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.
The pilgrim towns in the Himalayas that have been devastated by floods this year have been where they are for so many millennia. Would they have come up there if it were so flood prone?
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?
An Overpowering Situation
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. We see a plethora of Hydel power projects being built on the main river itself at close proximity.
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?
Contract With the Hills
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.
Media had been highlighting this issue for a while, villagers too. Warnings were there for the traditional stake holders of the land to see physically and raise orally. They seem to have got drowned in the channels of power.
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?
Shifting the Silt
Silting is Welcome Here
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. These rivers originate in glaciers high up in the Himalaya. As the glaciers grind over the rocks and flow out as these rivers, these rivers bring down mineral rich silt from the hills.
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.
The Gangetic plains of eastern Bihar, Bengal and Bangladesh were formed by such silt naturally filling up the sea bed. The enormity of silt brought down from the mountains, every day, every hour of the river flow, can now be imagined.
This silting has been a boon for the people in the plains. No wonder then, that this belt is one of the most fertile and consequently densely populated regions of the world.
Cost of Silt
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?
Is sale of silt perhaps anticipated as a byproduct of this power generation?
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?
Footprints on Himalaya
The Himalaya is one of the youngest mountain ranges of the world and is still very fragile and volatile. So what holds good for mountain ranges elsewhere in the world may not necessarily hold good here.
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. As a result this has been a region not frequented by many and infrastructure too was minimal.
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.
Commercial opportunities have presented themselves in such times and man’s greed to make the most of them without thought, is evident from the way these regions have grown into shanty towns with abysmally low, ill planned and neither human friendly nor eco friendly facilities.
Now to support these towns and the large number of tourists flocking there, other infrastructure such as large scale power plants, roads, garbage disposal, water supply and such others too have had to be setup. We are slowly taking footprints of the plains into the hills and that too delicate hills at that. Not only delicate, but hills which are core to life on the plains below. Hills that have nourished the lives in the plains with waters, alluvium, rains and much more!
By reducing the moutainscape to the landscape of the plains, are we not, in a way, snuffing out the sources for our own sustenance and lives?
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.
One look at the terrain around the present day temple of Kedarnath confirms why this place was aptly named so.
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.
But have we ever given a thought as to why this land got this name?
In this picture of the Kedar valley in 1880s, we see the temple standing alone and nothing much else other than a few lone huts.
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
Soul Searching In These Hills
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.
This would bring up only small footprints around the temple and not a large shanty town.
The capacity of every piece of land to house anything, be it people, animals or plant life, is defined by its spread, its topology, its environs and natural resources available to it right there, not elsewhere on another piece of land. Stretching things beyond this capacity is bound to cause stress to the land, its environs and its inhabitants eventually leading to an imbalance and breakdown.
This holds good whether the piece of land lies in the Himalaya or on the plains.
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.
The people of Bhutan rate high in their happiness index inspite of their poverty as measured by the western yardstick. So happiness is something that is more than the comfort that comes from economic wealth.
While in the Paro region of Thimpu, the capital city, most modern facilities are available, the basic structure of all the buildings follow the traditional norms because of which, even under heavy rains or seismological activities, the damages are mitigated. The traditional façade also adds to the beauty.
Thimpu, Paro in Bhutan
No wonder the people here are high in the happiness index as they adhere to the basic principles of sustainable living based on time tested methods.
Happiness is innately made up of many components and sustainable living, living in sync with Nature figures as one of the high points.
While Bhutan has maintained the core principals of traditional architecture, still attracted tourists in large numbers and given them all modern amenities to live by, in adjacent India, the facilities in the Himalayan circuits leave a lot to be desired.
It is a stark contrast to see, for after all, Bhutan is a neighbour of India.
This perhaps stems from the fact that for Bhutan, Himalaya is their entire country and they have lived there all along.
Whereas for India, Himalaya is at one end of the country. While majority people of India enjoy the benefits that the Himalaya provides such as perennial water supply, rich silt, protection from cold northern winds, to name a few obvious, they are far removed from the realities of what such a ecosystem really means.
The ones who know and value it, are the locals who have been living there all along. But they cannot do anything, for, even though they may live in the heights, they have been forced to bow down to the political and economic power in the plains.
Can those from the plains, unfamiliar with the terrain and ecosystem of the hills, decide what must be done on the hills, with the hills and for the hills?
Have we gone too deep into a centralized model of governance that understanding local field and needs have become peripheral issues?
Barren Without the Banj
The lower to middle Himalaya, has been home to varied species of flora and fauna. One among them has been the White Oak tree, called Banj by the locals. This Banj tree had been pivotal to the ecosystem of Himalaya so much so that the ecosystem of the Himalaya had grown around this tree. Let us look at the roles this tree has played.
Water retention – the broad leaves of this tree retain water and proliferation of this tree meant more water evaporation during summers and so more rain and snow in the upper reaches of the Himalaya and hence more river water flow during summer again.
