Global Affairs

Uttarakhand avalanche: Village at center of India glacier collapse warned of impending disaster for decades. No one listened

Armed with only their bare hands and fierce determination to save the forest upon which their livelihoods depended, Gaura Devi and the women put themselves between the trees and the contractors’ chainsaws.

The state government had hatched a plan to draw the men of the village away to another town, believing the women would not put up a fight.

They were mistaken.

Gaura Devi stared down the contractors and compelled them to leave the forest. Her actions that day, in March 1974, became legendary — it led to a 20-year ban on the felling of trees above 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in the region. And the events at Raini village in northern India were a pivotal moment in what became one of the country’s most influential environmental movements.

The Chipko — meaning “to hug or cling” in Hindi — started as a campaign by local villagers in the Alaknanda Valley to stop rampant tree felling by developers, which was blamed for a huge flood disaster in 1970 that devastated villages in the area. But it grew into a nationwide conservation movement, receiving international attention for its methods of nonviolent resistance. Images of activists wrapping themselves around trees became an enduring environmental symbol.

“It showed ordinary people can change the course of history. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” said Shekhar Pathak, historian and author of “The Real Chipko.”

The message of the Chipko movement was that rampant deforestation and commercial development in ecologically fragile areas like the Himalayas — a region prone to landslides and floods — will only increase the severity of disasters.

The movement was credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980, as well as measures banning the felling of trees and the implementation of various acts on biodiversity and conservation.

But in the years since, the region has continued to be beset by a series of disasters, with villagers, activists and scientists say their repeated warnings have gone unheeded.

“We were assured that this valley will not see another iteration of 1970-like devastation. We started to feel apprehensive after seeing the kinds of activities that started in this area, especially without taking heed to the environment in last few decades,” said Chandi Prasad Bhatt, environmentalist and one of the original leaders of the Chipko movement. “But this devastation was over what we had feared.”

On February 7, residents of Raini village in Chamoli district — once the cradle of the Chipko environmental movement — watched in horror as an avalanche of water, ice and rock crashed through the Rishiganga Valley, wiping out bridges, roads, houses and two hydropower dams.

For almost a week, rescue teams have dug through the mountains of mud and debris to reach at least 43 workers believed to be trapped in a tunnel of the state-owned Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. But rescue operations have been stalled by rising water levels in the Rishiganga river.

Against the odds, two people were rescued alive on Thursday — but hopes of finding more survivors is dimming. At least 38 people have been killed and 170 are still missing, thought buried or trapped in the dams’ tunnels.

Bad weather is also hampering rescue and relief work to 13 villages cut off by Sunday’s disaster, with medical personnel setting up camps for stranded villagers.

“We have just heard that the river is flooding in, we were trying to clear a path to the villages that have been cut off but now we have asked everyone to pull back and we will have to change strategy,” Vasant Pawre, a spokesperson for the NDRF in Uttarakhand said Thursday.

Search and rescue teams in Chamoli district after an avalanche on Febrary 7, 2021.

Series of disasters

The disaster brought back memories of devastating floods that hit Uttarakhand state in June 2013. A barrage of water, mud and rocks, brought on by an unusually heavy monsoon deluge, hit the town of Kedarnath and surrounding villages in Uttarakhand, destroying homes, buildings and infrastructure.

About 6,000 people died in the flash floods, which were dubbed by the area’s chief minister as a “Himalayan tsunami.”

Though the mountainous region is susceptible to flooding and landslides, experts said unregulated development — back-to-back dams, roads built on an ad hoc basis with poor drainage, and unregulated tourism — was responsible for the scale of the Kedarnath disaster.

In its aftermath, India’s Supreme Court ordered a special committee to investigate whether the dams worsened the impact of the floods.

Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, was part of that committee and advised the government against building back-to-back dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, high in the Himalayas.

They discovered that the run of the river dams, which operate by digging large tunnels into the side of the mountain, actually “weakened the mountain by introducing fractures and fissures,” increasing the risk of landslides.

People look at the remains of a dam along a river in Tapovan of Chamoli district on February 9, 2021.

And dams in the “paraglacial zone” above an elevation on 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) — which is where the two dams involved in Sunday’s disaster are located — were at risk from receding glaciers.

“While receding, they leave behind huge amounts of boulders, rocks, and moraines,” Chopra said. A heavy rainfall or landslide could easily trigger floodwaters to surge down the narrow mountain streams, carrying a deadly mixture of sediment and rocks.

“If this great mass of water and solids meets any barrier on the way, it’ll just smash through the barrier,” Chopra added. “Each time it smashes a barrier, it moves downstream with further energy. More energy means more mass is going to be lifted from the riverbed, or the river banks.”

Footage from Sunday’s disaster shows a high velocity wall of water, rocks and debris barreling down the Rishiganga Valley and beyond, as Chopra described — taking out everything in its path.

Chopra said nothing much came of the committee’s recommendations and dam building in the mountainous glacial region continued.

Warnings ignored

Raini villagers had also raised concerns that dams along the river could destabilize the mountain.

In 2019, villagers filed a public interest litigation against the Rishiganga Power project — which was destroyed in Sunday’s avalanche — alleging the company was carrying out blasting activity at the base of the glacier.

In court documents, the petitions claimed the blasting was being carried out as part of mining and hydropower operations at the dam, and this involved drilling into rocks in the river bed. The debris left over from the blasting was not being cleared, the petitioners alleged.

“The villagers of Raini came to me with very limited resources, and they had expressed the apprehension in their local language — they had said ‘our mountain will fall one day if this project does not mend its ways,'” said Abhijay Negi, the villagers’ lawyer.

