In the 2021 year-end review by the Ministry of Jal Shakti (Ministry of Water Resources), the passage of the Dam Safety Bill by the parliament figures in headlines. The question is are we any safer from dam disasters due to this? If we take a quick review of the numerous dam disasters just this year and also look at the dam disasters mentioned in this Bulletin that happened just in the last week of the passing year, the answer is clear no. Such disasters include ones in Himachal Pradesh, Nepal and Brazil.
There is also the news here of the Uttarakhand agency report about the Feb 2021 Chamoli disaster, about which the official govt agency has said failure of Early Warning System was a factor in the disaster. The bigger disaster is that the state govt has promptly issued show cause notice to the authors of the paper blaming the lack of EWS!
In a wise move, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has cancelled Gargai dam project. In its January 2014, submission to Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), SANDRP had highlighted the adverse impacts of this project on tribal people and Tansa Sanctuary stressing on alternatives including recycling of sewage and rain water harvesting. Finally, now the BMC has scrapped the unjustified project which would have caused felling of 4.5 lakh trees which BMC chief Iqbal Chahal rightly finds pointless in the wake of increasing climate change threats.
It is worth to mention that in February 2020 BMC was learnt reconsidering its Pinjal dam project and exploring other options including waste water recycling. Indeed the BMC is taking right steps. Dams are costly, destructive projects impacting rivers, forests and local people in multiple ways. The demand side management, efficient use of existing water supplies, rain water harvesting and recycling of waste water are among far better alternatives to meet urban water demands.
This photo from the Gujarat Samachar newspaper of Ahmadabad on Nov 25, 2021 depicts the reality of Sabarmati River Front Development. It shows that the growth of weed water hyacinth spread all over the stagnant, polluted river channel that is no longer a river. It says the boat service (running into losses) and AC Cruise services have stopped. There is no place for sea planes to land due to the growth of the water hyacinth, but the government has asked for permission to run two sea planes! There is the big issue of pollutants from industries and Ahmedabad flowing into the river that the Gujarat High Court is dealing with (see below).
Similar photos also appeared on the same date in two more Ahmedabad based two newspaper: Dainik Bhaskar and Nav Gujarat Samay, reinforcing the pathetic state of Sabarmati River Front.
Is there any doubt that all River Front Development projects are likely to face similar or worse fate than this? The situation could worsen in near future as both Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada and Dharoi dam on Sabarmati in the upstream of Ahmedabad have insufficient storage. In a related development, Rajasthan is threatening to stop flow of 45 TMC water to Mahi Dam, it is pertinent to note that Sabarmati also flows from Rajasthan to Gujarat.
This is the kind of study that was long overdue. In fact such a study should have been done before formulating India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) as SANDRP has been saying since 2009 (see SANDRP critique of NAPCC published under the title “THERE IS NO HOPE HERE) when NAPCC was made public by a dozen wise individuals sitting in a room without any participatory or transparent exercise. One hopes that India will restart the exercise of fresh formulation of NAPCC after doing such a study on an urgent basis, on the lines of the study described below. In any case one hopes the union and state governments will wake up and take up District level vulnerability assessment in India in an independent way on urgent basis.
“This study undertakes a first-of-its-kind district-level vulnerability assessment of India, which maps exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity using spatio-temporal analysis. To do this, we developed a climate vulnerability index (CVI) of Indian states and Union Territories (UTs). Instead of looking at climate extremes in isolation, we map the combined risk of hydro-met disasters and their compounded impacts on vulnerability. By doing so, we aim to inform policy goals in the resource-constrained context of India.
In past couple of days heavy rains have caused significant flooding in several areas of Chennai. While weather bloggers claim the rains were unusual and combination of several atmospheric factors, however the same can not be blamed for flooding in several residential areas, roads and other public spaces. Like common problem afflicting several urban centers across the country, Chennai is no exception to gradual encroachments of water bodies, wetlands, drainage channels and common lands.
Apart from lack of synchronization of hydrological factors in infrastructural projects, the urban water governance system is still missing despite the devastating 2015 flood event. Moreover the systematic and ongoing destruction of Ennore Creek which includes floodplain and wetlands of Adyar and Koshthiyar rivers has made lakhs of river, wetlands dependent people victims of such avoidable disasters.
This week (23-28 Aug 2021) it is Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) with a 30 year history. The organisers say: “World Water Week 2021 is unlike any other week in our 30-year-old history.” But provide no clear reasons why they are saying that. Their possible explanation: “In 2021 people across the world are really beginning to understand the gravity of the situation we are facing – within a decade we must halve carbon emissions, restore the degraded natural world, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This will require massive transformations of all sectors of society. World Water Week 2021 is entirely focused on the role of water for these transformations and on developing real solutions.” https://www.worldwaterweek.org/news/join-the-most-important-world-water-week-ever
( 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.
It’s rather rare when some of the most well-known environmentalists of India, including Ritwick Dutta and Manoj Misra welcome the arrival of Bhupender Yadav as India’s new Environment Minister. The state of the environment governance under the outgoing minister, Prakash Javadekar has worsened so much, both in perception and substance, that possibly any change would look better. In fact Javadekar may be front runner for the label of India’s worst ever environment minister according to some analysts.
The environment appraisals, the constitution of committees including the various Expert Appraisal Committees, the Forest Advisory Committee and the Standing committee of National Board of Wildlife, the public hearings and consultation processes, the state of pollution and rivers, biodiversity, wetlands, floodplains, sand mining, to name just a few areas, were all seen going downhill on a steep slope during the Javadeker period. The monitoring and compliance remained non existent. Some would argue that was it much different before Javadekar. The point is Javadekar had no pretentions of trying to improve the environment governance. He was out to dilute every available norm and he seemed to have succeded significantly.
Even if Yadav were to genuinely wish to improve matters, how much will he be allowed to do, by the perceived imperatives of the economic fundamentalist agenda, the well-entrenched vested interests and the bureaucracy is a question that only time will tell, but there is little doubt that a lot can and needs to be done rather urgently and none of these perceived obstacles should come in the way if there is will. The climate change is making the improvement in environmental governance rather urgent.