Saturday, June 29, 2013

Destructive development in Uttarakhand

Praful Bidwal in the News (Pakistan): It will take years to roll back the ecological, social, economic and psychological damage including over 1,000 deaths – wrought by the terrible floods in Uttarakhand, India’s north Himalayan state. The deeper causes of this epic tragedy were man-made, not natural. They include official policies and governance failures: aggressive promotion and runaway growth of tourism; unchecked, unplanned development of roads, hotels, shops, mines and multi-storeyed housing in ecologically fragile areas; and above all, the planned development of scores of environmentally destructive hydroelectricity dams.

These ensured that cloudbursts and heavy rainfall, which routinely occur in Uttarakhand, turned into a catastrophe. My experience as a member of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects confirms the special contribution of dams.

...An early warning system, effective evacuation plans, and a responsive disaster management system would have prevented a massive loss of precious life. But they weren’t in place – another governance failure. Inexpensive radar-based cloudburst-forecasting would have given a three-hour warning. But it wasn’t installed because of inter-agency squabbles. The meteorological department has no reliable record of rainfall at different locations. According to reports, Kedarnath didn’t even have a rain gauge!

...The government has zealously promoted tourism to a point when tourist arrivals reached 25 million, almost two-and-a-half times Uttarakhand’s entire population. Roads, hotels, houses, shops and restaurants were recklessly built upon forest lands, caving ridges, steep slopes, and worst of all, the flood plains of rivers. Encroachment of these ‘natural boundaries’ of rivers is fraught with grave danger. Yet, important government buildings, including a university, a radio station, a jail and the headquarters of a paramilitary force, were built on them.

However, the worst culprits are hydroelectric dams, which have spread like a rash on Rivers Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi and their tributaries. Seventy dams have already been built, including 23 mega-projects generating 100 MW-plus. ... Many dams are built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for the river’s regeneration.

...Geologically, Uttarakhand is extremely fragile, being part of the world’s youngest mountain range. Much of it lies in the seismically ‘most active’ Zones IV and V, with high tectonic activity that can suddenly alter the contours of land and the course of rivers. This greatly increases Uttarakhand’s disaster potential. ...

An 1895 photo in the vicinity of Uttarakhand: The dam and the Bhim temple, built by Baz Bahadhur Chand, Raja of Kumaon, in the 17th century at Bhimtal

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