Nanda Devi Glacier Outburst : Another Manmade Disaster, A Fresh Warning

By : Rakesh Lohumi, Sr. Advisor cum Sr. Editor-ICN Group

SHIMLA: The havoc wreaked by Nanda Devi “glacier burst” in Chamoli region of Uttarakhand early this week is a grim reminder that Mother Nature will eventually make the humans accountable for their indiscrete actions. It has once again made us pay dearly for tinkering with the ecologically most fragile Himalayan ecosystem, which sustain livelihoods in the most populous part of the world. It is also a warning about the future environmental shocks that await the inhabitants of the region.

The disaster played out exactly in the manner as warned and predicted by climate scientists.  Sizeable part of the glacier at Nanda Devi broke off and hurtled down the steep slope into river Rishi Ganga like an avalanche. There was a sudden surge in the discharge in  Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga due to the glacial slide and the ensuing flash floods  wiped out everything along the banks of the two rivers. Over 200 people perished and 2 hydropower plants, under construction 13.2 MW Rishi Ganga Power Project and 530 MW Dhauliganga hydel project, a major bridge and other public and private property suffered extensive damage. 

Ironically, it was Raini village, from where the famous Chipko movement originated, that bore the brunt of the river’s fury. The local people had become aware of the hazards of rapid environmental degradation caused by indiscriminate felling of trees, construction of hydropower plants and other development projects in early days. They started the Chipko movement way back in 1970s, long before the world woke up to the challenge of global warming and climate change phenomena. They had all through opposed setting up of hydropower projects in the rivers. In this particular case, they even moved high court in 2019 against the environmentally disastrous practices being adopted in construction of projects. However, still a number of projects have come up and some are under construction. They rue that the region would have not suffered such devastation had the authorities addressed the concerns raised by them and taken corrective action to protect the fragile environment. 

It is the same story across the Himalayan states. Despite stiff resistance from local people and concerns raised by scientists and climate activists, the Centre and state governments have gone ahead with their plans to set up with mega hydropower plants, highways and other projects. As a result the highly earthquake prone Himalayan region, particularly Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, is becoming increasingly vulnerable to flash floods, landslides and other such disasters, besides tremors. While melting of Himalayan glaciers is largely a result of climate change phenomenon induced by global warming, the environmentally unsustainable development model being pursued over the past few decades has only hastened the process.

The frequency and scale of such calamities is bound to increase as glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), caused by moraine-dammed lakes, has emerged as the new hazard. A GLOF-risk assessment carried out by Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) a few years ago put the number of glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region at more than 8,000. Using high-resolution images from Resourcesat-2 LISS IV satellite scientists have located 958 lakes, including 345 moraine-dammed lakes, in Himachal Pradesh and 1266, including 329 moraine-dammed lakes, in Uttarakhand. The number has been increasing with each year. Earlier studies had identified 156 glacial (2004) and 779 lakes (2014) in Himachal Pradesh.

Apart from largescale deforestation, unregulated and excessive anthropogenic activities in the geologically unstable and environmentally fragile Himalayan mountain ranges. Excessive human activity in high altitude areas has indeed accelerated the process of environmental degradation and aggravated the impact of climate change. Development projects, particularly power projects and roads, have led to expansion of human activities to highly eco-sensitive high altitude areas right up to glaciated catchments. The development activity being carried out in utter disregard to environmental norms, is not only hastening the melting of glaciers but also increasing the destructive potential of avalanches, floods, especially GLOFs, manifold. 

The impact is visible in the shape of supra-glacial lakes, water bodies formed on the surface of glaciers due to melting of snow. A joint Study conducted by Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) in Dehradun and IIT-Kharagpur had found 809 supra-glacial lakes in Uttarakhand and 228 in Himachal Pradesh. Himachal has more glaciers than Uttarakhand but it is topographically, better placed. It is located northwards, compared to Uttarakhand, and as such it receives less solar radiations. Over the past three decades, winter is getting warmer and wetter. There has been a persistent decline in snowfall and more of precipitation is taking place in the form of rain. Consequently, the perennial snowline and the seasonal snow cover are receding and many high altitude areas, which earlier experienced heavy snow through the winter, hardly get any snow. Even cold desert areas of tribal Lahaul Spiti and Kinnaur districts in Himachal are frequently experience rain of late, which is unusual.  

The two Himalayan states have already witness four such disasters, which were triggered by events in high altitude glaciated catchments, over the past two decades. The first major event occurred in Sutlej river when bursting of a lake deep inside Tibet caused flash floods in August 2000 causing unprecedented loss of life and property.. The second such calamity struck in June 2005 when a lake formed by a landslide in Parechu river in Tibet burst. 

The neighbouring Uttarakhand was ravaged by the Kedarnath disaster in June 2013 and it involved the Chorabari lake which burst during heavy rain. It was the worst disaster that claimed thousands of lives. The devastation caused by the latest Nanda Devi glacier slide is minimal in comparison but the message Mother Nature has sent through it should not be missed. 

There is still time to take corrective action and remedial measure to protect ecologically sensitive high-altitude areas by restricting human activities through a policy framework. As eco-sensitivity, increases with altitude, human activity should decease, particularly in areas beyond 7000 ft across the Himalayan region. It not only essential to prevent natural disasters but also to preserve the fresh water sources, which sustain life in the hills.

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