that we can overcome it.

He had another message a few years later on how we could optimise use of nature’s bounty. In 1997, he published, once again, a seminal volume, Dying Wisdom: Rise, fall and potential of India’s traditional water harvesting system. It taught us how every region had traditionally devised a unique system of water management, which harvested rainwater and adapted to both scarcity and excess of it. The principle was catch rain where it falls. This system was different from how water bureaucracies functioned by centralising water storage and making its distribution through canals and pipelines the responsibility of the irrigation and water agencies. Agarwal argued, against conventional thinking, that this centralised system would not serve India in the future. We needed to rebuild our water systems of the past and in doing so use modern science and technology to improve it.

As we sadly witness the devastation and loss of lives, Agarwal’s messages hit home. The future will be even more uncertain and riskier because of extreme weather events and mismanagement of resources.

The way ahead is to respect the vulnerability of the region. It cannot be anybody’s contention that the Himalayan region must not see development. The question to consider is how it should develop: by building roads and hydropower projects or local economies based on tourism, which do not work against nature. It is also a fact that changing monsoon pattern will require us to optimise use of every drop and not allow rain to become devastating flood. Only then will the Himalayan tragedy not be repeated. This is our agenda for survival. Let’s learn it fast.

The wrath of nature

Statement on the Uttarakhand Catastrophe

A selection of reports and documents on hydropower development at Uttarakhand

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  • We need to help the local

    We need to help the local people rebuild their lives, and decide on the way ahead. Economy should be in their hands. They have to be helped to do sustainable business that is not modeled on real estate and luxury businesses.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This recent incidence is

    This recent incidence is indeed a case of continuation and systematic magnification of blunders to exploit the bounties in the Himalayas; bounty of natural resources, rich traditional culture and reverberating religious centers. Confluence of vulnerabilities associated with a dynamic geological system, as highlighted by environmentalist Anil Agarwal, and the increasing intensity and frequency of weather extremes have given rise to a new regime of vulnerability and disaster risk in the Himalayan. Lives and livelihoods, which once flourished in this region in tandem with nature, have been ruthlessly replaced, altered and displaced with the invasion of modern development paradigms and pathways. Investments and institutions put in place to promote and monitor this skewed process of (mal) development have further alienated and snapped the once vibrant fabric of human-environment relation of respect and reverence. Dying Wisdom, one of the outcomes described in detail by Anil Agarwal in 1997, has grown in scale and magnitude which limits the capacities, both adaptive and coping, of the Himalayan communities to respond to and recover from such disasters. Some of the underlying drivers of vulnerability are the social, economic, cultural, political and environmental transitions and shifts that the region is going through (or rather forced to go through) in recent times. Risk, and disaster risk in particular, is multifaceted, multi-level and dynamic. What we are witnessing at the moment is a natural hazard (torrential rain, flood and landslide) turning in to a massive disaster of unprecedented scale and impact. Two weeks of hectic discussion, debates, analyses and not to forget about the ruthless attempts to politicize disaster relief and rescue, have definitely uncovered the governance deficit and gross lack of political will as one of the primary factors for this tragedy. Thus Our Agenda for Survival has to understand and address these multi-dimensional vulnerabilities that have so far been deliberately overlooked and under-estimated in the Himalayan ecosystem.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article. Himalyan

    Excellent article. Himalyan Policy is much in need.
    Other than hydro power pressure in the nature there, Real Estate encroachment and unbridled construction cement-ization is being root cause of this ruin..

    The disaster mgt. authority is no where in place and now there lies a real action from NGOs, local youth and media...to push the govt. and make them understand..which is so far inactive.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Your are right that we must

    Your are right that we must learn to manage our resources. This devastation was a perfect example of mismanagement of resources. I do agree with you when you wrote that the Himalayan Region has every right to see development and for this we should not blame the people living there. The authorities must plan accordingly so that they can manage natural calamities like this.
    Mismanagement is everywhere! It is sheer matter of chance that few incidence highlight it. Otherwise you can see mismanagement on roads, in government offices, in political system, in sports and everywhere.
    We need some strong rules and not only rules, their strict implication are also must. There is a long way to go but nothing is impossible.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Mistakes happened, lethargy

    Mistakes happened, lethargy was also a reason or devastation. What will be learn from here is more important. This place is full os spritual tourism.we cannot close this from tourism. We can follow the Tirupati model where in all the buildings are built and owned by temple board.it. board being controlled by govt, it ensures that the buildings were done with proper procedure, no shortcuts etc., It also gives money back to the board to maintain the place better. Alternatively as the business at theses temples were generally seaon based, we should use the model followed by Saudi during haj days. With temporary structures and facilities.

    It is time to goback to the drawing board and create plan before the land sharks occupy the place again.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This is what noted Economist

    This is what noted Economist Kenneth Boulding
    said in his poem in 1956.

    A ConservationistÔÇÖs Lament
    Kenneth Boulding

    The world is finite, resources are scarce,
    Things are bad and will be worse.
    Coal is burned and gas exploded,
    Forests cut and soils eroded.
    Wells are dry and airÔÇÖs polluted,
    Dust is blowing, trees uprooted,
    Oil is going, ores depleted,
    Drains receive what is excreted.
    Land is sinking, seas are rising,
    Man is far too enterprising.
    Fire will rage with Man to fan it,
    Soon weÔÇÖll have a plundered planet.
    People breed like fertile rabbits,
    People have disgusting habits.

