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Waiting for Joshimath, or the Need To Restore Tenuous Balance in Fragile Ecologies

Waiting for Joshimath, or the Need To Restore Tenuous Balance in Fragile Ecologies

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a discursive novel about a mysterious wait in the middle of nowhere. In the light of the damning comments by the M.C. Mishra committee in 1976 that Joshimath ‘sits on an ancient landslide’ and is ‘not a suitable place for setting up of a township’, the sense of complacency, blithe indifference, blatant disregard, gross negligence, and nonchalant anticipation of a disaster, is a cautionary fable in its own league.

More than four decades back, when cracks first emerged in Joshimath, a town in Uttarakhand which is a holy shrine and transit point to tourism hubs in the region such as Valley of Flowers, the regional commissioner, M.C. Mishra, constituted an 18-member committee which unambiguously concluded that any haphazard construction activities risk disturbing the fragile equilibrium of the region.

With the swaggering pace of mistaken modernity and its visible accoutrements multiplying over years, the scathing indictment got buried under the miasma of a pursuit untethered from any considerations for nature.

Environmentalists have asserted that detailed zoning maps, which warned of these risks, were submitted to the state governments over two decades ago. As per findings by Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA), Joshimath lies in a highly vulnerable seismic one, and has witnessed many earthquakes.

Due to the spate of mega development projects, aimed at boosting connectivity and access rolled over the last few years, there has been additional stress on the already fragile ecosystem. The issue concerns not just Joshimath but all climate-sensitive ecologies everywhere. Himalayas are more vulnerable than the others due to their unique geological formation.

Often referred to as ‘Young Fold’ mountains, they were formed as a result of tectonic collision millions of years ago, which is comparably recent on a geological timescale.

“Joshimath is a deposit of sand and stone – it is not the main rock – hence it was not a suitable place for the coming up of a township. Vibrations produced by blasting and heavy traffic will also lead to disequilibrium in natural factors”, states the Mishra Committee report.

It is worth noting that owing to shaky foundations over an ancient landslide, and the alarming risk of land erosion and dredging, Joshimath is not an isolated case, but a scary microcosm of the Himalayan region.

What transpired in Joshimath as a result of the flagrant breach of the covenant between mankind and nature, is more than just a frightening writing on the wall.

Other popular tourist spots in the region such as Mussourie and Nainital are being swamped under indiscriminate construction, mushrooming urbanism, and massive inflow of people.

The ecological risk is of a grave magnitude, from lakes shrinking to polluted seasonal streams, and unusually hot weather.

Beyond the immediacy of addressing these challenges, lies the fundamental dilemma of balancing growth and development, individual harkening and collective aspirations, and illusionary projections being foisted upon by the purveyors of unbounded growth as a self-exonerating end in itself.

This is a disaster waiting to cascade and unfold across different geographies, and a clarion call to avoid callous human intervention in sensitive areas. Conservation starts with the recognition of leaving natural landscapes unsullied.

Also Read | Uncontrolled Construction, Ignored Warnings: How Joshimath Sank

Geospatial solution?

Geospatial and Earth Observation have been of great help to figure out the damage and calculate the land sinking.

With the help of remote sensing techniques such as PsInSAR (Persistent Scattering Synthetic Aperture Radar), Machine Learning, and AI algorithms, subsidence has been determined.

A study by National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) shows that between April-November 2022, Joshimath sank by 8.9 cms. Prior to this, in 2021, a team of IIT-Ropar predicted land subsiding in Joshi- math while they were conducting research in nearby Tapovan.

“Initially we ran 16 images received using PSInSAR from January 2020 to April 2021 through Machine Learning models and predicted displacement to be up to 8.5-10 centimetres in the future. This figure is enough for cracks to develop in buildings, possibly even cause structural failures”, said Reet Kamal Tiwari, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, IIT-Ropar.

The seven-page NRSC report, since taken down, bases its findings on Sentinel-1 SAR satellite imagery which uses the DINSAR (Differential SAR interferometry) method to observe change over a period of time. Precise SAR imagery can measure different terrains, buildings, settlements, and geological formations, and has millimetre-level accuracy.

Launched in 2014 by the ESA (European Space Association), Sentinel-1 is used for monitoring geohazards, polar caps melting, land movements, surface risks, and water management.

Sentinel-1 is one of the most authoritative satellite platforms for disaster mitigation imagery. The subsidence zone identified by Sentinel was correlated with imagery from ISRO Cartosat 2S.

Why SAR?

Satellite data provides authoritative information pertaining to most climate change variables. Satellites are used to track pollution and monitor greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane.

New generation satellites have enhanced optical and temporal resolutions that have improved weather forecasting, climate modelling, and the ability to obtain real-time details.

Due to their peerless ability to operate during day and night, as well as see-through cloud cover, SAR satellites have become the preferred choice for ecological monitoring, from land degradation to subsidence, and depleting vegetation cover and biomass to melting polar caps. The additional advantage of SAR is that it remains completely unaffected by atmospheric conditions.

SAR has been used to monitor everything from volcanic eruptions, landslides to floods. With tech innovations and recent developments in SAR, it is an immensely powerful tool in combatting climate change and advancing sustainability.

A NASA-ISRO joint collaboration, NISAR, is going to be a breakthrough in space collaboration between two leading space agencies, as well as a new chapter in collaborative projects between Washington and New Delhi for high-definition earth monitoring.

NISAR will map the entire earth using two different radar frequencies, known as the L band and the S band. The satellite will provide an unparalleled view of the earth’s surface that will enable disaster management organizations and researchers to analyze.

As per the official communique, ‘NASA is providing the mission’s L-band synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder and payload data subsystem, while ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch service’.

ISRO will use NISAR data for agricultural mapping, and monitoring sub-surface changes and developments in the Himalayan region, along with coastline mapping. The first NISAR satellite is set to be launched in 2024, after more than eight years of extensive development and research.

NISAR will undoubtedly boost India’s disaster management capabilities, strengthening early warning systems, response planning, and enabling agencies to get the most accurate insights that can help people on-ground.

Artist’s concept of the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite in orbit. Photo: NASA, Public Domain

Ringing alarm bells

While SAR imagery undoubtedly plays a major role in detecting disasters and devising workable action plans for evacuation, rehabilitation, and preventing the situation from degrading further, a lot more needs to be done, ranging from timely action to creating mass awareness about complex systems and their tipping points.

James Lovelock, a British scientist and environmentalist, is known for a lot of path-breaking inventions, including the Electron Capture Detector, which fundamentally changed the way we view our world, galvanizing environmental movements and creating awareness about the innate dependency we have on nature.

His Gaia Hypothesis talks about constant interactions and feedback in a synergistic and self-regulating complex system. Traditional communities dwelling in hilly regions had their covenant with their natural geography and ecology, which continued inter-generationally.

Joshimath is at the crossroads of many vaunted government infrastructure projects including the Char Dham Pariyojna, a highway project that intends connectivity across the four holy shrines.

It’s ironical that the Char Dham Yatra itself symbolises a spiritual journey involving gruelling hardships such as inclement weather, rugged terrain, and the immense faith and fortitude required to bear the various privations, with the aim of getting transfixed at the glimpse of the shrines. Such yatras are not occasions for “a guilt free spiritual saturnalia” as remarked by a very senior environmental observer and commentator.

There are also projects related to railway lines underway. Locals have blamed tunnelling for feeding water to the turbines of a hydropower station in nearby areas by a leading state corporation for accelerating the subsiding.

The organisation has rejected the allegations. There is no empirical way to ascertain the veracity of any of the respective claims and pass a verdict, and certainly, there can’t be just one proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back here. What happened was accruing over the years.

Also Read: Band-Aid Solutions Will Not Prevent Future Joshimaths in the Himalayan Region

Hamstrung capability?

Doublespeak entered the English lexicon with George Orwell’s eerily dystopian 1984. The term denotes the acute inconsistency between stated aim and reality. No other word can be used to describe the apparent chasm between the avowed aim of widespread distribution of geospatial data, and the facile attempt to tap the outflow of information under the pretext of ‘sowing confusion’. For advancing sustainability imperative and data-driven holistic development, this gap needs to be plugged.