In 2019, the Uttarakhand High Court passed two stay orders, one restraining the Rishiganga power project from carrying out blasting activities and the second directing the company to remove all construction materials and debris from the project site.

The villagers say blasting continued, and the debris was never cleared. Negi alleges the uncleared debris was swept downstream in Sunday’s floods, gaining momentum until it crashed into the Tapovan power plant.

“These villagers did all they could to divert this disaster,” Negi said. “The villagers of Raini know how to live with the forest, they have adopted an eco-friendly living.”

Relatives sit on the back a vehicle next to the body of a victim recovered from Raini village, outside a temporary morgue in Tapovan of Chamoli district on February 9, 2021.

The company that owns the Rishiganga Power project, Kundan Group, denies carrying out blasting, saying the plant was fully operational.

“There was no blasting during our handling. And people had complained because they wanted some means to extort us. This was a project that was running before 2016,” said Deepak Katyar, head of human resources for the Kundan Group. “If blasting is not there, there will be no debris.”

Katyar added that, “It is a natural disaster. We had a power project and about 55-60 people who working there are missing. As of now, we are working to rescue any and all of our employees. That is our focus.”

CNN has reached out to the Uttarakhand state government for comment.

What triggered Sunday’s glacier collapse is still being investigated. On Wednesday, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament a landslide triggered a “snow avalanche” that spread across 14 square kilometers (5 square miles), causing flash floods.

Dave Petley, a professor and geologist at Britain’s Sheffield University, who studies mountain landslides, said he believes a large chunk of rock, likely several hundred meters in size, detached from the side of one of the mountains and fell onto the glacier in the valley below. Petley and other scientists used recently taken satellite images captured by Planet Labs to do an autopsy of the disaster.

Experts are also looking into whether heavy snowfall followed by bright sunshine led to large-scale melting, triggering a series of events that led to the avalanche and floods.

“Bright sunshine at that elevation means a lot of solar insulation. So then the fresh snow starts melting. If there’s any ice underneath that, it starts melting. And this combination of snow and ice water becomes deadly when it starts to move. And it’s moving down a very steep slope, so then it collects all the solids with it and becomes very destructive,” said Chopra, from the People’s Science Institute.

New images from US-based satellite operator Maxar show a large section of the mountain slope completely broke off and fell into the Rishiganga River.

The third pole

The climate crisis is destabilizing the ecologically sensitive region further.

The Tibetan Plateau, which encompasses the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is known as the Third Pole because of its huge amount of glacial ice.

But the ice is melting at alarming levels as humans pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, warming the planet.

A 2019 study from Columbia University found Himalayan glaciers are melting at double the rate of the last century, and an assessment from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development — an intergovernmental body covering the Hindu Kush Himalaya region — found at least a third of the ice in the region could melt by 2100.

Rising temperatures are a serious threat. Fresh water from Himalayan glaciers flows into 10 major river basins, contributing to the drinking water, irrigation and energy needs of approximately 1.9 billion people — about a quarter of the world’s population.

“In high mountain areas, the rocks are quite fractured, and ice is what is effectively gluing the mountains together. As the temperatures warm, especially in the summer, that ice starts to degrade and to melt, so the rock mass is weakening,” Petley said.

Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as last century

Scott Watson, a research fellow in Earth observation and geoinformatics at the University of Leeds, said similar events with large rockfalls involving glaciers that cause significant floods have been observed in other mountainous regions including Nepal, Peru and the European Alps.

“It is expected that these types of events are increasing with climate change since previously frozen mountains are subjected to warming temperatures, which can exploit weaknesses in the rock and cause destabilization,” Watson said.

Dr. Ankal Prakash, research director at the Indian School of Business’ Bharti Institute of Public Policy, said, “The prima facie evidence we are seeing is that it’s because of the glacial decline and melting because of global warming.”

Prakash authored the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2019 report on the Ocean and Cryosphere. That report documented how “climate change has altered the region to an extent that the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters will increase,” Prakash said.

The villagers of the area are already living with the impacts of a warming planet. Historian Prakath said the winters are much warmer now, meaning villagers contend with more erratic weather, making their crop yields less predictable. And Himalayan flowers that usually bloom in March are now blooming in December because of the heat.

“People are realizing that major things that are happening around is due to climate change,” Prakash added.

General view of Raini village in the aftermath of the avalanche and flood in Chamoli districton on February 10, 2021.

Sunday’s avalanche may be the latest in a long string of disasters in the Himalayas, but those who repeatedly sounded the alarm say the warnings and advice of scientists and local people should be put above profit, and the scale of human intervention in Uttarakhand’s fragile landscape needs to be reconsidered.

The Himalayas are the least monitored of the three icy regions that include the Arctic and Antarctic, and because so many lives depend on the glaciers, water and ice, that urgently needs to change, Prakash said.

“We need to have more resources flowing in this area, more monitoring stations, both physical and from satellites and drone monitoring. We need more much more information data and analysis so we know what changes are happening and we can then passing that information, in terms of making the right policies for people so they are safe from disaster,” he said.

As the climate crisis continues to damage ecosystems, glaciers and infrastructure, the lessons of conservation from the Chipko will become even more vital.

“In a way, the Himalayas are giving warning every now and then, but we are constantly ignoring it. It is required that we take it seriously,” said Chipko leader Bhatt.

Kishor Rawat in Chamoli, and CNN’s Drew Kann, Manveena Suri and Esha Mitra contributed to reporting.

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