Dangers in the shadows of the Himalayas

As we watch, and watch again, the images of the glacial lake outburst flood in the Indian state of Uttarakhand reminds us of our vulnerability of being located in the fragile Himalayas.

The topography, the vegetation and the river system at the flood site looks no different from ours. Settlements along the river, hydropower projects to tap the white gold, roads and bridges that connect our remote places can all vanish in a few seconds when nature strikes.

In Uttarakhand, a portion of the Nanda Devi glaciers broke off on Sunday morning, triggering a massive flood that killed at least 30 people with 190 still missing as of last night. The cause of the GLOF is attributed to glacier calving. That was what was visible to the eyes, the bigger and more worrying unseen reason is what caused the portion of the glacier to calve when temperatures are below freezing point.

Even as scientists explore the reasons behind the reason, all fingers are pointing to climate change or global warming. This is the second time in less than a decade that the state experienced GLOF. It is an indication that the dangers are clear and present.

The GLOF comes as a reminder of our vulnerability. As climate changes, GLOF are becoming more common. It is proven that global temperatures are rising and glaciers are melting, creating lakes that can burst violently, devastating communities and properties downstream.

We are in the same region where scientists have confirmed that glacial melting rates have increased. Our own experts have confirmed, as recently as November 2020 that the 700 glaciers in Bhutan are losing  mass at an alarming rate, to the extent that the glaciers could disappear in the next 50 years if the trend continues.

The biggest problem with glaciers and GLOF is that there is no warning when a lake would burst. With increase in global temperature, the natural moraine dam, mostly pile of rocks and soil with ice, can be breached with the slightest disturbances like glaciers caving or the moraine dam itself melting.

The warnings are scary. It is said that by 2035 the Himalayan glaciers will have drained themselves and, in a century, we will be staring at the bare rocks of Himalayas. We have experienced the impact before and even intervened by artificially lowering the level of water in the glacial lakes. We are known as champions of the earth. Our carbon emission is in the negative and we have a rich environment. The problem is what we do is not enough and we will pay the price of what others do or not do.

While stopping climate change is out of our hands, we should focus more on what we can do following the Uttarakhand experience. Hours after the GLOF, Indian rescue teams including Paramilitary reached the disaster site to carry out a massive rescue operation. We do not have the resources or the capacity to do the same. We have not taken it seriously even if we are aware of the impending dangers.

A similar incident in the Lunana glaciers could spell disaster to the entire nation. We have two massive debt-ridden hydropower projects downstream of the Punatsangchhu. Worst, we are seeing more settlement along the river even after the hazard zonation. Khuruthang and Bajo town are in the red zone, yet we cannot stop settlement kissing the Punatsangchhu. Should we wait for an Uttarakhand experience to act?

The Sunday GLOF in India is far away from Lunana, yet so close to us. Mother nature is warning us to learn and act.

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