Frequent disasters: The Himalayan region needs an alternative model of ‘development’

Uttarakhand has several hydroelectric power projects

The fragile landscapes of the Himalayan region are highly susceptible to natural hazards, and there is an ongoing concern about current and potential climate change impacts. The glacier broke-off at Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on Sunday has aggravated this concern, something that environmentalists have been warning for quite some time.

According to a climate assessment, released in February 2019 by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a Kathmandu-based intergovernmental body, the mountains in the region have been warming at a much faster rate than the global average,.

Degrading ecosystems, outmigration as well as increase in air pollution could be behind the rampant climate change observed in the region, the ICIMOD report said. 

The region is known as a heat source in summers and heat sink in winter; and has a major influence on the Indian summer monsoon. It has experienced extreme warm weather events in the last 60 years. With warm nights increasing by 1.7 per decade, the region gets 1.2 warm days every decade. Every decade the region loses one cold night and half a cold day, the report said. 

These findings have echoed in the excessive rainfalls that led to deluges, flash floods and even cloud bursts in the Himalayan states, which initially witnessed extreme heatwaves and high-deficit in rainfall.

Even if the world manages to keep to its Paris Agreement commitments and limits the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Himalayan region is expected to lose 36% of its glacier volumes by 2100, states another report.

The region could also witness an increase in natural hazards like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), rise in temperature and precipitation and significant loss of biodiversity by the year 2100, said the report. More than one billion people are at risk in the region with increasing magnitude and frequency of natural hazards.

Experts say there is a link between the disaster and the manner in which “development” has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region.

There are not less than 70 projects built or proposed on the Ganga to generate nearly 10,000 mw of power. The projects are being built bumper to bumper – where one project ends, another begins. In this way, the river would be modified—through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs — to such an extent that 80% of the Bhagirathi and 65 % of the Alaknanda could be “affected”.

On Sunday, former Union minister Uma Bharati said that the Uttarakhand tragedy triggered by a glacier burst is a matter of concern as well as a warning, and added that as a minister she had spoken against having any power project on the Ganga and its major tributaries.

“When I was a minister, my ministry in its affidavit about the dams in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas had requested that it is a very sensitive region, and, therefore, power projects should not be built on the Ganges and its main tributaries,” she said.

Hence the need of the hour is to things differently. The region needs development – people who live there need basic amenities like roads, electricity, health care and education. Equally it is clear that the economic future of the Himalayas and its people can never be secured or safeguarded if the already vulnerable region is made more hazard-prone and more deadly. What we need is a new way – the Himalayan way of economic growth that is sustainable. Without this, there can be no future for the region or its people.

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