( Feature image:- Women members of Raini village’s gram sabha, Source: Atul Sati/ Facebook/The Quint)
The July 14, 2021 order of Uttarakhand HC, dismissing the petition of those affected by the Chamoli disaster of Feb 2021 and asking that NTPC, developer of the Tapovan Vishnugad project be accountable, is most distressing. While Indian judiciary is rightly credited with doing a lot for the cause of environment and people in general, in the unequal battle of the communities and activists against injustice and negligence of giant projects and their developers, the judiciary has more often failed to ensure that the developers are held accountable and are not allowed to bulldoze ahead using their might, supported by the state, to crush attempts to achieve just and democratic results. In the Chamoli disaster, there are many many questions that remained unanswered and one expected the HC to use the petition to seek those answers. But in stead, the HC has chose to question and fine the petitioners. One hopes the higher judiciary will correct this and stay the order and in stead seek answers from the developers of the hydro projects in such fragile, disaster prone areas and those that sanctioned such projects, including the environment ministry, the state government, the CWC, the CEA, the Geological Survey of India and also the project developers.
As Maharashtra faced the worst flood disaster of SW Monsoon 2021 in India, we see the phrases like “unprecedented rainfall”, “record breaking rainfall”, “frequent landslides” etc. with increasing frequency along with phrases like climate change floating around. While these are not entirely incorrect claims, these should not be used to escape the responsibility and accountability for failing to either accurately forecast the rainfall or to manage the proportions of disasters, including operation of dams, encroachments into water bodies and water path, not accurately marking locations vulnerable to landslides in landslide prone areas or taking up inappropriate “development” projects in vulnerable areas. All of these factors can be seen at play in disasters this monsoon in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh among others.
Using such phrases, there is an attempt to escape the accountability or responsibility. This is a culture increasing being propagated by Central Water Commission as they did in Kerala in 2018 and Krishna basin floods in Maharashtra in 2019 as in numerous other occasions. It is known now to everyone that climate change is going to lead to more instances of heavy rainfall that can frequently fall in unprecedented category, but that only means we need to take measures to reduce the damage in such instances, predict them accurately and manage them effectively. That is what the Action Plans for Climate Change and Disaster Management apparatus needs to work on, but we have clearly failed there so far.
The Europe floods this last week are unprecedented in so many respects. It has lead to close to 200 confirmed deaths so far, affected the Rhine basin areas of Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg. It is the result of worst recorded rainfall in a century, leading to unprecedented water levels that rose so suddenly that otherwise super alert and smart disaster management system could not neither accurately and in time predict the catastrophe nor remove these people from the path of the destruction. The climate scientists are seeing clear signature of climate change, though more studies are called for. The call for urgent and much more action to reverse the global warming are getting louder in a continent where possibly the climate action is most advanced.
As The New York Times reported on July 19, 2021 (Monday),
The authorities ordered new evacuations on Saturday, and heavy rains in the southern German region of Bavaria caused still more flooding on Sunday.
German meteorologists called the flooding the worst in 500 years, if not a millennium. The disaster thrust the issue of climate change to the center of pivotal elections this fall.
Belguim: Street pavements burst open, houses flattened, and entire villages were destroyed in what’s being described as one of the worst flooding disasters to hit Western Europe in more than two centuries. In Liège, Belgium’s third-largest city, water from the Meuse river overflowed Thursday evening into parts of the city center, prompting city officials to call for residents to evacuate the area or seek higher ground.
Countries like India should see this as a major and yet another wake up call to start taking action to reverse the global warming emissions. Much more can and should be done urgently.
The human dead bodies in the rivers and on the river banks are one of the many defining images of the Corona pandemic that India is in grip of currently. There is clearly complete failure of governments at several levels in this pandemic, starting from complete failure to have systems in place to ensure that the pandemic situation would not have become such a massive disaster. No explanation or accountability is likely to come our way from the governments. They are too busy suppressing the critical voices exposing the abject failure of the governments, building Central Vista project or harassing the elected governments ruled by other parties.
As one of the reports mentioned in this issue of weekly DRP Bulletin shows, similar scenes were seen also during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic in India. But we may remind our rulers and ourselves that a century latter our governance is supposed to have improved and the 1918-19 pandemic was several times much larger one. Moreover our governance today should be much better than the governance of the British Govt a century ago?
There are a number of stories here that shows that India’s environment governance continues its downhill journey. The first is a Third Pole story that narrates how Indian govt, through the Minister of State of MoEF misled parliament about the state of decline of biodiversity in India. The second is how MoEF is trying to bypass public hearing and public consultation process in oil and gas exploration projects even in the face of the severe consequences India experienced in the Assam episode of similar mis-governance in the past. The third one is how Kerala govt has failed to assess the impacts of tunneling in Western Ghats. These are only some of the signs. There are much bigger warning writ all over. Until and unless people rise up against these, there is little hope of any change here.
On the intervening night of July 18 and 19, Delhi received heavy rainfall spell leaving several areas water logged. In the afternoon of July 19, a video went viral on social media showing collapse of houses along Sen Nursing Nala at ITO, Delhi.
The incident happened due to a breach in right bank of storm water drain at the back of WHO building reportedly damaging about 12 houses of Anna Nagar, a fifty years old slum area located along the left bank of the drain.
Dams and reservoirs make rivers sediment-starved and menacing manifold downstream. While heavy rainfall is also a key factor behind the floods, hungry water had a more pronounced effect, says D. Padmalal, Scientist and Head, Hydrological process group, National Centre for Earth Science Studies.
– “When the sediment transport is interrupted, the potential energy of the hungry water released from dams will scour the river banks downstream, uprooting trees or riparian vegetation and damaging bridges and other engineering structures,” explains Dr. Padmalal. Overloaded with silt and clay from the eroding river banks, the highly turbid and viscous water clogs drainage channels. Subsequent discharge of water from the dam will lead to inundation and waterlogging of large areas.
– Hungry water can also develop in high gradient river channels devoid of adequate quantity of sand and gravel, especially during periods of high rainfall. “Years of uncontrolled sand mining have left most of the rivers in Kerala depleted or exhausted of sand and gravel. This creates a situation similar to the release of hungry water from dams,” notes Dr. Padmalal. When the river channel has adequate supply of sand and gravel, the potential energy of the water is used to transport the mixture. The water does not scour the banks or turn muddy.
The news media is filled with this new kid on the block, trying to wake the nation about the need to save our rivers… amazing to see so many film stars, politicians, governments, and public personalities, many of them rather innocently joining the band wagon… some friends were pleading that see, he is able to take the message of rivers to so many people, including lakhs of children… let us try and see if there is something positive here… may be, may be this is just the entry point, but the guy and his team have bigger vision? May be we need to give him longer rope, be more charitable and not jump to negativity?
We have kept all this in mind while writing this.
We see nothing from the people who are leading the rally, or their websites or messages that they understand the real threats faced by and reasons for the state of our rivers, are ready to even list such causes or protest any further move to destroy our rivers. The website claims it is “a nationwide awareness campaign to revive our rivers”. Can missed call save our rivers?