Uttarakhand Glacier Disaster

  • IASbaba
  • February 9, 2021
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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  • GS-3: Disaster and disaster management. 
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Uttarakhand Glacier Disaster

Context: In a staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi mountain and the ensuing floods many lives have been lost.

What exactly happened?

  • More than 200 people went missing after flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. So far, 20 bodies have been recovered. 
  • The flash floods were caused by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. 
  • The resulting avalanche and deluge in the Alaknanda river system(Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers in Chamoli district) washed away a hydroelectric station (Tapovan power project) and five bridges (that connected nearby villages)
  • Multi-agency rescue work is on in the state as the authorities evacuated thousands of people from the affected areas
  • Apart from the terrain and the low temperature, mud and debris in the tunnel is posing a major challenge for the rescuers

Source: BBC

What caused the flood?

  • The remoteness of where this happened means no-one has a definitive answer, so far.
  • Experts say one possibility is that massive ice blocks broke off the glacier due to a temperature rise, releasing a huge amount of water.
  • That could have caused avalanches bringing down rocks and mud. This is a strong possibility because there was a huge amount of sediment flowing down
  • Another possibility is that an avalanche or landslide may have dammed the river for some time, causing it to burst out after the water level rose.
  • Experts say an avalanche could also have hit a glacial lake that then burst ( a term known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flood- GLOF)

Do You Know?

  • Dhauliganga is a left tributary of the Alaknanda, the left headwater of the Ganges, in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand.
  • Dhauliganga is joined by Rishiganga river at Raini, where the disaster at the power project dam took place.

Critical Analysis of the Uttarakhand Tragedy

  • Developmental Challenges:  The tragedy is a failure to draw a balance between fragile ecosystems & topography and development imperatives, compounded by climate-change effects. The increased pace of development in the region has also heightened fears about fallout from deforestation and other environmental troubles.
  • Climate Change as reason for such tragedies: Warming could have led to formation of hitherto undetected proglacial lakes > role played by climate change, which could have been worsen by development projects.
  • Earthquake prone region: Experts have pointed out that the hundreds of power projects and widening of roads is playing havoc with the ecologically fragile region which is also earthquake-prone.
  • Grim reminder: The tragedy come as a deadly reminder that this fragile, geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted. 
  • Losing Environmentalism of State: Once the crucible of environmentalism, epitomised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi and the Chipko movement, the State’s deep gorges and canyons have attracted many hydroelectric projects and dams, with little concern for earthquake risk. 
  • Not a new phenomenon: Red flags have been raised repeatedly, particularly after the moderate quake in 1991 in the region where the Tehri dam was built and the 2013 floods that devastated Kedarnath, pointing to the threat from dam-induced microseismicity, landslides and floods from a variety of causes, including unstable glacial lakes and climate change.
  • Perils of hydropower Projects: India is heavily invested in dam development and growth of hydropower, largely in the Himalaya region (plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills) so as to cut carbon emissions. However, the dangers of such projects include potential earthquake impacts, severe biodiversity loss and, importantly, extreme danger to communities downstream.
  • Miscalculation of life of dams: There is also some evidence that the life of dams is often exaggerated, and siltation, which reduces it, is grossly underestimated: in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, siltation was higher by 140% than calculated. 
  • Dangers in Future: The number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase in most regions in the coming decades, and new lakes will develop closer to steep and potentially unstable mountain walls, where lake outbursts can be more easily triggered.

Conclusion/ Way Forward

  • Centre and the Uttarakhand government cannot ignore the larger context of the State’s increasing frailty in the face of environmental shocks. 
  • The need is to rigorously study the impact of policy on the Himalayas and confine hydro projects to those with the least impact, while relying more on low impact run-of-the-river power projects that need no destructive large dams and reservoirs. 

Connecting the dots :

  • Institutional Structure for Disaster Management: Click here

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