    In: ManÔÇÖs Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, 1956, University of Chicago Press, p. 1087

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The last para in the article

    The last para in the article mentions the need for tourism as a development route for Himalayan region. It would have been better to elaborate on it. In fact, I do believe that it a was man-made disaster. Imagine around one lakh tourists (not exactly pilgrims) and thousands of motorized vehicles in the region! To sustain such kind of tourism, we will have to build many roads, buildings and parking lots by digging the hills. That has been exactly done during past two decades. The whole ecology of the area has been rendered fragile by unscientific "development". It is time to pause and think for everyone involved.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It has been great disaster

    It has been great disaster that has hit the hilly region and there are no words to express our shock and sorrow. It has been devastating for many families.

    I fully agree with the statement that we need to learn to live with nature and not try to conquer it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Now the question mark after

    Now the question mark after all the devastation is how to reconstruct the state. The people of Uttarkhand should be aware now the development they need is not urban development but development and growth of their own natural resources and related activities.Since Food and water are going to be the biggest ever problem esp. in India.The primary sector ie; agriculture(organic) has to be concentrated upon.

    Tourism should be given a lesser status in the himlayan states and it has to be nature (eco) tourism and not commercial tourism. Concept of eco tourism has to be promoted in the state.

    Private vehicles in the himalayan states has to brought under control. Whoever going to these states should avail the public transport system which should be well organised. With minimum facilities people with real bhakti only will go there.

    Most important the people of himalayas should be aware and decide what has to be done in their state so as to sustain their life in the mystic himalayas.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thought provoking article

    Thought provoking article Madam. Dr.Anil Agarwalji forecast on future of environment was indeed accurate in many cases. He was a true Environmentalist. I had the privilege of working with him in some committees.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The editorial hits the nail

    The editorial hits the nail hard on its soaked head! But, is it enough to penetrate the thick skins and hard heads of politicians? First of course you have to make them read this editorial.

    One of the biggest rural development programmes of the GoI is the Integrated Watershed Development Programme. One doesn't know and probably cannot know (RTI notwithstanding)what it has achieved. However, if under this Programme and also under MNREGS, we started making staggered contour trenches in highly populated micro-watersheds, especially in degraded forests, starting from the top, in a few years we could have enough water holding capacity on the hillsides to soak up many a cloud burst.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Before the target of Money

    Before the target of Money making and resource looting called progress in the current govermental parlance the Ecology , Environment and all that is related to Nature becomes the last in the list of priorities for the Govt blessed Builders of Roads in Uttarakhand. In addition to the reasons explained in the Article the mass scale use of explosives to tear apart the hills and mountains in Uttarakhand by the present group of Road builders in post - independence India is the primary reason of the current disaster in the Deokhand. Britishers were not that brutal with the hills. They made roads with hand used rock cutting tools which did not damage the structural part of the rocks in the hills.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I say, blame it on the

    I say, blame it on the government. But not just blame them. Work to make them deliver!

    Let us understand that it is for the very purpose of meeting these exigencies and leading us to a better future that we bear the burden of what we call a government. Of course there is no need to blame the politicians only. The bureaucracy and judiciary are part of the rot. But what distinguishes the politicians from the other two is the fact that in our democracy it is these politicians whom have put in the drivers seat, on their promise that they will take us where we want to go. Hence it becomes our - those who are in the know of things-primary responsibility to make them deliver. The rest will take care of themselves.

    Can you imagine what amount of tax payers' money has been spent on education since 1947? And what have we achieved? 40 % illiteracy, 70 % poverty (the bpl variety!) and may be 100% corruption (it was 86% when the then PM Rajiv G made his famous statement that of every rupee the govt spends only 14 paise reach the beneficiaries)! But given the numbers of those in the know to those perpetrating corruption/crimes, it should be possible for those in the know and yearning for change to prevail. If only they pooled their resources and dovetailed/synergised their efforts!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It is rightly said in

    It is rightly said in editorial , i being Geologist want to add that construction cannot be stopped on fearing the floods, landslides and other calamities in the hills. But we should have some development model.We have no future plans to develop our hills scientifically. Our politiciens are hardly concerned with scientific development, actually what happens if some politician is made minister for water resources/earth science etc , they consider it a downgrading of their stature and wht they want public works/home/irrigation/excise where lot of money circulation involves.Thus how can we expect a seriousness in that ministry to chalkout a comprehensive development plan from callous mantrie.
    Now look at the other scenario, the development works like road cuttings etc are given to stooges of the politicians , who have no technical team and advance machines to blast and excavate hills scientifically, where 50kg of gelatene/explosive required as per design their they use 100kg, why it is so because contracter is mantris man, if he ll be pinpointed by the concerned person incharge of looking after the works shall be transferred and scolded/threatened even.
    As far as hydel projects are concerned, the view that ,they are doing devastation to the hills is right but not intoto. Untill and unless if their ll be no strict technical bids for awarding the jobs for mega projects ,these type of disasters keep on happening , Actually what happens the system of lowest bid system for awarding the contracts to L-1 is a faulty system, it should be aborted.Most of the works are taken by the contractors who are ill equipped and work is subleased/subletted to more inferior contractors thus a latter also subleased that job ,their fore a actual work is done by an non technical and laymen workers to execute the job.
    In the hills of Europe esp Switzerland we have seen development , they have made tunnels for road , railways and for hydel projects 60-70 yrs back and still they are tunneling.We have to follow their model of development for hills.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Well brought out ! Lessons we

    Well brought out ! Lessons we learn: Note the history of the region and let it not repeat, strike a finer balance between environment and "development" for sustainability, and Strengthen DMP (disaster management plan) qualitatively and quantitatively for the prompt and coordinated response.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • People should learn from this

    People should learn from this disaster and spread awareness regarding sustainable environment. This devastation shows how we ignore the environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply