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The Science and the Political Economy of the Rishi Ganga Flood

The Science and the Political Economy of the Rishi Ganga Flood

Maxar’s satellite image of the under-construction Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower plant project along the Dhauliganga river, 2018. Image: Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters.

The flash floods in Rishi Ganga and Dhauliganga, on February 7, 2021, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, occurred at a time not generally known for floods. This calls for a deeper understanding of the hydrogeological features of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau to understand the February 7 disaster itself.

There is very little factual information on the tragedy. Even geoscientists are still looking for the source of such a large volume of water, where the glacier came from and how the temporary build-up in the Dhauliganga gorge evaded monitoring.

Some scientists undertook an aerial survey recently, which is likely to throw some more light on the actual processes that led to this event.

Dave Petley, a geologist at the University of Sheffield, attempted to reconstruct the possible process leading up to the event on the American Geophysical Union blog:

1. For a few months, a large failure had been developing in the high mountains

2. On February 7 morning, the block collapsed in an enormous landslide

3. The landslide entrained stagnant ice and glacial debris

4. The flow followed the valley to the west and struck populated areas there

Image: Landsat/Copernicus

Poor investment in research

The event is a dreadful reminder of the poor investments in research and investigations of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The world knows that these mountains, which are still growing at 1-10 cm a year (approx. the rate at which our fingernails grow), are constantly trying to find a balance. After the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate 40-50 million years ago, the crust folded upwards to create the Himalaya, and there is still considerable tension underneath them.

The mountains release this tension from time to time by creating faults and fractures. But energy continues to accumulate. This is one reason why there are continuous swarms of micro-earthquakes in the region, and why the small number of attempts to systematically analyse Himalayan neotectonics is considered woeful.

Unlike the Tibetan plateau, which is much more stable, the Indian Himalaya is criss-crossed by large and deep faults and fractures, both longitudinal and latitudinal. The few organisations that study them are not funded for long periods, limiting the opportunities for the long-term research by which scholars can better understand the region.

Also read: Why Delhi Experiences So Many Tremors, What That Means for Future Earthquakes

There is also no widespread network of permanent data collection systems and whatever little data exists is intermittent. The effects of different aspects of climate change – like the snow albedo-temperature feedback initiated by a transfer of latent and sensible heat from a warmer atmosphere over the Hindu Kush Himalaya/Tibetan Plateau region to the underlying snow surface – continue to be little understood. Only a few studies exist that focus on the diverse aspects of neotectonic and rapid ecological changes. Such transient geological regimes are unpredictable in terms of their rheological properties and thus the extent of downstream damage.

(According to the Oxford dictionary, rheology is “the branch of physics that deals with the deformation and flow of matter”.)

Good science apart, the damage per se – as it is classically recognised – is not of these still under-study natural causes but because of our poor planning and management. It seems to be normal when the agencies speculate about the number of workers trapped in a tunnel or the fact that all labour colonies of projects are located mostly in vulnerable sites. The trauma of the people missing is appalling and reflects how we abuse our workers.

It’s also strange that no information is available about the families whose members are missing and of workers who have been forced to leave. The officials seem to have sought no records nor have the concerned agencies and the media tried to make a list.

India has been belligerently tampering with the third pole and the reality of the fragile Himalayas, and is exacerbating a huge risk. There is a decade-old map (below) showing the populations at risk due to seismicity. The events of the kind that were triggered on February 7 would be multiplied many-fold if there were to be a huge quake in the region. And we would be unprepared for it – as we have been for even a relatively smaller tragedy.

Source: Bilham and Wallace 2005

Bad projects, poor implementation

The political economy of the country has a history of pushing projects that enable quick profits but don’t ensure that the investments have lasting returns. The power and pleasure of ‘ribbon-cutting’ and accompanying rent-seeking has led to very low quality of construction of our roads, bridges and, in more recent times, tunnels and dams accompanying hydroelectric projects. We seem to be blasting more (rock) than any war would – but even the quantum and amount of blasting being done in the Himalaya is unknown.

Given the massive power surplus, stranded assets in the power sector warrant a white paper on the sector, and the perpetrators of these economic and ecological destruction must be fixed. Take the case of Kinnaur, where Jaypee Industries walked away with over half-a-billion dollars in gains running its power project while the villagers suffered the consequences later. Similarly, our large surplus capacity of cement and steel has been pushing mindless infrastructure projects in the country.

Our cumulative knowledge accumulated is still very poor, and the promotional environmental assessments that the projects’ proponents have undertaken have played no useful role in the environmental management of dams or roads in the Himalaya. Repeated efforts by communities, especially those directly impacted, have led to little improvement. In fact, the quality of new projects seems to be worse.

Rush to compete or ape China?

In recent times, a mindless comparison with the infrastructure being built across the border in China is being used to ramp up the construction of various kinds of infrastructure, but which have neither value nor befit the geological conditions of the terrain and the needs of the people. The government’s focus on an imaginary $5-trillion economy, fetish for the wrong kinds of projects and at larger scale and in greater numbers will not only kill the economy but completely compromise the future.

The projects in the Himalayan rivers, from Arunachal Pradesh to Kashmir, being pursued in the name of development make each one a potential site for future damages. The Indian Himalaya needs a completely different trajectory of development, as the current one has only encouraged the local people to migrate away from the Himalaya and has systematically eroded the ecosystem.

India seems to believe that its neighbours will abide by any “first-use principle” and won’t develop any infrastructure over Himalayan river systems despite the fact that even the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which it is a part of, has offered to fund those controversial projects irrespective of governance issues.

While the Government of India wants to get out of business, it seems to be making a business out of this model of development, where corporate profits and the sentiments of Dalal Street take primacy and bring bad outcomes for the people. A quick look at the types of projects being pushed through, from no less than the prime minister’s office, clearly indicates the massively misdirected investments we are up against.

Making and bending laws

The making and bending of laws have become a matter of paperwork. If the judiciary held that undertaking several projects in the Himalayas would be disastrous, how has science been set aside, and projects continue to run with absolutely no due diligence? For instance, the Rishi Ganga power project that got destroyed and killed several workers and others near Reni village, was established by a gold refining and trading company. All the contracts awarded by PSUs are shady.

The wholesale dilution of laws in the name of “ease of doing business”, or expanding of roads in the Himalaya to accelerate the flow of already overflowing “religious tourists” by illogically segmenting it to avoid environmental scrutiny, rough-riding social concerns and making disaster relief a spectacle – all of it is becoming too obvious. How many laws have been compromised?

The damages being wrought on the third pole are too widespread and significant to be buried even under a huge avalanche of offensive action against sane voices, by calling them anti-development, including the “new FDI”. Since the construction of the Rohtang tunnel, forays are being made into the Chenab and Parvati valleys, which portend great danger.

It’s time the powerful state of Uttarakhand listens to sane voices and sound science. The Hindu Kush Himalayan geology, tectonics and ecosystems demand comprehensive study, which the current geopolitics does not enable and which the political economy does not want.

But the reality is out there for the entire world to see.

R. Sreedhar is an earth scientist and has been working in the northwestern Himalayas for over three decades.

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