Chamoli floods trigger concerns against rapid development in the Himalayan region

Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.

  • Nearly eight years after massive floods triggered by glacial lake burst claimed thousands of lives, Uttarakhand witnessed another tragedy on February 7, 2021, when massive flash floods were triggered in the Chamoli region.
  • The floods resulted in the complete wipeout of the Rishiganga 13.5-megawatts hydropower project and extensive damage to NTPC’s 520-MW Tapovan Vishnugad project, which is less than five kilometres downstream. At the site of the Rishiganga project, several people are suspected buried.
  • So far, over 30 bodies have already been recovered from the rescue operations which are now led by Indian Army and dozens are still trapped inside the tunnel at the site of the NTPC’s project where work was underway.
  • The incident has reignited the debate against the construction of dams and rapid development of infrastructure projects in the fragile Himalayan region – which is often termed unsustainable by many environmental activists and private experts.

“This is our third day here. Some of us haven’t slept at all. We rescued 12 people on the first day but since then the task hasn’t been easy at all. You can see how much mud is there. Even machines can’t clean it,” said one rescue worker on the site of the devastated Rishiganga hydropower project at Tapovan, near Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand.

The chaotic scenes here are a result of flash floods in Rishiganga River on the morning of Sunday, February 7, which led to widespread destruction and damage to life and property in Uttarakhand. The exact reason behind the disaster is yet to be established, but it is suspected that it was due to a part of the Nanda Devi glacier falling into the river.

The floods have led to a complete wipe-out of the Rishiganga 13.5-MW hydropower project. A few kilometres downstream, Rishiganga river merges with another stream and is known as Dhauliganga. Less than five kilometres away from the Rishiganga project, the under-construction 520-MW Tapovan Vishnugad project of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) on River Dhauliganga also suffered extensive damage. At the site of the Rishiganga project, several people are suspected buried under the rubble and missing, while at the NTPC project site about 40 are trapped inside the tunnel.

At the NTPC project site, a large rescue team and massive resources were pressed into service immediately after the floods, to rescue the workers inside a 900 metres-long tunnel. Initially, on Sunday itself, 12 workers were rescued from the NTPC’s project site. During the rescue operation, several helicopters were used to drop the relief material and transport medical and relief staff. However, the amount of debris brought down in the sudden floods made the rescue difficult as the canal was filled with mud blocking the path for the rescue team to reach the workers.  The efforts are still ongoing as of today (February 10).

So far (as of February 10), over 30 bodies have been recovered from the rescue operations that are now being led by the Indian Army after initial work by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

The floods also swept off some bridges due to which contact to several villages in the region was cut off, making the relief work difficult.

Houses in Reni village cut off after the floods on February 7 swept off a bridge. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.
Houses in Reni village cut off after the floods on February 7 swept off a bridge. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.

A day after the incident, on Monday (February 8), Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister T.S. Rawat had said that more than 200 people were still missing. Those present on the ground told Mongabay-India the number of dead and missing may cross 250 in the coming days. Bodies are being recovered from the sites of the two hydropower projects and downstream.

“It is a very difficult task at hand, but we are applying both mechanical as well as manual means (to rescue people). As per figures given by NTPC, 37 people are inside this tunnel,” said Major General Rajeev Chibber, two days after the flash floods, after the Indian Army took over the task of rescuing stranded people.

While the rescue work is on and the exact cause of the flood is yet to be established, the incident has brought to the fore the rampant construction of dams and government’s policy in pursuing major infrastructure projects in Uttarakhand’s ecologically sensitive and fragile Himalayan region. The discussion has been contentious especially since the 2013 floods, which were primarily caused by a glacial lake breach in the Kedarnath region, which ultimately claimed over 6,000 lives and resulted in damage worth billions of rupees.

In the present case, the local people had protested against both the power projects (Rishiganga and Tapovan) situated at sensitive Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve buffer zone.

