Fragility of Himalayan Mountain Ecosystem

Source: Down to EarthThe Hindu

Gs3: Conservation, Environmental Pollution, and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment.

Synopsis: The recent Glacial outburst in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district is a consequence of human’s impact on climate and lack of awareness towards local ecology.


  • Recently a glacier collapsed in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi. According to some satellite images, the glacier collapsed as a result of a landslide. It resulted in flash floods in the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers.
  • It claimed many lives of persons working in two hydropower projects.
  • Although the ITBP through immediate action rescued nearly 15 people still many people are found missing.

How Climate change is impacting the Mountain ecosystem and how it is impacting Human livelihood?

  1. Anthropogenic activities are continuously affecting the earth’s climate. The change in the Mountain ecosystem is an indicator of that effect.
  2. Mountain ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change owing to their altitude, slope, and orientation to the sun.
  3. Due to increased global warming, mountains glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. It is reducing the area for the survival of flora and fauna.
    • For example, satellite observations reveal that across India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan the melting of glaciers has doubled since the start of the 21st century.
  4. The melting of glaciers threatens water sustainability for hundreds of millions of people in counties, including India. These impacts become severe due to the increase in pressure on water resources for irrigation and food production, industrialization, and urbanization.

What are the reasons for climatic disaster in Uttarakhand?

The frequent disasters in Uttarakhand are not only caused by nature but also due to an indiscriminate increase in hydropower projects.

  • Uttarakhand mountain ecosystem faces various threats such as seismicity, dam-induced micro seismicity, landslides. For example, the entire State of Uttarakhand falls under Zone-IV and V of the earthquake risk map of India.
  • Besides being an earthquake-prone zone, it is also prone to Flood disasters. Bursting of glacial lakes can cause flash floods with catastrophic consequences. For instance, moderate earthquakes in the Tehri dam caused the 2013 floods in Kedarnath.
  • Despite all these threats, the Uttarakhand government has indiscriminately pursued a greater number of hydropower projects. For example, the ongoing Tapovan power project.
  • Also, India has heavily invested in dam development and the growth of hydropower in the Himalayas’ region to cut carbon emissions.
    • For example, if the national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills is completed, the Indian Himalayas will have one dam for every 32 km. (The highest density in the world).
  • Apart from this, the life of dams is often exaggerated without taking a proper account of the siltation level in the dams. For example, in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, the siltation was higher by 140% than calculated.

These hydropower projects are incompatible with the local environment and ecology. They have increased the risk of disaster manifolds impacting the life and livelihood of millions of people.

What is the way forward?

  • The government should realize that the fragility of the Himalayan mountain’s ecosystems. Governments need to re-prioritize their projects based on the potential of the mountains, local and traditional knowledge as well as the aspirations of the place.
  • Hydro projects should be confined to the areas with the least impact in the Himalayas. Also, the government needs to build more low-impact run-of-the-river power projects rather than building destructive large dams and reservoirs.
  • Projects that are incompatible with the local environment and ecology should not be promoted just by giving due consideration to development or economic growth.
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