Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Uttarakhand & Himalayan Destruction - Environmental Science has the Answers

(2nd article in my series on Himalayan & Uttarakhand's environmental destruction after my previous post on August 04, 2013) 

Environmental Costs Equal Lives of Poor

The recent disaster in Uttarakhand where more than 6000 people lost their lives has been portrayed as a ‘natural disaster’ by the state and central governments and by some sections of media but, in reality, its nature’s first major counter strike against our country’s incessant mindless destruction of the most diverse yet one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet in the name of development.

In the wake of the current disaster, it is critical not just for real sustainable development of the mountain states of India but more so for the very survival of the people living in the Himalayas to avoid any plausible similar disaster from happening in the future but also highlight and continuously reduce the long term environmental costs that are, both literally and metaphorically, never borne by the perpetrators who enjoy the so called ‘fruits’ of development in the Himalayas.

One simple example out of many which proves my point – In Lodhama region of Darjeeling district of West Bengal, the state government partnered with some MNC to develop a Mini-Hydel power project under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). CDM is an emissions trading scheme under Kyoto Protocol in which, if a project is emitting less pollutants than a baseline value (as calculated from emissions of other similar projects), then the emissions that were not emitted are given as credits to that company which has invested in the project. These credits can then be traded in the carbon trading markets.

So, while this Darjeeling based project made money for its owner company through power generated, they also earned carbon credits for some other MNC which has the go ahead for continuing to pollute (as has been the case with numerous CDM projects which on the ground never make actual emission reductions), the locals who have the first right on the natural wealth have got no share of the electricity generated from the project. At the same time, water diverted from the stream has crippled crops grown nearby and biodiversity of the stream (ruining small fishermen). Imagine the impact on the locals with the poorest earning just Rs.8/day.

The Neglected Science

(most of the environmental science issues explained in this section is the summary of an enlightening discussion I had with India's preeminent geologist Prof. K.S. Valdiya some time back)

The landmass of the present day Indian subcontinent is pushing against mainland Asian landmass consisting especially of the Tibetan Plateau at a rate of 5cm/year. Thus, the Himalayas, on average, are rising by 5mm/year. Active fault lines as deep as 20 miles at places exist wherein rock layers push with intense force against each other. Thus, unregulated blasting and tunneling activity through the rocks for diverting river courses is severely disturbing the surface layers of soil consisting of trees and other vegetation which are unstable and have settled on the slopes only in last some decades. Thus, the first major rainfall is a perfect recipe for landslides. That is exactly what happened during the once in a generation cloudburst that occurred during 15-17 June 2013. And, the mushrooming of dam projects including operating, under construction and proposed ones in Indian Himalaya is the most lethal combination. 

Because of the active geological fault lines, explosive activity has been a catalyst for increased seismic activity resulting in greater probability of earthquakes. Already there are numerous examples (sometimes hidden by the local administration) wherein, walls of houses and hotels have collapsed and cracks have occurred in many more structures in villages and towns nearest to the blasting and mining sites even due to minor tremors. We must remember that Uttarakhand and much of Himachal Pradesh lie in either Seismic Zone 4 or the worst, Seismic Zone 5 meaning highest probability of large earthquakes.

Millions of tonnes of rubble generated due to massive excavation both for tunneling and road construction is indiscriminately dumped in the river beds (since developers save on costs of removing and transporting the millions of tonnes of rubble to safe dumping grounds, mother nature bears the costs). Thus, the volume of the river bed is severely reduced on the side of the dumping. Hence, during rainy season, the river charts out a new course with huge force and starts cutting the opposite slope from the base moving upwards thereby triggering land slide tendencies on both the slopes. Now, since rampant unregulated construction (homes, hotels and restaurants) happened all along the river banks totally neglecting dangerous flood marks, thousands of such constructions were washed away during the June floods.

Many agricultural and local flora based livelihood lands were lost due to flood waters crossing all previous highest flood levels during the Uttarakhand tragedy. Similarly, the rubble and the diversion of rivers due to tunnels have massively reduced the irrigation capacity of many downstream agricultural areas that were fed for millennia by the rivers’ natural flow. This has nearly destroyed local fisheries and aquatic life based industries apart from affecting the freshwater resources of communities at various altitudes all along the river basin.

