Three seemingly unrelated natural disasters hit our world in the last few days.
On Feb 7, an avalanche struck Chamoli district, Uttarakhand. It destroyed two hydel power projects, leaving several dead and the entire area covered in slush and mud. Two Himalayan rivers, the Rishiganga and the Dhauliganga, flow down from the snow mountains.
There, a massive piece of glacial rock, over half-a-kilometre long according to the satellite images, detached itself from the mountain top.
Hurtling two kilometres, it crashed down with a massive explosion. Like a huge bomb-blast, it raised high clouds of mud, debris, and spray. The residents of that idyllic creek were blinded and dumbstruck by the deafening boom. Slurry stormed down to the plains — ice, stone, sand and water wreaking devastation upon anything that came in its way.
Trapped in the tunnel
While the villagers on mountain slopes were miraculously saved, 9 kilometres beneath, labourers working on 520MW Tapovan-Vishnugadh hydropower plant, were not so fortunate. Many were trapped in the Tapovan tunnel, meant to channel and regulate the waters of Dhauliganga.
Totally damned with sludge, the tunnel became literally a dead end. Despite the best excavation and rescue efforts by the government, army, and paramilitary forces, the death toll was over 60.
As Jacob Koshy writing in the Hindu comments, “with the large challenges concerned in organising hydropower crops within the Himalayan area, the dangers from pure calamities, and the falling worth of solar energy, there are actually doubts about the way forward for hydropower crops and their viability as a substitute for fossil fuel-based sources of vitality.”
Earlier, in 2013, flash floods in the state had claimed many lives. The Chamoli catastrophe, once again, underscores the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystem, which is so susceptible to earthquakes, floods, and landslides.
Rampant construction activity
Living in Shimla, the largest hill-station in the world, I see all around me construction activities, road-widening, and economic development. Tens of thousands of tourists rush up to the hills on weekends, clogging the roads, exhausting the water supply in town, and throwing their trash here and there.
The picturesque colonial summer capital, designed for 45,000 souls, has now three-quarters of a million inhabitants, plus the crush of eager and newly affluent city dwellers from the plains.
Desperate to get away from the dust and pollution of their massive conurbations, they flock to the cooler climes in the hills, putting added pressure on the already fragile environment.
What is the way out? Economic activity, development, and growth cannot be completely stopped. Nor can the mountains be sealed or cordoned off from travellers and tourists.
Global climate crisis
Shift to Texas, United States. As someone who has lived there, I know how hot the summers can be. Austin, the state’s capital, often records plus 40 degrees centigrade during its hottest months. No wonder, the world’s first centrally air-conditioned edifice was the Milam Building, San Antonio, Texas, in 1928.
How was it, then, that a snow blizzard in Texas on 17 February left over 3 million homes and offices without power? Apart from the shivering cold, many parts of the United States, the richest and most-powerful nation in the world, had no access even to safe drinking water.
Close to fifty deaths were linked to the snowstorm and ensuing blackout. Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, was inundated with 15 inches of snow, the highest in over a hundred years. It is still freezing in Texas, with Governor Gret Abbott warning residents, “we are not out of the woods.”
On the other side of the world, just a couple of days back, Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, faced severe monsoon floods. Over 1000 residents had to abandon their homes to save themselves. Photos of people wading through neck-deep waters, with their belongings on their shoulders or heads, circulated in the global media.
In eastern parts of the city, waters rose to nearly six feet in the streets, necessitating emergency evacuation measures. Jakarta Governor, Anies Baswedan, acknowledged on Saturday, 19 February, that “Two hundred neighbourhoods have been affected.”
Speaking to Reuters, Dwikorita Karnawati, head of Indonesia’s meteorology agency (BMKG), warned of more heavy rains in the days ahead: “These are critical times that we need to be aware of.”
Precisely. These are critical times. These seeming unrelated “acts of God” are actually a part of one larger movement of ecological instability and imbalance, what Amitav Ghosh called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016).
Overpopulation, over-exploitation of natural resources, overproduction and overconsumption have adversely affected our habitat. Our beautiful and bounteous mother-earth is, as it were, groaning in distress as a result of our carelessness and callousness.
The triple crises of economy, energy, and environment afflict our whole world, north and south, east and west, rich and poor.
Climate evangelism, attacking governments and corporations, socially and economically divisive polemics or politics is not the way.
In such times, human solidarity and partnership are required. Wisdom and compassion must marry science and technology to produce a new global era of cooperation and collaboration. Together we can do it, but apart we will fail.
The world is sorely in need of a consciousness revolution, such as will save us and our planet. We must each play our part, however small or insignificant in it.