Learning from Disasters: A Case Study on the Uttarakhand Floods of 2021

A Case Study on The 2021 Uttarakhand Floods

Mother Earth needs help. But are we listening to her? Or are we ignoring her, as we have done for years, decades, centuries and millennia? Over the years, anthropogenic activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, fertilizer production, planting N-fixing crops, and wastewater disposal have increased pollution levels to drastic and life-threatening levels. Such activities contribute to climate change by causing the deterioration of natural systems and polluting soil, water, and air – making them a huge threat to the environment, and to global socio-economic stability. Although we can’t completely eliminate these activities, we can reduce the pace of degradation and restore our Mother Earth – but only if we act now. To encourage countries all over the world to adopt such an approach, the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines ecosystem restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” Starting on World Environment Day 2021 (5th June); individuals, government and non-government agencies, and organizations of all kinds can join this global movement to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation and secure a sustainable future for all. The Impact of Ecological Damage To better understand the negative impact of ecological deterioration and identify the path ahead for ecological restoration, let’s take an example of a disaster which struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli District on 7th February 2021. On this fateful day, the district – in particular the Nanda Devi National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site – was hit by an avalanche and floods after a portion of the Nanda Devi Glacier broke off. Following what is now known as the “Chamoli Disaster”, a sudden release of water trapped behind the ice caused surging floods in the Rishiganga, Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers, all tributaries of the Ganga. The incident led to the near destruction of the Dhauliganga Dam. The NTPC Tapovan Vishnugad hydel project was also extensively damaged, with several labourers trapped in tunnels when the water came rushing in. The incident also triggered other large-scale devastation, and engendered widespread panic in the high mountain areas of the Chamoli District. More than 70 people lost their lives, and as of July 2021, 132 people are still missing. The Chamoli disaster was caused by an accelerating glacier melting rate in the Himalayan Region, resulting in episodic glacial dam bursts at an increasing magnitude and frequency. Several past studies had already raised warnings of the potential impact of rising ambient temperatures in the Himalayan Region. According to a paper published in the journal ‘Science Advances’ in 2019, the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers has doubled since 2000. Expert advice for Disaster Risk Reduction The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental agency in South and Central Asia, stated in March 2021 that poor infrastructure planning is a significant factor in causing Uttarakhand-like events. They also said the probability of such events happening in the future would increase with accelerating climate change and socio-economic changes like over exploitation of natural resources, use of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, unplanned land use emissions etc. Infrastructure such as hydropower and roadways can also impact the surrounding environment in negative ways. So, sustainability should be a key consideration for all infrastructure project feasibility studies, as should identifying the links and dependencies between environment, society and. Furthermore, remote sensing-based studies with geo-spatial insights, solutions and modelling, can provide a broad understanding of the status of a glacial lake in a large area, which can help prevent Chamoli-like disasters in future. With the Chamoli mishap, the question arises as to the cause. Why did the Nanda Devi glacier break-off during the cold winter month of February? Glacier and ice sheet mass loss due to global warming – driven by climate change and anthropogenic activities – may add to the volume of trapped water within the glacial ice mass. The need of the hour is extensive surveys and investigations to identify trapped melt water on the valley floor, and/or within the glacial mass. Looking Ahead to the Future An improved in situ monitoring network for weather, hydrology and glacier change is crucial for predicting the future of the glacier melt rate changes and associated hazards, not only in Chamoli, but in every similarly vulnerable area of the world. There is an urgent need to gather baseline data to understand the hydrology, geology, and climate change response of the Himalayan glaciers. Currently, there are many unknowns which makes it difficult to predict and quantify future catastrophic events that may unfortunately become the “new normal” as the pace of climate change continues unabated. Of course, socioeconomic development is essential to improving human lives and living standards. However, development needs to be implemented and constructed sustainably, with an eye on how it impacts the ecological environment. Before initiating any development project; proper planning, and a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are essential. This will enable governments to take a decision on environmental clearance for the particular project and to predict the effect of a proposed activity/ project on the environment. In addition, the following important steps must be undertaken to mitigate the Chamoli disaster and minimize the frequency of similar disasters:
  • Identify risk hotspots and take strong measures for structural improvement that would prevent such sudden glacier breakoffs
  • Identify high-risk, potential disaster areas by studying the geomorphological and geotechnical characteristics of the surrounding dam and lake
  • Monitor lake bodies using technologies like remote sensing and GIS [Geographic information system]
  • Reduce the volume of water in lakes by various methods, thereby ensuring the structural management of such water bodies
  • Establish robust early warning systems
  • Build resilient infrastructure in multi-hazard risk hotspots
  • Enhance preparedness for responding to cascading disasters
  • Restrict human habitation in risk-prone areas
Protection of Ecological Resources Biodiversity in the work site and area of influence must be protected. The Earth is our only home, so we must take care of it. Everyone can contribute to this effort by many small actions that they can take every day:
  • Spread awareness about the dangers of ecological damage
  • As far as possible, use alternative energy resources like solar and wind power
  • Stop burning waste and adding to air pollution
  • Use water wisely
  • Do not throw chemicals, oils, paints, and medicines down the sink drain, or toilet
  • Buy environmentally-safe cleaning liquids
  • Never overuse chemicals and pesticides in gardens, parks or farms
  • Segregate degradable and non-degradable waste in separate bins
  • Plant more trees
To improve lives for our future generations, let’s all join hands and make a concerted effort to restore our ecosystems. Recreate, Re-imagine, Restore!

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