Mongabay-India met some of the villagers, who worked in the Rishiganga project or lived in the nearby areas but are now fearful to stay in their homes fearing another disaster while some of their known ones are now buried under the rubble.

Social activist Indresh Maikhuri told Mongabay-India that the protest was so strong that the NTPC’s 520-MW Tapovan Vishnugad project could not be inaugurated at its proposed site and the ceremony instead took place in the state’s capital city Dehradun.

“This (Tapovan) project isn’t complete –the work has been going on for the last 15 years. People have opposed it. You don’t allow people their rights like collecting wood and making houses in this area but permit such big power projects? Ultimately the poor migrants and locals bear the brunt of such disasters,” said Maikhuri, who is also a member of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

However, B.P. Singh, who is the director of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve dismissed the allegations.

“The biosphere is a very big term. I can tell you that Nanda Devi National Park has only one core zone. There is no buffer or transition zone as you are suggesting. The glacier breaking or lake breach happened in the core zone but both of these projects affected in this disaster are out of the national park’s core zone. Yes, you can say that they are in the land which is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere. But economic, development and cultural activities are allowed in this area. These plants had environmental clearance,” Singh told Mongabay-India, defending the hydropower project’s presence and associated infrastructure development activities.

The Indian Army and other agencies at the NTPC site to rescue workers trapped in the tunnel. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.
The Indian Army and other agencies at the NTPC site to rescue workers trapped in the tunnel. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.

Read more: Hydropower not a very ‘green’ solution in Himachal Pradesh, finds study

Reason to be established but the warning of danger has been around

Following the 2013 floods, several reports had warned that the fragile Himalayan region could face more disasters. In 2014, the report of an expert committee, formed on Supreme Court’s order and led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, had held that the construction of so many dams had worsened the impact of the 2013 floods and recommended dropping of 23 hydropower projects.

In fact, in 2018, when Mongabay-India visited the region, it found that the scars of the tragedy were still there and concerns regarding dams, infrastructure projects such as all-weather Chardham highway, and unsustainable tourism was still being pursued.

On Tuesday, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament that the disaster took place due to a landslide that led to a snow avalanche which caused a flash flood in the Rishiganga River.

Experts, however, are not clear about the exact reason or sequence of events including the source of the large quantity of water.

Mohd. Farooq Azam, who is an assistant professor, glaciology and hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology Indore, explained that what is clear so far is that “rockfall and icefall happened simultaneously in this case where there was this small hanging glacier.”

“However, the exact source of the large quantity of water is yet to be understood. The full picture will only be clear once the scientists are able to go on the ground and conduct investigations,” Azam told Mongabay-India.

Devastation along the Rishiganga river. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.
Devastation along the Rishiganga river. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.

Despite experts repeatedly voicing concerns, large hydropower projects that can have a significant impact continue to be pursued. For instance, green clearance has been recommended for the Ujh hydropower project in Jammu and Kashmir which would result in the felling of over 214,000 trees.

In northeast India, mega-dams in Arunachal Pradesh, such as the Etalin and Dibang hydropower project, have been under fire for the impact they could have on the local biodiversity and climate.

The latest incident also highlights the dangers that many expert reports have repeatedly highlighted.

For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) notes that “glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes” and that “resulting landslides and floods, and cascading events, will also emerge where there is no record of previous events.”

The 2019 report had also said that “there is high confidence that current global glacier shrinkage caused new lakes to form and existing lakes to grow in most regions, for instance in South America, High mountain Asia and Europe.”

“There is also high confidence that the number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase in most regions in the coming decades, and new lakes will develop closer to steep and potentially unstable mountain walls where lake outbursts can be more easily triggered by the impact of landslides,” the report had noted.

In the present case, the authorities including scientists have rushed to the spot to study and establish the reasons for the flash floods.

Read more: The return of the mega hydropower projects across India


Banner image: The NTPC dam on the Dhauliganga river damaged during the floods in Chamoli. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi for Mongabay.

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