Uttarakhand disaster portends ‘Himalayan tsunamis’

The recent devastating floods in the northern India state of Uttarakhand are being called a "Himalayan tsunami"—and an ominous portent for the future of the millions of people living downstream from the world's highest mountain range. The June floods may have killed as many as 6,000 people, although the majority of these are still officially considered "missing." The deluge wiped out the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath, causing damage to the 1,200-year-old temple to Shiva there. A smaller temple, built after an ancient one on the site was destroyed in a 1991 earthquake, was entirely swept away by the rain-swollen waters of the Bhagirathi River. "The Kedarnath floods may be only a small precursor to never-seen-before mega-floods," Maharaj K. Pandit, director of Delhi University's Center for Inter-disciplinary Studies of Mountain & Hill Environments, told India Today.

Rising temperatures are fast creating thousands of new glacial lakes across the Himalayan region. The growing volume of meltwater is dangerously increasing the risk of sudden glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), according to the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). As the volume of water increases, so does the pressure on the natural dams of ice or glacial sediment, called moraine, which hold the lakes in place, threatening to send deadly torrents of ice, rock and water down on those living below. (PTI, Aug. 7; Zee News, Aug. 2; Global Post, July 30)

International Rivers website runs a guest blog by Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), on how the Uttarakhand floods were a "man-made disaster":

It is clear that the lack of warning and disaster management systems in the region increased human suffering in this tragedy. But at the root of the floods was a wonton disregard for the "carrying capacity" of this fragile area's natural systems. The human-induced assault included unregulated, unsafe and unplanned infrastructure development along local rivers, including the development of a large number of hydropower projects built in the fragile zone… Flouting of rules has been rampant, but the tragedy has shown we cannot bribe nature. 

Since Uttarakhand state was formed in 2000, it has been on a path of massive growth with various projects including mining, roads, a large number of hydropower projects, buildings and tourism. But the reality of the state’s vulnerabilities has been completely ignored. Illegal riverbed mining was so unsustainable, destructive and rampant that Swami Nigmanand gave up his life fasting to stop it just two years ago.

In the first decade of the new millennium alone, over 15,000 hectares (37,066 acres) of forestland has been legally diverted in the state for various projects. Over 1,600 ha of riverbed mining was given legal sanction in the same period. During this time tourism in the state has gone up by up to 380%. Uttarakhand has at least 51 existing hydropower projects of various sizes, and another 47 under construction and 238 planned. As a post-disaster report from the National Institute of Disaster Management confirmed, all these activities have significant environmental and social impacts that hugely increased the disaster potential of the area.

For example, hydropower projects below 25 MW do not require an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), monitoring or public consultation process although it is well known that they can have very significant adverse impacts… Even for projects above 25 MW, our former environment minister Jairam Ramesh is on record as having said that most EIAs are dishonest, cut-and-paste jobs.

Our environment compliance system is non-existent. Moreover, we have no credible cumulative impact assessment process, and therefore no way to analyze the disaster vulnerabilities, carrying capacity and climate change implications for any of the river basins of Uttarakhand. Undertaking massive interventions in fragile ecology in absence of such assessments is bound to invite disastrous consequences.

Everyone seems completely surprised and unprepared for what struck Uttarakhand, even though climate scientists have been warning of exactly such events.

Swami Nigmananda, who had been fasting for almost four months to protest illegal mining in the Uttarkhand headwaters of the Ganges, died exactly two years before the recent floods, and has since been hailed as a saint by local residents. (NDTV, June 14, 2011) He seems to have taken his name from Swami Nigamananda Saraswati Paramhamsa (1880-1935), a devotee of the Mother Goddess who founded an ashram in Assam.

The Uttaranchal Association of North America has established a relief fund for those affected by the disaster. (Wikipedia and Lonely Planet inform us that when the state was first created in 2000, carved out of neighboring Uttar Pradesh, India's ruling BJP government imposed the name Uttaranchal rather than the Uttarkhand rendering favored by the populace because it was thought that the suffix khand, meaning "country," had separatist connotations. Delhi finally aceded to the wish of the apparent majority of the state's residents and formally changed the name to Uttarkhand in 2007. Compare maps: 19962001, 2013)
See our special report, India: Passive Resistance to Mega-Hydro in Assam.

See our last post on the politics of glaciers in the Himalayas.

We have been tracking similar threats posed by destabilization of the Andean glaciers.

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  1. Climate change ‘orders of magnitude’ faster than in past ages
    From The Atlantic, Aug. 2:

    new paper in the journal Science finds that climate change is now set to occur at a pace “orders of magnitude more rapid” than at any other time in the last 65 million years. That breakneck speed may mean extinction for species that cannot keep up.

    For example, the paper’s authors Noah S. Diffenbaugh and Christopher B. Field of Stanford write, consider the global cooling that took place beginning some 52 million years ago. That change was of a greater magnitude than even the worst-case global-warming projections for the 21st century. But that transition occurred over a period lasting 18 million years, not a matter of decades. Similarly, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, thought one of the more rapid climatic shifts, was 100-fold slower than the most dramatic 21st century scenarios, and 10-fold slower than the best-case ones. “Further,” the authors add, “the rates of global change during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), Little Ice Age (LIA), and early Holocene were all smaller than the observed rates from 1880 to 2005 and than for the committed warming calculated to occur over the 21st century if atmospheric concentrations were capped at year-2000 levels” (emphasis added because haha).

    The specifics of how this “unprecedented rate of global warming” will affect terrestrial species are uncertain, and will likely vary region to region, habitat to habitat. For some species, hospitable environments may emerge just kilometers away. For others, the authors put it in words that conceal the turmoil, “the constraint may be no-analog climates.” Meaning, simply, that they’ll have nowhere to go.