NEW DELHI – Long before the floods came, washed away hundreds of people and wiped out newly built dams and bridges, the warning signs were clear.
The Himalayas have been warming at an alarming rate for years, melting ice long trapped in glaciers, earth and rocks, and increasing the risk of devastating floods and landslides, scientists warned. The local population is fragile and the region’s ecosystem has become too fragile for large development projects.
However, the Indian government overruled expert objections and local residents’ protests to blast stones and build hydropower projects in volatile areas such as that in northern Uttarakhand state, where disaster struck.
Officials said Monday that the bodies of 26 victims had been recovered while searches continued for nearly 200 missing people. On Sunday, a wave of water and debris rushed through the steep mountain valleys of the Rishiganga River, clearing everything on its way. Most of the victims were workers on the energy projects.
Villagers said the authorities overseeing the expensive development projects failed to prepare them for what was to come and gave them a false sense of confidence that nothing would happen.
“There was no government disaster management program or training in the village,” said Bhawan Singh Rana, head of Raini village, which has suffered some of the worst damage. “Our village is on a rock and we fear that it could slip at any time.”
The security forces concentrated on a tunnel in which 30 people were trapped. The food was flown to about 13 villages where the roads were cut off and about 2,500 people were trapped.
The devastation of the Uttarakhand floods has once again drawn attention to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas, where millions of people are feeling the effects of global warming. The World Bank has warned that climate change could seriously affect the living conditions of up to 800 million people in South Asia. But the effects are already being felt, often fatally, across much of the Himalayan Belt from Bhutan to Afghanistan.
The region has approximately 15,000 glaciers that retreat at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade. The melting feeds or creates thousands of glacial lakes that can suddenly break through the ice and rocky debris that hold them back and cause catastrophic flooding. In Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan, large numbers of glacial lakes have been classified as immediately dangerous by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental group.
Nepal was particularly at risk as climate change forced entire villages to move to lower areas to survive from a worsening water crisis. Deadly flash floods, caused in part by the bursting of glacial lakes, have also become more common.
Scientists have repeatedly warned that development projects in the region are a deadly gamble that could potentially make the situation worse.
Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute in Uttarakhand, said a 2012 government-appointed panel of experts recommended that dams should not be built in the Alaknanda Bhagirathi Basin, including the Rishiganga. He was part of a scientific committee appointed by India’s highest court in 2014 that also advised against building dams in the “paraglacial zone,” an area where the valley floor is more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
“But the government decided to build it,” he said. Both hydropower projects that were hit by Sunday’s flood – one wiped out and the other badly damaged – were built in the zone, he said.
DP Dobhal, former scientist at the Wadia State Institute for Himalayan Geology said: “When we develop projects like this in the Himalayas, such as hydropower projects or roads and rails, the data from the glacier study are never considered or taken into account in detailed project reports.”
The government is building more than 500 miles of freeway in Uttarkhand to improve access to several large Hindu temples, although environmentalists have objected to the massive deforestation required, which can accelerate erosion and increase the risk of landslides.
One appointed by the Supreme Court of India and appointed by Dr. Chopra-led committee concluded last year that the government had breached the advice of its own experts at the Ministry of Transport in building the 10-meter-wide highway. The government had argued that a wider road would bring more economic dividends and would be necessary for the potential use of large-scale military equipment on the controversial border with China.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled that the road should be limited to 5.5 meters, hundreds of acres of forest and tens of thousands of trees had already been felled, according to a report by Indian news agency The Scroll.
“If you learn from your own ministry experts that the Himalayan roads shouldn’t have a tarred surface greater than 5.5 meters and then you violate the recommendations of your own experts, it is serious business,” said Dr. Chopra. “Unless the courts deal with the issue of sanctions officers and personally accountable enforcement officers, I don’t think the situation will change.”
Trivendra Singh Rawat, the prime minister of Uttarakhand, warned against viewing the flood as “a reason for creating an anti-development narrative”.
“I reaffirm the commitment of our government to develop the Uttarakhand hills in a sustainable way and we will leave no stone unturned to ensure that this is achieved,” Rawat said on Twitter.
What exactly caused the recent floods was not clear from Monday evening. The Indian government said a team of experts would visit the site to investigate. Ranjeet Rath, the head of India’s geological survey, said initial information indicated “glacier calving at the highest altitude”. When calving, chunks of ice are broken from the edge of a glacier.
Scientists who examined satellite imagery before and after the flood said this was likely not caused by the bursting of a glacial lake, as no such lake was visible in the images.
They said the disaster most likely started with the collapse of a rocky slope that had become unstable from the thawing of ice in recent summers, and that such a landslide could have broken part of a glacier.
An avalanche could have dammed the river temporarily, creating a lake that was then cleared, said Umesh K. Haritashya, a scientist who studies glacier hazards at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
Avalanches also generate heat through friction, which can melt ice lying in its path or in the tumbling debris.
“Basically, it’s a landslide that’s a fraction of rock and a piece of ice,” said Dan Shugar, a geomorphologist at the University of Calgary, Alberta. “A lot of ice has melted. And it could have included a lot more. “
Raini village was in one of the hardest hit areas on Sunday, with the 13-megawatt Rishiganga hydropower project completely washed away. After that, around 100 of the village’s 150 residents spent the night outdoors.
“We didn’t sleep in our houses for fear that more water might come, stones might shift, something more dangerous might happen,” said Mr. Rana, the village chief. “We took our bedding out into the woods, lit some fires, and kind of spent the night.”
The area was the site of a well-known environmental protest against deforestation in the 1970s. Protesters, large numbers of them women, hugged trees to prevent loggers from cutting them down in a movement known as the “chipko” or the hug.
Mr Rana said local residents had also held protests against the construction of the Rishiganga energy project, which started generating electricity last year, and they had even filed lawsuits, but to no avail. They feared that blasting rocks would cause deadly landslides.
“We used to hear blasting and see the rocks move,” he said. “When this project was under construction, half of our village slipped. We asked to be moved from here to another location. The government said they would, but it never happened. “
Bhadra Sharma reported from Kathmandu, Nepal, and Henry Fountain from Albuquerque.