June 2013 has been a month that will be etched in the minds and hills of the Himalaya for the large scale devastation wrought about in the valleys of Kedarnath. The Himalaya are known to be earthquake prone. But this devastation was not due to an earthquake but floods due to a cloudburst.
Have these hills not witnessed cloudbursts before, in all these years? What is so different this time around then?
In the last few years, have we been doing something different in these hills? Something that our predecessors did not?
The journey upstream along the major rivers Alakananda and Mandakini reveals the answer.
Dotted with more hydel plants than green plants is a barren mountainscape that greets our eyes as we go up along these rivers to the upper reaches of the Himalaya. With 42 hydel power plants operational and 203 more in various stages of approval, planning and development, it boils down to one hydel power plant every 5 to 7 kms of the river flow downstream.
Power Plants being constructed on the slopes
This was not the landscape that was home to the humans, flora and fauna that have been living there since millennia. The number of Hydel projects in these hilly areas of Uttaranchal have infact prompted these regions to be derisively nicknamed as Urjachal - Urja for power, achala meaning mountains.
Aren’t these numbers overpowering? Is this not a sign of overpowering greed?
Could this sudden surge of power plants be the reason for the recently being witnessed disaster in this belt?
Most certainly, for the amount of funds and effort being invested in the erection of each power plant, sufficient attention may have been given to test the soil conditions. The ability of the terrain there to withstand the drilling, blasting and damming needed for the power plant would also no doubt have been analyzed and necessary approvals procured.
But hills being hills and a fragile ecosystem and terrain at that, the effects of such heavy duty construction cannot be expected to stay localized to the ground on which that power plant is being constructed alone. The vibrations would ripple across the hills and valleys causing the rocks and soil to loosen and crack at the slightest cause.
It is like a pack of cards stacked up like domino. It is hard to say which card will cause the pile to cave in.
Who then can guarantee that scooping out of portions of one hill will not cause damage elsewhere?
Do the few government bodies really have the wherewithal to ascertain and rule out such implications?
Imagine the strain on the hills when it is being blown up and drilled every 5 kms.
Little wonder then that a heavy downpour due to a cloudburst can literally pull the ground away from under one’s feet causing breeches, landfalls and flashfloods. Development in this region does not appear to be an ecology based model but more of a contractor driven model. Worse still, this so called development in this area is not for the people on the hills but to benefit the people living in the plains and cities below.
Does this not seem like a case where approvals hardly have a role to play?
Does this not seem like a free for all or first come – first served or first claimed scenario?
Every river by nature has silting. But heavy to very heavy silting is a unique feature of all Himalayan rivers, whether they flow north, south, east or west. It is because of this silting nature of these rivers, that right from Haridwar where Ganga enters the plains, to Bangladesh, the land is fertile. It is the silt, alluvial soil brought by the waters that has made these lands fertile.
Look at the cost of building dams across such silting rivers. When a dam is built across such rivers, the storage area of the dam will be filled with silt within a few years to a decade. While the cost of desilting is one factor, where can so much silt be manually relocated?
Instead the better way would be to tap all the excess water flowing over a certain level, which will have lesser silt and take it away downstream through series of canals for other needs. This method has stood the test of time and has been found to be sustainable.
One of the earliest examples, dating back to over 2000 years ago, is the Sringaverapura water diversion system built near Varanasi. While this system is in the plains, this principle is time tested and valid for the Himalayan rivers.
Another drawback of building dams across such heavily silting rivers has been observed by the CAG. As explained in their report, the silt in a river slows down the river as it comes downstream, making it less turbulent. With the construction of hydel projects across these rivers, the river waters are routed into turbines for generating power and then released back into the river stream. The silt in the river therefore gets withheld upstream due to this. Not only is the downstream flow made devoid of this silt but the turbulence of the water flow also increases downstream due to lack of silt to slow it down.
This makes downstream regions of the river more prone to damage from breaches of river banks and flash floods due to higher turbulence.