The gag order issued by NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) against NRSC and other government agencies is a part of the problem, not the solution. It is the same mindset of not addressing unpalatable issues and protracted delays that bring us to the verge of these disasters.

Apathy of governments is among the foremost reasons for a lot of climate emergencies and ecological hazards globally. When spatial insights get mired in bureaucratic obstruction, glib officialese, and the interminable drill of holding things in abeyance, the true potential of geospatial can never be harnessed. This holds back societies and countries from keeping up with changing times.

While the world we inhabit is rapidly changing, there’s no alternative to striking a harmonious balance between innovation and sustainability. The two are not mutually exclusive, and should reinforce each other.

This can be done through new ways of conceptualising the problems, and thinking and planning spatially, with the abiding spirit of convergence, not just of technologies, systems and workflows, but everything in the near environment.

Geospatial needs to be augmented with proper planning, swift decision-making, active response, charting assessment roadmap, and frequent impact validation. Mapping, monitoring, and analysis need to be in sync with concerted action and taking various steps to prevent the situation from worsening.

When we talk about making geospatial databases publicly available and using innovative methods, the biggest stumbling block is any directive or order that restricts sharing of this data, or applying it.

Diagnosing a malady is only the first step, though the most foundational one. This is why reliable geospatial insights have to be backed up with due vigilance, transparency, and a comprehensive action plan.

“Development is not a zero-sum game. It must take a holistic view and balance conflicting demands of development and environmental and ecological protection. What is needed is an optimal solution, not a maximized solution,” says a former space scientist and geospatial veteran.

He asks some fundamental unanswered questions that lie at the core of hazard planning and mitigation: why build a four-lane highway in a mountainous zone where two lanes are sufficient? Why a railway line in addition? Why a tunnel to divert the river waters to the hydropower station turbines?

Were these studied in detail and in conjunction to analyze their impact? Time to apply Gati Shakti methodology and processes here.

Knowing that Joshimath is a temple town that draws seasonal visitors who outnumber the residents, what were the ‘smart’ building codes, utilities management and disaster preparedness? Is ‘smartness’ only for megapolises?

Global hazard

In an interconnected world any outbreak anywhere presents a grim foreboding. Neither are risks localised, nor are the complex issues related to them. Global warming is said to be a major trigger for land subsidence.

As per a 2020 report by the British Geological Survey, climate change is accelerating land subsidence, putting millions of people on the brink of homelessness in the UK alone.

The same year, UNESCO-funded research said that by 2040 over 20% of the world’s population will be at risk of land subsidence.

A Guardian article by Weronika Strzyżyńska, states that Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, has sunk by more than 2.5 meters in the past decade, prompting the government to plan relocating the capital 1,000 km away to Borneo.

Unregulated groundwater extraction, unsustainable farming practices, and increasing stress on habitats, are said to be the main reasons for compounding land subsidence from Indonesia to Iran, and from Granada to Japan.

“Groundwater in the US, Mexico, China, and India, is being rapidly drained to meet global food demand. Continued subsidence in those areas will affect populations worldwide,” the Guardian quotes Gerardo Herrera-García, who is associated with the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain. Garcia was the lead researcher of the UNESCO report.

It’s evident that there are multiple reasons for land subsidence in regions that are topographically distinct. However, there is one common trigger – unrestricted human activity, unfettered resource exploitation, feckless attitude to nature conservation, outmoded town planning, and ever-increasing emissions.

Spatial applications help connect the dots to show how everything around us is interconnected. No better visualisation of assessment and analytics can give such a detailed bird-eye view. A multi-pronged approach with constant feedback and grassroots involvement is the need of the hour.

There’s no deficit on the technology front and geospatial insights act as a canary in the coal mine. But someone has to discern discordant notes from the usual clatter, and act as befits a perilous situation.

Aditya Chaturvedi is Associate Editor, Geospatial Media & Communications.

This article first appeared on Geospatial World.

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