Water percolation – the falling leaves of the Banj on mulching, created a thick carpet of Humus on the floor of the forests making it conducive for bushes, plants and other undergrowth under these trees, which again contributed to increasing the humus on the floor of the forest. This Humus absorbed the rain water falling and allowed it to percolate slowly into the ground rather than just get washed away down the slopes. This percolation led to increase in ground water and water springs at various places along the slopes.
Preventing Soil Erosion – The carpet of Humus held the soil firmly and prevented it from getting washed away down the slopes along with the waters. This prevented landslides and consequently breaches and flash floods.
Banj Tree with Undergrowth, Humus
Unfortunately from the times of the British, these massive oaks were felled and instead replaced with Chir Pine trees for their quick commercial value. Chir Pine was suitable for resins and timber and had a quick turn around.
But what no one looked into was that the leaves of the Chir Pine were fine and needle shaped. What did that imply?
Needle Pine, The Sharp Contrast
Water retention – Being fine and needle shaped, the leaves of the Chir Pine, did not absorb and retain water. Consequently they had nothing to offer by way of evaporation and hence did not help rains or snow.
Water Percolation – Being fine and needle shaped, the fallen leaves rolled away and did not mulch below the tree to form humus. Hence there was no undergrowth of bushes and other plants beneath the pine tree. The ground beneath the pine tree was barren without any undergrowth. Hence any rain water that fell on the ground just quickly rolled off down the slopes of the mountains as there was no carpet of humus to absorb the water and allow it to soak into the ground. Consequently there was no percolation of water underground and water springs and aquifers went dry soon.
Soil Erosion – As there was no undergrowth, the soil under the trees were exposed to the falling rains which would wash away the soil as it ran down the slopes. During torrential rains, which these regions are bound to experience, when these rain waters flowed unchecked down the slopes they started creating flashfloods and landslides.
This difference came to light when the local Pahadi, women of these hills started noticing reduction in fuel wood and ground water. Nobody had concerned themselves with the Banj trees and hence the women could use their lower branches as fuel wood. Pruning the lower branches regularly also allowed more sunlight to reach the ground and aid more undergrowth and humus.
Whereas, the pine trees were part of plantations for commercial exploitation and access to their wood was barred to these women.
The search for the root of the problem subsequently led to the understanding of the pivotal role the Banj tree had played in maintaining the ecosystem of these hills.
Sadly, it was too late. Most of the Banj had gone. The local women who wanted to safeguard the few left behind rallied round under a movement called the Chipko movement during the 1970s. The Pahadi women formed human chains and hugged the Banj trees to prevent them from being felled. The word Chipko means to hug, to stick to.
Chipko Movement 1970s – Women Hugging Banj Tree
The barren landscape of the hills today tells us the remaining part of this story as to what happened to these women and their trees.
Were we not shortsighted when we could see the money in Pine but not the boon in Banj? Did we make a mistake, when we felled all the Banj trees off the Himalaya?
Insignificantly Small Yet Significant Benefactors
There is a significant phenomenon which is slowly coming to the light of the scientific world.
It has now come to be accepted in the scientific community that one of the key inducers of rainfall, snow is an insignificantly small organism – a bacteria called “pseudomonas Syringae”.
Rain falls when water molecules in the clouds gather around particles of dust that have risen into the atmosphere, to form ice crystals which then melt and fall to the ground as rain. It has been found that the bacteria pseudomonas Syringae, which are found on the green cover of forests, rise up into the air in large quantities. They act as nuclei around which the water molecules crystallize as ice and then condense into rain, snow.
The difference in crystallization by these bacteria versus that around dust is that the bacteria cause freezing of ice crystals at higher temperatures causing rains, snow to fall earlier than otherwise.
This singular ability of the bacteria is now being exploited by ski resorts to make snow at will. It is shot as cannons into the atmosphere with water to cause snow to form and fall.
These bacteria grow where there is healthy green cover and mulching leaves.
In the case of the Himalaya, sadly, the disappearing Banj and consequently the disappeared undergrowth and Humus, should have caused a fall in the population of these bacteria – both growing on the ground as well as those risen into the atmosphere with the potential to make rain fall.
Without knowing their role in entirety, these bacteria, seen as pests, are also being destroyed by the heavy use of pesticides.
What is the significance of this rain making bacteria in connection with the flashfloods at Uttarakhand?
What typically causes flashfloods in the Himalaya?
Flashfloods occur commonly in the Himalaya due to cloudbursts which bring down torrential amounts of rain in a short span of time. Being a hilly region, the voluminous amounts of rain waters from the cloudburst, cascade down the hills with tremendous force causing landslides and flashfloods.
But the major and root cause for such damage is the cloudburst.
Cloudbursts occur when huge columns of monsoon clouds, heavily laden with water molecules are triggered by either a physical barrier or other dynamics in the atmosphere to discharge their heavy payload in a rush. This leads to rapid and voluminous rainfall in a short duration. It is like a Tsunami but from the skies.
Here is where the rain making bacteria comes into act.