In the name of development and supplying power, we are going to impoverish the farmers in the plains by robbing them of the fertile silt that the rivers naturally brought with them for free. We are not far from the times when the farmers may perhaps be asked to buy the silt to enrich their land – just like they have been made to buy seeds and fertilizer, which were earlier available to them from Nature for free.
In this scenario, does it seem a wise option to build not one, but hundreds of dams, across the river flow of such silting rivers?
Except for the villages dotting the hills, Himalaya has always been a spiritual destination for people of India. It has been a place to experience spirituality through solitude, meditation, penances, pilgrimage, adventure, art, living with nature and such other pursuits which demand discipline and respect for the space around. Journeys to Himalaya were therefore undertaken with some austerity. This in a way also maintained the ecology of this region and kept it pristine.
All of these activities are different from commercial tourism. There is now an overlap emerging between the two due to various social, economic and technical advancements in society. This to an extent is increasing footprint here but bringing down the pristineness of this mountainscape.
The very name Badrinath for this holy pilgrim spot, comes from the Badri tree. Badri is a type of berry. This region used to be a place of Badri trees . Today there is hardly any greenery around. All one gets to see are closely packed lodges, shops and eateries.
(the building with yellow roof is the temple)
The word Kedar means a meadow, a flat table of land or water, a flat basin that can hold water.
Kedarnath in 1880s (from GSI collection)
This picture brings out lucidly, the strategic location of this temple on a high ground in the flat land amidst many hills.
It is a flat basin surrounded by hills. Naturally when it rains, the water would flow onto this meadow from different heights, different directions. It is both a meadow of pasture as well as a water meadow. In times of torrential rain and floods, this meadow would but naturally be inundated, true to its name.
Before this deluge, the whole area around it had mushroomed like a shanty town with very little adherence to organized planning and proper understanding of the heavy water flow or the seismological implications.
Infact the temple seems lost amidst other buildings.
Kedarnath before the 2013 floods
Does that mean that no development should happen there beyond what was there in 1880?
Development for Yatri, pilgrims is essential. But it should take into consideration both seismological and ecological factors. While the temple area needs to be pristine, the development area with facilities could have been properly planned, some kilometers away down the valley, where it could have been both ecologically and seismologically safer. Facilties could infact be staggered across different valleys along the route.
Given this, just because we have the technology and economic resources on hand, we cannot create almost city sized towns in the hilly heights. Even though we may think of these pilgrim towns or tourist spots as having only a floating population which stays for a night or two, seen over the few months that these pilgrim and tourist spots are open to public, the average number of people who fill these towns are higher than those on the plains. Also floating people leave behind larger footprints than permanent residents who conserve for future.
It would be prudential on our part to rethink our approach to pilgrimage and tourism in such ecologically and geologically difficult terrain.
For example, even today, access to Gangotri is restricted for those below 15 and above 65. Also the number of people who can trek up in a day are limited. Besides lowering risk of health calamities, this is to limit modern man’s footprints in such highly sensitive ecological places.
Instead of concentrating all facilities near the temple just because it is a flat land and easier to build there, the money and effort could have been put into development of towns with planned infrastructure, lower in the hills, connected by technically advanced, safe mountain roads and tunnels, wide enough to enable quicker, daytrips to and from these pilgrim spots higher up. Food and other provisions could be sent up with the travelers and the waste brought back with them for proper disposal at lower grounds.
This would not only reduce the need for housing, electricity, water, food and other infrastructure at those pilgrimage areas to enable people to stay overnight and return, it would also reduce the amount of pollutants being released in those delicate heights. Environment friendly medium of transport too could be deployed to prevent pollution of the hills.
These wider roads and transport would also be a boon for the locals of the hills enroute in times of emergencies which are not uncommon in this region.
After this catastrophe, it will be foolish on our part, if still we do not learn the meaning of the word Kedar and continue to be deceived by such flat lands in the midst of high, snow clad hills, as they can be equally dangerous as the narrow ridges.
Another point to note here is that while the modern structures have been washed out, it is the traditional architecture of the Kedarnath temple, that has stood this test of Nature’s fury and human’s folly.
More on other safer planned ways existing already in Himalayas and how natural vegetation shows ways of how we should plan…….coming up