The science and political economy of the Rishi Ganga flood

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Maxar satellite image of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric power plant project under construction along the Dhauliganga River, 2018. Image: Maxar Technologies / Handout via Reuters.

The flash floods in Rishi Ganga and Dhauliganga on February 7, 2021, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, occurred at a time generally little known for flooding. It requires a deeper understanding of the hydrogeological features of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau to understand the February 7 disaster itself.

There is very little factual information about the tragedy. Even geoscientists are still looking for the source of such a large volume of water, where the glacier came from, and how the temporary buildup in the Dhauliganga Gorge has gone unnoticed.

Some scientists recently undertook an aerial survey, which is likely to shed some more light on the actual processes that led to this event.

Dave Petley, geologist at the University of Sheffield, tried to rebuild the possible process leading up to the event on the American Geophysical Union blog:

1. In recent months, a big blackout has been developing in the high mountains

2. On the morning of February 7, the block collapsed in a huge landslide

3. The landslide resulted in stagnant ice and glacial debris

4. The flow followed the valley westward and struck populated areas there.

Image: Landsat / Copernicus

Bad investment in research

The event is a terrible reminder of the low investment in research and surveys of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Everyone knows that these mountains, which still grow 1 to 10 cm per year (about the speed at which our fingernails grow), are constantly trying to find a balance. After the collision of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate 40-50 million years ago, the crust has folded upward to create the Himalayas, and there is still considerable tension below.

The mountains release this tension from time to time by creating rifts and fractures. But the energy continues to build up. This is one of the reasons why there are continuous swarms of micro-earthquakes in the region, and why the small number of attempts to systematically analyze Himalayan neotectonics is considered dismal.

Unlike the Tibetan Plateau, which is much more stable, the Indian Himalayas are crisscrossed with wide and deep faults and fractures, both longitudinal and latitudinal. The few organizations that study them are unfunded for long periods of time, which limits long-term research opportunities through which researchers can better understand the region.

There is also no extensive network of permanent data collection systems, and the little existing data is intermittent. The effects of different aspects of climate change – such as the albedo-temperature feedback of snow initiated by a latent and sensible heat transfer from a warmer atmosphere over the Hindu Kush Himalayan / Tibetan Plateau region to the underlying snow surface – continue to be misunderstood. Only a few studies exist that focus on various aspects of neotectonic and rapid ecological changes. Such transient geological regimes are unpredictable in terms of rheological properties and therefore the extent of downstream damage.

(According to the Oxford Dictionary, rheology is “the branch of physics that deals with the deformation and flow of matter”.)

Aside from good science, the damage itself – as it is conventionally recognized – is not due to these still under-studied natural causes, but because of our poor planning and management. This seems normal when agencies speculate on the number of workers trapped in a tunnel or that all of the projects’ work settlements are mostly located in vulnerable sites. The trauma of missing persons is appalling and reflects the way we mistreat our workers.

It is also strange that no information is available on the families whose members are missing and on the workers who have been forced to leave. Officials appear not to have searched for any files or relevant agencies, and the media have not attempted to compile a list.

India has belligerently altered the third pole and the reality of the fragile Himalayas, and exacerbates a huge risk. There is a ten year old map (below) showing populations at risk due to seismicity. Events of the type that were triggered on February 7 would be multiplied by several if there were to be a huge earthquake in the region. And we wouldn’t be prepared for it – as we were for an even relatively smaller tragedy.

Source: Bilham and Wallace 2005

Bad projects, bad implementation

The country’s political economy is used to promoting projects that allow quick profits but do not guarantee that investments have lasting returns. The power and pleasure of “cutting the ribbon” and the rent-seeking that accompanies it have led to very poor construction quality of our roads, bridges and, more recently, of the tunnels and dams accompanying hydroelectric projects. We seem to be blasting more (rock) than any war – but even the quantum and amount of blasting done in the Himalayas is unknown.

Given the huge surplus of electricity, stranded assets in the electricity sector warrant a white paper on the sector, and the perpetrators of this economic and ecological destruction must be determined. Take the case of Kinnaur, where Jaypee Industries walked away with over half a billion dollars in earnings pending. its energy project while the villagers suffered the consequences later. Likewise, our large excess cement and steel capacity has spurred senseless infrastructure projects in the country.

Our accumulated cumulative knowledge is still very poor, and the promotional environmental assessments that project promoters have undertaken have played no useful role in the environmental management of dams or roads in the Himalayas. Repeated efforts by communities, especially those directly impacted, have led to little improvement. In fact, the quality of new projects seems to be worse.

Rush to compete or ape China?

In recent times, an insane comparison with the infrastructure being built across the border in China is being used to speed up the construction of various types of infrastructure, but which is of no value and not suitable for the geological conditions. the land and the needs of the population. . The government’s focus on an imaginary $ 5,000 billion economy, a fetish for the wrong kinds of projects and on a larger scale and in greater numbers will not only kill the economy, but completely jeopardize the future.

The projects in the Himalayan rivers, from Arunachal Pradesh to Kashmir, pursued in the name of development make each a potential site for future damage. The Indian Himalayas need a completely different development trajectory, as the current one has only encouraged local people to migrate away from the Himalayas and has systematically eroded the ecosystem.

India seems to believe that its neighbors will abide by any “first-use principle” and will not develop any infrastructure on the Himalayan river systems despite the fact that even the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, of which it is a part, has offered to fund these controversial projects regardless of governance issues.

While the Indian government wants to go out of business, it seems to be making this model of development into a business, where corporate profits and Dalal Street sentiments take precedence and lead to poor results for the people. An overview of the types of projects to be pushed through, no less than the Prime Minister’s office, clearly indicates the massively misguided investments we are facing.

Make and circumvent the laws

Drafting and amending laws has become a matter of red tape. If justice judged that undertaking several projects in the Himalayas would be catastrophic, how has the science been put aside and the projects continue to operate without any due diligence? For example, the Rishi Ganga electricity project which was destroyed and killed several workers and others near the village of Reni, was established by a gold refining and trading company. All the contracts awarded by PSUs are shady.

Massive dilution of laws in the name of the “ease of doing business”, or expansion of roads in the Himalayas to speed up the flow of already overflowing “religious tourists” by segmenting it illogically to avoid environmental scrutiny Brutal, social concerns and disaster relief a spectacle – it all becomes too obvious. How many laws have been compromised?

The damage to the third pole is too extensive and significant to be buried even under a huge avalanche of offensive actions against sane voices, calling it anti-development, including “new FDI”. Since the construction of the Rohtang tunnel, incursions have been made into the valleys of Chenab and Parvati, which portends great danger.

It is time for the mighty state of Uttarakhand to listen to healthy voices and the science of sound. The geology, tectonics and Himalayan ecosystems of the Hindu Kush require in-depth study, which current geopolitics does not allow and political economy does not want.

But the reality is there for the whole world to see.

R. Sreedhar is an Earth scientist and has worked in the Northwest Himalayas for over three decades.

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