It's the development, not just climate change: Activists on Uttarakhand disaster

Experts and environmentalists have stated that human interventions increase the vulnerability of the Himalayan regions.

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In 1974, the women of Reni village in Uttarakhand were at the forefront of the Chipko Movement, a protest initiated by people, especially women, to save forests and forest rights of locals. Over 46 years later, Reni has become the centre of the glacier burst incident which caused flash floods in Uttarakhand, putting several areas by the river on high alert. The disaster that has left several missing in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district has left experts and the government arguing about what is its real cause. While it would be easy to cite climate change as the reason behind the incident, environmental activists and experts have pointed fingers at the dams that dot the Himalayan region, especially the two hydroelectric power plants that are in close proximity to the area of the disaster, along with other developmental projects. However, the government has been emphasising that the incident should not be used to promote an ‘anti-development’ narrative.

While glacier melting and collapse has been a matter of concern across the world due to climate change activity, experts and environmentalists have stated that human interventions like the construction of dams and roads in the eco-sensitive Himalayan regions increase their vulnerability.

“Based on information from @planetlabs and Dr Dan Shugar @WaterSHEDLab we now know that the trigger for the Chamoli disaster was a large landslide that fell onto a glacier and that caused the devastating flood. The location of hydropower installations with staff and workers in such vulnerable locations downstream of the geologically unstable areas needs to be questioned,” said Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore.

A combination of human intervention and climate change could have triggered the calamity in Uttarakhand on Sunday, the experts state.



“Construction of dams and roads has been rampant in the Himalayas. The Chardham Highway is not even backed by adequate environmental clearance due to loopholes in the process. Construction of dams also involves other infrastructural activities like tunnelling, road widening for heavy machinery, etc. All of these have increased the vulnerability of the region,” activist Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra said to Indie Journal.

“The #Himalayan disaster today is a combination of melting glaciers & maldevelopment in the ecologically fragile & sensitive mountains. A dishonest unjust economic development model extracts profits for contractors, leaving costs to be born by nature & local communities,” environmental activist Vandana Shiva said on Twitter, asking the disaster to be taken as a wakeup call to listen to the mountains.

However, the government has been emphasising not to jump to conclusions about the causes, and use the disaster to argue against the developmental activity in the region. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat tweeted yesterday stating, “I request everyone to not use this natural disaster as a reason to build anti-development narrative…I reiterate our government’s commitment to developing hills of Uttarakhand in a sustainable manner and we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring the achievement of this goal.”

The former chief minister of the state Harish Rawat also shared something similar while speaking to NDTV earlier today. “I request the Centre to not indulge in debates over whether the development has negatively impacted Uttarakhand. Climate change has been a dark reality in its darkest form in the Himalayas for many years," he said.

In 2013, a cloudburst that lasted several days resulted in massive flooding and landslides in Uttarakhand, killing several and causing tremendous destruction. After the disaster, an Expert Body headed by Dehradun-based People's Science Institute’s Dr Ravi Chopra, formed to study the disaster, recommended in its report 'Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects During The June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand' that at least 23 hydropower projects should be dropped. “All of the recommendations by the committee were ignored by the Government,” Dharmadhikary said. It’s unfortunate that the Uttarakhand as well as Central Government learned no lessons from the 2013 disaster.

“We need a thorough environmental hazard assessment of all large infrastructure projects that are likely to expose new areas and people to such hazards in the future.  The Himalayas need to be declared a sensitive zone from the geological, ecological and climate change and extreme event vulnerability dimensions.   Development pathways, infrastructure projects and livelihood choices must be chosen very carefully and projects that enhance the risk to ecosystems and people should be dropped,” Krishnaswamy added.