Dam and real estate construction was and is being done on slopes where the top soil layers are already loose due to deforestation and thus, are easy to excavate making construction less expensive as against tougher and socially isolated rocky terrains. Thereby, explosive activity and digging coupled with deforestation all act as perfect catalysts for landslides. Secondly, another long term damaging effect of deforestation and tunneling is that the rainwater seeps in through the barren slopes and eroded soil in these tunnels. Consequently, natural water resources like numerous springs which have served the local village population for centuries have dried up in the last 15-20 years coinciding with massive dam construction and deforestation. Villages in many Himalayan districts have been facing a severe water crisis in the last 15 years or so.

The perpetration of this slow destruction isn’t restricted to land and water. Dams are a major source of Methane gas which is a bigger heat trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A recent study by an international research institution categorically stated that India’s current dam density is the highest source of global warming as compared to all other countries in the world. However, the biggest alarm bells have been rung by a very famous research study published early in 2013 which stated that India’s predicted dam density in terms of dams per kilometer of river length after the proposed dams are built will be 62 times the world average. This will submerge 170,000 hectare of forests and affect nearly 90% of Himalayan valleys and 27% of those dams will affect dense forests with unique biodiversity.

The Establishment’s Tawdry Muck

On the governance front, there has been a complete lack of a Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) of dam and hydroelectric projects and the existing system of Environmental Impact Assessment under the Environment Act is carried out by voluntarily appointed environment auditors which lack credibility and there is negligible or zero local community involvement anywhere both in terms of getting clean chit from the locals and providing them alternate means of livelihood and homes.

However, the road to stopping this rampant plundering of our greatest natural wealth seems ready to be broken even before it’s built. As per the Supreme Court directive issued in August this year, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) was to form an expert committee to investigate and come out with a report on the cumulative impact of all existing as well as proposed hydel projects in Uttarakhand. The committee was formed last month and no guesses, it consists of numerous government officials and 2 senior members of the former Expert Appraisal Committee (see my previous blog post dated August 04, 2013) of the MoEF, the same ‘clique’ that cleared more than 250 hydel projects across Himalayas since April 2007 and did not stop a single one for any environmental flaw or disregard. And this committee which has been directed by MoEF to come out with its report within 3 months, to cover more than 30 projects and asses each one of them separately, this committee sure will do an ‘expert’ job with no conflict of interest!!

The Panacea & Potential for Green Growth

In the short to medium term, the first step that must be taken should be the consolidation of existing settlements governed through land-use planning rather than unplanned growth of new ones. Secondly, flow paths for river beds and flood plains must be clearly demarcated and regulation zones put in place to protect them. For example, the entire watershed of the Bhagirathi river for the 135km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi must be declared as an eco-sensitive zone as per the EPA, 1986. The draft River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification, that controls hotels and townships constructed along the river, lying in some dusty drawer in the MoEF, must be immediately notified.

India suffers from 35% transmission and distribution losses which can be reduced to the global average of less than 20% if only a little political will can be applied and civil society needs to highlight this on every possible forum and platform. Secondly, there are numerous examples of villages and communities not just across the globe but in India as well where small and micro hydel projects provide electricity to the nearby villages and communities ensuring economic development and negligible environmental impact.

Then, the concepts of green development or ecopreneurship applied to the Himalayan states must be implemented. This includes mainly 2 areas - creating sustainable employment opportunities in the areas of watershed development, horticulture and floriculture based industries AND valuation of ecosystem services like the carbon absorption capacity and water retention capacity of forests which is a huge long term cost not accounted for when such forest areas are removed.  

Solar and wind power have massive potential not just in plains and coastal areas but also in the sunny sides and windy slopes of Himalayas which is a natural resource for us that has never even been studied or experimented with. Thus, there are scientific solutions available which can be applied both in the Himalayas as well as in the plains and other geographic areas to drastically reduce the impact of current destructive model and almost change it completely in the long term.
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