Sunday, August 4, 2013

Uttarakhand Disaster - Environment & Science reveal the Truth

Earlier view of Vishnupryag HEP (400MW), View from upstream February 20, 2012 Image Courtesy:

136, 125, 94… no words can suffice the perennial urge I suffer from trying to squeeze out every moment of ignorant bliss from my jagged existence and more often than not, I look no beyond that 5 feet 5 inch of nature’s enigma enthralling us since the time I barely stood at 4 feet. And even now, as I wrote those numbers in the beginning, something inside me yearned to see them against the name of a certain SRT when he pads up once again (perhaps for the last time) in December later this year in the rainbow nation.

However, rainbows remind me of ‘how’ these numbers are not scores but rankings. India’s 2012 rankings in the UN Human Development Index, The Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Without an iota of doubt, they are the naked reminder as to how we as a nation, had to bow to the fury of the rains that ravaged the Land of the Gods in June this year. With the casualty count over 6000 and many places wiped out of the political map of the country, squeezing out sympathy and politician bashing is an insult to injury while lightening our pockets a bit for the victims ensures that sooner or later, someone might be lightening theirs for us or our next to kith or kin. The simple question is - Why did it happen in the first place and what can we do to be 99% sure it never happens again?

Destroyed Vishnupryag HEP (400MW), View from the downstream 26 June, 2013 Image Courtesy:

By ‘why did it happen’, I don’t mean the natural causes that culminated in the flash floods but the reasons behind the worst human life destruction in the state’s living memory. K S valdiya, one of the country’s most eminent geological scientists, categorically stated in a leading publication that ‘Flash Floods are entirely man made’. According to him, roads and bridges built in the last decade or so restrict the natural flow of rivers and streams as against old railway bridges. Erecting piers restrict the channel and the embankments on both sides act as dams while the bridges act as open sluice gates.

Naveen Chaudhari of Chandigarh Centre of Advanced Study in Geology explained in the same publication that the Himalayas are among the youngest mountain ranges in the world are still growing. Northern Uttarakhand lies in the Central Crystalline Axis, a geological fault line on the planet consisting of fractured, fissured and sheared metamorphic rock formations where the lower lying harder rock layers are still pushing the upper rock formations against each other as a process of the growth of the mountains. Thus, when dams and tunnels are built alongside rampant unregulated road construction, incessant blasting and heavy machinery being deployed accelerates the process of slop weakening thereby preparing the perfect recipe for massive landslides.

Ravi Chopra, a member of many high powered committees analyzing large hydro projects in the state, termed present day dams being built in the state ‘obsolete’ and repeats what he has to numerous governments and other experts that is, to preserve 50% of a river in its natural state and build smaller dams which can be run-of-the-river type which means negligible or very little water storage. And what does the government(s) do?

A recent study of a Ministry of Environment & Forests report reveals that an expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley and hydroelectric projects (RVP), during a period stretching from April 2007 to December 2012, studied a total of 262 hydropower and irrigation projects and did not reject a single project in this period. Now, according to the Environmental Protection Act 1986 and (amended) 1991, Environmental Impact Assessment Reports are to be prepared by an independent group of experts for each project and each project will then be granted environmental clearance after due diligence. How in the world did all the above projects get clearance when the tell tale signs were present long before the major disaster struck?

In 1991, Jhamak village situated right above the tunnel dug for the Maneri Bhali I hydroelectric project on Bhagairathi, suffered more damagethan other villages which were closer to the epicenter of the quake. In 2007, many houses in Chai Gaon, situated close to the blasting sites of the Vishnprayag hydroelectric project, developed cracks and many people had to evacuate. There are similar landslide stories related to when Maneri Bhali II hydroelectric project became operational in 2008 and the under-construction Loharinag Pala hydroelectric project which was later stalled. Now, with all these examples in the same state, the central government still clears 262 projects in a clean sweep but here's the greatest irony. Even when the central government declared 135km of the Ganga as an eco-sensitive zone and banned all construction activity, the state government passed a resolution against it, state Chief Minister led a procession of MPs against the central government demanding a lift on the ban citing it was against the will and future livelihood of the people and eventually, the ban was blatantly ignored.