The presence of this rain making bacteria in the atmosphere causes ice crystalization in the clouds earlier and rain to fall sooner. This prevents huge build up of clouds, causes precipitation then and there in many places, reducing the potential for formation of conditions that can lead to heavy cloudbursts. Basically it acts to decentralize the clouds and distribute the rains rather than converge into a huge cloud capable of bursting.
So, when the green cover in the Himalaya was more healthy and conducive for the bacteria due to the presence of the Banj trees, these rain makers were many and they were busy making rain and preventing cloudbursts.
With the disappearance of the Banj, its undergrowth and the humus on the floor of the hills, we have driven the rain makers away and clouds are bursting uncontrolled.
The sheer fact that many of the old shrines and old settlements have survived so long in these hills in the same places that are reporting frequent landslides, flashfloods, cloudbursts and casualties today, is an indication that these hills were perhaps not so perilous even till a few centuries ago. Man, flora, fauna and the elements had struck a perfect chord and were in harmony with each other.
How can we engage this rain maker again?
Power of Energy, Shakti
The guardian deity of the Uttarakhand region is Dhari Devi, a goddess, whose idols stood near the village Dhari, named after Her. This temple stood on the banks of the Alakananda in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
This Dhari Devi temple was not some new temple that had come up in the last 50 to 100 years. It was a Shakti Sthal, one among the 108 Shakti Peeth, a seat of Shakti, which means it has been there and venerated continuously by the majority people of the land for more than a couple of millennia. Shakti Sthal are places where the Shakti Tattva, subtle energies are considered to be manifest.
The Dhari Devi temple had a subtle connect with the temples of Kali Math and Kedarnath. These temples were designed and installed at specific angles with each other to balance the Shiva – Shakti energies. Shiva in Kedarnath and Shakti in Dhari Devi and Kali Math.
One day prior to the deluge, the idol of Dhari Devi was removed from its consecrated, long standing location to make way for a dam to be constructed there.
Angles were well known in this land for it was the ancient Indian science of Trikonamiti which gave rise Trigonometry, a branch of modern mathematics. Kona means corner, angle. Trikona is a triangle. The east coast town of Konarak, famed for its ancient Sun temple was also built in specific angle to the Sun, which is why it was aptly named as Konarak.
Angles denote alignments. Concept of angles, their meanings and the powers in alignments, whether of planets in the sky or objects on the ground, was well known to this civilization.
Without realizing the meaning, the purpose of these angles and the precision with which these temples had been located where they were, the Dhari Devi temple was shifted consequent to Supreme court order.
While development should happen around such ancient and honoured places, here development has been ordered by overturning the places of honour.
While the Shakti Peeth has been there beyond human memory and would have continued to be there for some millennia more, these modern dams have a life of just 100 – 200 years.
These dams can be built in this valley or the next.
“Can structures of timeless nature, which form the heritage of the land, be moved in the name of short term development projects?” is the question that a full bench of the Supreme court has to analyze now.
In Conclusion – Acts Cause Impacts
Tampering with the Shakti Peeth could well have been the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, inviting the wrath of Shakti, the power in the fury of Mother Nature, for the cumulative destruction that we have caused to her over the last 300 years.
That the shifting of the Dhari Devi temple could have invoked the wrath of Shakti to cause such a catastrophe, can be a faith based reason, which the modern rational mind would not be willing to agree upon as a point of argument. The underlying fact however is that the Chardham Yatra, thepilgrimage to all these temples, the whole trek and experience is founded on the same faith that has come down from eons and millennia.
So, dismissing the shifting of Dhari Devi as one of the causes for the catastrophe, as just a faith based or an irrational reason, would not be looking at this incident from a wholistic perspective. The whole system there is faith based.
Now we are left with the faith that perhaps atleast this Uttarakhand disaster, even at the cost of so many lives and damage, will shake us out of our apathy towards environment and tendency for quick and dirty, ill planned solutions that bear ill effects.
It is a lesson on how not to be overpowered by greed. It is not that we in present times have discovered new technologies or commercial avenues. Our ancients had known many too. But they had discovered something more … how to live sustainably with Nature – when to use technology and when not to. Technology and commerce go hand in hand and shape lifestyle. It is easy to discover new technology. The difficulty is in deciding when, where and how much to use. The difficulty is in limiting it to catering to needs and not greeds.
It is a lesson on how to respect ancient traditions. It is not that they do not work, we do not understand them well enough to make them work.
It is a lesson on how not to tamper with Nature. It is easy to cut a tree, a forest even. But is it possible for a man or a machine or even another type of tree to substitute for its function the same way, from the very next moment? Even if a sapling of the same type of tree is planted, who can perform the functions of that tree for the interim years till this sapling can grow into another tree?
It is a lesson to tell us how every being on this planet has a role to play, be it a human, a tree or a bacteria. How each of us – humans, trees, organisms and natural elements like rain and earth are all part of one single eco system.
Acts of each, impact the others. It may not show in the short term but over time it will and when it does it will seem like the hand of fate and then it will be too late.