An aerial view of the Dhauli Ganga river flowing through Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, February 12, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis
- Once reputed as the birthplace of the historic ‘Chipko Andolan’, Raini village has of late been in the news for the fragility of its own existence.
- There is no scientific way to erect a hydroelectric power project in the Garhwal Himalaya because erecting such a project itself would be unscientific.
- But for all these threats, and the efforts we have expended to understand them, the Indian government continues to plan new projects for the area in isolated fashion.
We use the term ‘roof on our heads’ to denote safety and security, but for sixteen families of Jugju, an area of Raini village in Uttarakhand’s Niti valley, the roof over their heads has been unstable and dangerous.
Many social media users shared a video earlier this week showing large pieces of rock tumbling over a mountainside, in broad daylight, even as villagers working on their fields nearby shout warnings and run to safety. These villagers have been spending their nights outside their homes, in stable caves in the forest area, fearing rockfalls and landslides at night. They have also requested the district administration for rehabilitation – as they have been asking since 1984.
Once reputed as the birthplace of the historic ‘Chipko Andolan’, Raini village has of late been in the news for the fragility of its own existence. Most recently, it made headlines in February, when an avalanche triggered a flash flood nearby, in the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga valleys, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people and extensive damage to land, property and local infrastructure. The disaster also damaged the local ecology and endangered the livelihoods of Raini’s residents.
The small Rishi Ganga hydroelectric power project aggravated the disaster by blocking the path of the raging waters, forcing them onto land, while the glacial avalanche worsened the stability of the already unstable slope (on which it came down) as well as the stability of rocks in Raini’s Jugju area.
The Himalayan landscape is implicitly unstable because of its great height and because the mountains are still growing, plus the entire region of the head-streams of the Ganga basin is ecologically sensitive. Taken together with the increasing anthropogenic pressure – in the form of hydroelectric power projects, tourist activity and road-widening exercises – it’s not hard to see why the region is as fragile and vulnerable to change as it is. Even when the government has called an activity ‘sustainable’, nature’s responses have time and again called its bluff.
In fact, any assessment of the vulnerability of this region would be incomplete without acknowledging its affinity for landslides, without knowing how its seismic sensitivity is distributed, and without being aware of the para-glacial zones nearby. These are some important reasons why the Garhwal Himalaya of Uttarakhand are prone to flash floods, landslides, severe soil erosion, loss of water sources, earthquakes, forest fires, cloudbursts and glacial avalanches. There is no scientific way to erect a hydroelectric power project here because erecting such a project itself would be unscientific. The same goes for urbanisation and road-widening, especially as in (but not restricted to) the Char Dham mission. All these activities affect slope stability, destroy natural vegetation and create new pathways for water to percolate. All of these are in turn changes that the Himalaya don’t take kindly.
More than 30 landslides have been reported from Himachal Pradesh alone this rainy season, killing many, including the tourists for whose sake the Indian government claims to be pushing its ‘development’ agenda. Rain loosens the topsoil and weakens rocks by slipping into cracks in between them; subsequently, it becomes easier to set both the loosened soil and the weakened rocks in motion.
The recently released climate report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned that the extreme precipitation is projected to become more common, and more intense, over mountainous areas, in turn increasing the risk of floods, landslides and glacial-lake outbursts. The report also stressed on the accelerating pace of glacial melting, leading to higher melt-water pressure on the moraines that serve as natural barriers against water rushing down slopes. If the moraines give way, floods will follow.
But for all these threats, and the efforts we have expended to understand them, the Indian government continues to plan new projects for the area in isolated fashion. Even policy decisions seem unaware of the cumulative impact of any given project on its wider neighbourhood. As a result, we don’t have the appropriate mitigation measures in place, and we continue to compromise our own efforts to conserve and protect these areas. Let’s be clear: our rapid deforestation and the large amounts of muck we’re dumping in forest areas and along rivers are aggravating climate change in both direct and indirect ways.
Geologically speaking, the entire region (the Himalaya of Uttarakhand) straddles two forces in constant opposition – one that’s pushing the land upwards and the other that’s wearing it down. And the forces must continue to exist in opposition, instead of one triumphing over the other, if the mountains must continue to maintain their dynamic equilibria. In this picture, human activities and climate change are additional forces that break the balance.
For example, consider the recent rockfall in Jugju. Ice frozen within cracks in rocks is capable of weakening and shattering the rock. Frost-driven cracking is the result of pressure exerted by the ice on the crack walls; the amount of pressure is determined by ambient temperatures (specifically, cracking efficiency increases at colder temperatures) and how permeable the medium is (permeability decreases at colder temperatures). The cracking also depends on the temperature gradient. So a mass of water that expands upon freezing can exert an appreciable stress against the crack walls.
Since ambient temperature significantly influences this process, we must prepare to understand whether climate change – in the form of, say, warmer days and/or colder nights, and more or less often – could result in more rockfalls in the Himalaya. Similarly, mountain permafrost is the ice in the cracks and crevices of rocks that keeps them together and thus helps stabilise steep slopes. We know today that many of these slopes, which government projects have been tampering with, are unstable, so we must also find out if warmer temperatures overall in the last few decades were the root cause. More broadly, it is high time we developed a high-quality database on these and similar phenomena.
The Himalaya are already rife with unstable slopes, and more and more studies and reports are telling us floods, landslides, etc. are going to become more common. To mitigate these hazards and save more lives, we must stop interfering in these areas, and declare obviously fragile zones to be ‘ecologically sensitive zones’ and protect them accordingly. We must rollback our unresearched, unsustainable activities, restore the natural forest, increase green cover to protect against landslides, and thus minimise the impacts of climate change.
Finally, we must focus on (actually) sustainable activities, continuously monitor slope stability, maintain an inventory of areas prone to landslides and rockfalls, and collect sensor-based data from vulnerable sites to help reduce the risk of future disasters. And we must do these things now, because we are clearly well-past the threshold of exploitation (assuming there was one). The ecosystem services in these areas, the safety and security of their residents, and the health of the Ganga river are all more important than hydroelectric power, wide roads and more tourism.
Mallika Bhanot is a member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum working towards conserving the Ganga and the Himalaya. C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.