On February 7, a Himalayan glacier shattered and caused a flash flood in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand. The avalanche destroyed two hydroelectric dam projects and killed more than 200 people. A total of 205 people were reported missing during the disaster, but so far only 74 bodies and 34 separate body parts have been found in the debris. Local authorities declared those still missing as “presumed dead” and began the process of issuing death certificates in their stead.
Environmentalists who have studied Himalayan glaciers for decades have linked this deadly disaster, like many others before it, to climate change, adding weight to growing calls for aggressive climate action in the region.
However, attributing responsibility for the flash flood solely or primarily to the current climate crisis risks obscuring the failure of national and international agencies involved in construction projects in the region to act on lessons learned from past disasters.
Less than 10 years ago, in 2013, flash floods killed more than 5,700 people in Uttarakhand. At the time, experts quickly established links between the disaster and the numerous hydropower construction projects in the high mountain valleys of Uttarakhand, arguing that these projects had exacerbated the intensity of the flooding. “The disaster is a costly wake-up call,” said Peter Bosshard, director of policy at International Rivers, in the aftermath of the deadly flood. “This shows that nature will retaliate if we ignore the ecological limits of fragile regions like the Himalayas through the construction of reckless dams and the development of other infrastructure.”
After the 2013 flash flood, India’s Supreme Court also commissioned a national panel of experts to investigate the political failures responsible for the disaster. After conducting an investigation, the panel called for halting hydropower development in this “disaster-prone” region, arguing that this greatly amplifies the damage caused by natural disasters. He also requested the installation of a flood warning system. Later, two Supreme Court justices noted that they “are very concerned about the proliferation of a large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand. […] The cumulative impact of these project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, sludge removal, mining, deforestation, etc. on the ecosystem has not yet been scientifically examined.
Indian government agencies, however, refused to heed these warnings and continued their efforts to build dams on Himalayan rivers. Today, more than two dozen medium and large hydropower projects are planned to be built in Uttarakhand alone. Dozens more are planned in other parts of the Indian Himalayas.
Environmentalists say construction of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, one of two damaged by the February 7 flash flood, likely increased the damage from the disaster. This dam was built by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India, with financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The NTPC and AfDB were undoubtedly aware of the warnings that environmental groups and other agencies have issued about hydropower development in the region since at least 2013. Their apparent decision to ignore these warnings has claimed the lives of hundreds of people working at the project site on the fateful morning of February 7. Without a Sunday, the death toll at the site would have been significantly higher.
The second project affected by the flash flood last month, the Rishiganga hydroelectric project, was not only damaged, but completely swept away by the violent surge. And the disaster did not hit this construction without warning either.
The Rishiganga project site was hit by an explosion of clouds, floods and landslides on several occasions between 2008-2016. None of these incidents led to the suspension of the project. In the summer of 2019, residents of the village of Raini, known worldwide for their role in the Chipko (Hug the Trees) movement of the 1970s, filed a public interest dispute (PIL) before the High Uttarakhand Court, calling on the Magistrate District of Chamoli and the state government to examine the environmental and social impact of the Rishiganga hydroelectric project site. The DIP did not lead to any constructive action either.
Those responsible for hydropower projects in the Indian Himalayas have long defended their efforts against criticism from environmentalists by claiming that these hydropower plants would reduce India’s harmful emissions and the adverse effects of climate change on the local population. Indeed, the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Himalayan river valleys is part of a national plan to reduce emissions linked to the energy sector. If and when these plans are fully realized, the disaster-prone Indian Himalayas will have a dam every 32 kilometers.
But, as the fate of the Rishiganga project has clearly demonstrated, building carbon offset projects in fragile ecologies is a dangerous and misguided enterprise. The Rishiganga project was approved under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was expected that once fully operational, the project would produce emission reductions equivalent to 49,585 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. These expectations were literally brushed aside, in part because of the damage the project likely caused to local ecology and geology.
The rapid expansion of hydropower projects in the region is also not fueled solely by the desire to produce clean energy. The continuing “water war” between India and China is also a motivating factor behind the proliferation of these projects in the Indian Himalayas. In November 2020, the Power Construction Corporation of China, a Chinese state-owned company, announced its intention to develop a massive hydropower project, with a production capacity of up to 60 gigawatts, on the lower Yarlung Zangbo River. India responded by announcing its intention to build a 10 gigawatt project on the Siang, the main tributary of the same river, to “offset the impact of the hydroelectric project by China.”
Whether built purely to produce clean energy or as a response to regional rivalries, hydropower projects in the Indian Himalayas pose a significant threat to the region’s ecology and the well-being of local communities. Despite repeated warnings from experts, local authorities and government agencies involved in these hydropower projects have failed to adopt the appropriate safeguards.
Even after the deadly flash flood last month, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat refused to acknowledge the role that massive hydropower projects in the region played in bringing about this tragedy. Instead of committing to take the necessary precautions to prevent it from happening again, the chief minister called the incident a “natural disaster” and reiterated his commitment to the development of hydropower. The central government, meanwhile, simply read a statement announcing the number of dead and missing in parliament.
More than 550 hydropower projects are under construction or in planning across the Himalayas in China, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. Without neglecting the potential benefits of small-scale hydropower projects, national and international agencies active in the region should put in place ecological and social protection measures to ensure that these projects do not cause more harm than good.
The fact that such measures have not been put in place despite thousands of deaths in the dozens of disasters that have plagued the region over the past two decades is a damning accusation of the failure of international and national environmental governance. . International and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and national energy companies, must be held accountable for these major failings.
To avoid similar tragedies to the February 7 flash flood in the future, the issue of climate action should be debated alongside the larger issue of adopting an environmentally sensitive development model. To achieve this, we must stop blaming these disasters solely on “nature’s fury,” and start holding national and international agencies and policymakers accountable for their failures.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.