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Uttarakhand Floods—The Himalayan Glacier Threat

The breaking of a glacier in the Tapovan-Reni area of Chamoli District resulted in the flooding of the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers, causing widespread damage to nearby houses and power projects like the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project and NTPC. The incident occurred on the morning of 7th February, and at least 35 people are dead with 204 individuals missing. As rescue operations are underway, the incident serves as yet another reminder of the indignation of nature. 

What Caused the Sudden Water Surge?

The remoteness of the location has contributed to multiple theories surrounding the possible reasons for flooding. Initial studies, however, point towards Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) as the perpetrator. A GLOF refers to a sudden deluge of water from a natural reservoir that has formed around a glacier over time.

When glaciers melt, the water from them continues to accumulate resulting in the formation of ‘proglacial lakes’ which get ‘moraine-dammed’—which prevents them from leaving the valley. These lakes are bound by nothing but sediments and boulders. The breaching of these temporary natural dams is no minor occurrence, as they hold millions of cubic metres of water and the potential of damage is intuitive even to the uninitiated. 

There can be a multiple reasons for such a breach, but in this situation—an avalanche was reported two days prior. This could have brought down mud and rocks which could have ruptured the lake. In a BBC report, DP Dobhal, a senior glaciologist formerly with the government’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology said, “This is a strong possibility because there was a huge amount of sediment flowing down.” Nanda Devi area has been receiving heavy snow which also could have led to the avalanche.

Teams of scientists and researchers have been flown out to the calamity location to further inspect and report.

Shown above is the sequence of events and the respective affected areas. [Image Credits: Times of India]

What Is Being Done Currently?

As of 11th February, 3 PM, 35 bodies have been recovered with 204 people still missing, according to the Uttarakhand Police. The search-and-rescue operations that ensued post the calamity consisted of over 2000 personnel from National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Army and many other disaster management teams.

A majority of the affected individuals were working on the two power projects. The Rishi Ganga Power Plant was hit first, and the debris picked from there further wreaked havoc downstream, where a number of projects were present including the government set-up NTPC plant. Upto 35 workers are believed to be trapped in the Tapovan tunnel, where rescue operations are currently underway. Heavy equipment has been set up at the entry of the tunnel to vacate debris and slush. Rescue teams have also been sent out to the river to be on the look-out for any survivors.

The Prime Minister has granted the families of deceased an ex gratia of Rs.2 lakhs and Rs.50,000 for those seriously injured.

Rescue operations underway at Tapovan Tunnel, two days after a glacier broke off causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. [Image Credits: PTI]

If there was a lesson to be learnt from the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, it was the absolute need for better watershed management and construction policies. June of 2013 saw massive floods triggered by the heaviest rainfall in decades—multi-day ‘cloudburst’, which killed some 6000 people. The ‘net exporter of electricity’ tag that India so proudly boasts of has come at a price that 35 people have already paid for. 

The Chamoli disaster was simply a consequence of the unsustainable infrastructure push India is witnessing. The area has completely been turned into a lifeless energy-churning resource by the Indian Government. The northwestern Himalayan region has seen an average temperature increase, much higher than the global average, of 0.66°C since 1991. It would be naive to ignore the glaringly apparent ties to global warming this tragedy has showcased.

The current situation requires a review of the rate at which destruction of the ecologically sensitive regions of India is taking place. The sustainable goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement need to reviewed and further enforced. The direction that the government is headed towards with regard to the Climate Change Action Plan seems grimly due to the reduction in the money that has been allotted. It is time to heed nature’s warning.

Featured Image Credits: BBC