Herein, in the wake of this tragedy comes the case of India’s 125th rank in the Yale University’s Environment PerformanceIndex. When it comes to the water related scores and rank, under the both the categoris of Environmental health of Water and Ecosystem Vitality of Water Resources, we are not only ranked 104 and 122 respectively, but the metric that judges the improvement over time for all the variables, we are among the worst performers in almost all the metrics. There are critics, mostly belonging to the project developers, experts and power ministry and other power related regulatory bodies (lobbyists would be an apt term but for the illegality of the term in India) who cite lack of ‘conclusive evidence’ against land use in projects like dams, roads and construction. The storyline seems similar to BCCI’s obdurate refusal to the DRS but herein at stake lay survival of thousands of innocent lives on one side as against massive financial gains and cheap power to the people. This is the critical question: Are we, as a nation, willing to ignore long term disastrous (loss of human life and habitats) impacts that can result with increasing probability due to mindless destruction of fragile and delicate ecological systems like the Himalayas for the sake of ‘faster’ economic growth opportunities?

Destroyed Vishnupryag HEP (400MW), View from the upstream 26 June, 2013  Image Courtesy: 

Herein, the case of Germany deserves mention. In the 1970s, Germany was an environmental blot on the globe with its huge per capita emissions of sulpher-dioxide and Hydro-flourocarbons (HFCs), its rivers like the Rhine were dirty metallic and toxic waste drains and it had some of the world’s biggest gas guzzling automobiles. Industry lobbyists and labour unions stood ground chanting the age-old job loss rhetoric. It took Chernobyl and a series of minor environmental disasters coupled with some far sighted leadership, a massive green and clean technology movement and the world’s first Green party to transform Germany into the world’s biggest clean technology producer, consumer and exporter.

A little research on the internet can reveal the per capita production and consumption of clean energy in Germany which is the highest in the world and its rank of 13 in the 2012 is only due to slower progress on gas guzzling automobiles. The metric that measures the improvement trend over time for any country in the Yale Index shows Germany as the leader having shown the greatest improvement. And, for cynics, Germany’s total hydropower capacity still remains at the same level as it was in 1990 while both wind and solar have crossed hydro capacity in that land by more than twice and 50% respectively.        

Coming back to Uttarakhand, when it comes to the issue of dams, the issue seems to be complicated by the fact that dams have been scientifically proven to avoid floods, increase power supply and reduce carbon emissions. Logic might suggest so given the fact that there are no emissions during the lifecycle of hydroelectricity production. However, we all forget the impact that deforestation, methane emissions from dam reservoirs. Deforestation, occurring due to clearing the slopes for major projects creates the perfect breeding ground for landslides, results in massive loss of local biodiversity and localized ability of plant life to absorb Greenhouse gas emissions and adds to methane generating decaying plant waste. While the overall green cover of the state has remained almost same in the last 20 years, the quality of afforestation on other land areas to compensate for the deforestation and diverted land use has never made up for the damage caused by localized landslide sites being created due to removal of trees and top soil and the disturbance of the ecological balance of the natural biodiversity existing in a local region.

Secondly, methane emissions from huge dam reservoirs are often the forgotten numbers in calculating the overall ecological and climate impact. A recent study by Ivan Lima and colleagues from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) estimated that the methane emission from India’s dams is at 27.86 % of the methane emission from all the large dams of the world, which is more than the share of any other country of the world with Brazil being the second. A 2007 study suggested that methane from dam reservoirs actually contributes 19% of greenhouse gas emissions of India while contributing 16% of its electricity and even lesser of its total electricity use.

And coming to the third number I mentioned in the beginning, a 94 rank in the world’s most corrupt countries is evident by the fact that the Disaster Management department of the state had never meet since its inception a few years back, a Home Ministry official clearly stated on condition of anonymity that the state government machinery completely failed to do anything as a response to the disaster and there is no credible evidence as to how so many projects have been cleared without any environment clearance reports being publicly available to be studied by independent and international experts.  At the same time, a little less famous among the famed CAG reports (highlighting the biggest scams in India’s history) that came a few years ago lambasted the ill-preparedness of the state for preventing any such major disaster and complete lack of basic infrastructure to deal with the aftermath. There is absolutely no doubt that Uttarakhand has become a major cash cow for the politician-business-bureaucrat nexus to exploit the natural wealth of the state and we, as informed citizens, are equally responsible.

So, while I continue to drown into the world of Himalyan ecology and trying to ascertain when and where will the environmental time bomb explode on our land, I still dream of that elusive utopia that the above ranks be happily traded with SRT's lowest scores in the last few series when he steps for the last time (my heart skips a beat even thinking of the possibility). 

(This is the first part of a series of articles to follow and the answer to 'What can we Do ...' asked in the early paragraphs of this piece and a lot more will be explored in the future parts)

(Thanks to Surbhit for his thought provoking views that made me work on this issue)
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