Noted author and environment enthusiast, Amitav Ghosh, calls the latest Nandadevi glacial burst as a ‘predictable disaster’. Officially, it has killed 20 people; but many hundreds are missing. The Kedarnath disaster in 2013 had killed over 5000 people. The only difference in death figures is perhaps the tragedy in Kedarnath happened in the middle of the night whereas the disaster at Chamoli district, near Joshi Math, happened in daytime when people could run for their lives.
The Chipko movement to save trees and the environment started three decades ago in the same Reni village where the tragedy has struck today. The common people there are well aware what the destruction of the environment in the name of development can lead to. They have been agitating for it for decades. But nobody listens. Over a hundred, small and big, hydro power plants have been built in this Himalayan region of which a few were destroyed in the fury of the glacial flood waters this time. These constructions are usually done without the prior necessary ‘environment impact assessment’ (EIA).
What is worse, the government has recently sanctioned a 900 Km highway project in the region without a proper EIA. The government insists that EIA is usually required when a road construction of over 100 Kms is carried out. This priority project, the government says, is a series of 53 roads all less than 100 Kms and they would not require EIA. However, members of the government’s own Niti Aayog have contradicted this stand. Mr. VK Saraswat, a senior scientist and a member of Niti Aayog recently said in a interview that though the project has “spiritual and religious” value, it should follow environmental norms, not unnecessarily displace people and not cut trees. The project, usually called the Char Dham linking project, is feared to cut down 50,000 trees of the region.
Scientists usually link such Himalayan disasters with climate change. The temperature rise in the last few decades have led to melting of the glaciers. Leaving aside the two poles, the Himalayan range has the maximum amount of accumulated ice and glaciers. For this reason, the Himalayas are often called the ‘third pole’. It’s the origin of the biggest rivers of Asia. The global warming has already made the glaciers recede. A survey says that by 2100, 70-90 per cent of the glaciers will be lost. In this case, a large chunk of the Nandadevi glacier came off and rushed through the narrow mountainous path and plunged into Dhouli Ganga causing wide spread damage in the surrounding villages, knocking off many of the hydro power plants on the way. The tunnels which were being constructed there for supply of water to the power plants were choked with boulders and silt, trapping several construction workers inside. One estimate says that the losses will run into thousand crores.
Mr. Tapas Ghatak, a geologist who has worked in these mountainous regions for many areas, regretted the tendency of the government and the local administration to ignore the environment impact assessment in the development projects of the region. Mr. Jayanta Bandopadhyay, environmentalist who has worked with Sunderlal Bahuguna and has written extensively on the water management of the Himalayan rivers wondered how long this unscientific treatment of Himalayan basin would continue. If these cloud bursts and glacial melt downs continue to be ignored by the government, both local and at the centre, we are in for real trouble in the near future.