Uttarakhand Floods

India Feb 19, 2021

The floods took place after a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier in Joshimath broke off in the Tapovan area, causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand on Sunday, February 7, 2021. The disaster left upwards of a hundred feared dead, and damaged multiple locations including the Rishiganga mini-hydel power project as well as the larger Dhauliganga hydropower project (under the National Thermal Power Corporation's (NTPC) Tapovan project).

Shockingly, defence scientists say that such a glacial lake outburst flood that occurs when the dam containing a glacial lake fails, is a near impossibility under present climatic conditions with the surrounding area being covered by snow-capped mountains and temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

The workers from these two power projects were severely affected with many being injured, killed and workers trapped in the tunnels. Rescue missions have been ongoing in the days since the disaster with many still missing or unreachable through the great destruction.

With scientists and organisations working to find the root cause for these floods, it is being said that a broken glacier alone cannot account for the huge quantity of water that came down the Dhauliganga river causing a flash flood. There must have been a sub-surface lake. Whereas activists and experts in the Himalayan region have blamed the excessive rush to construct ill-advised dams and roads in this fragile region for the loss of life and property.

International geologists and glaciologists who are studying the available satellite imagery say the cause of the flooding disaster is likely a landslide and not a glacial outburst. A steeply hanging piece of a glacier likely developed a crack subsequently causing a landslide, triggering an avalanche and the disastrous flooding.

The upper regions of Uttarakhand are the source of several small rivers that feed the Ganga, and here there are already 16 dams, and another 13 are under construction. Additionally The Uttarakhand government has proposed another 54 dams on these rivers. Eight back-to-back new hydel projects are proposed on the Dhauliganga River, in addition to NTPC's Tapovan project. The consequent blasting of mountains, stone quarrying and digging of tunnels in the fragile mountain system base for the two back-to-back under-construction dams on Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers has wreaked havoc with the local ecology.

With the India Meteorological Department recording January 2021 to be the warmest January in Uttarakhand in six decades; it is hard not to believe that the excessive tampering with the region's natural resources and land along with the effects of climate change is not at least partly the cause for the disaster. One must also keep in mind the Uttarakhand flood of 2013 that greatly affected and hindered the construction process of the Tapovan project.

It may also be pertinent to mention that Chamoli is home to the ‘Chipko movement’, and the famous slogan “Ecology is the permanent economy.”

This article has been written by Kyra Songadwala for The Paradigm

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