Friday, July 19, 2013
Each year, when the thaw sets in the Himalyan Valley of Uttarakhand, piligrims flock to the holy temples in the region, such as Kedarnath. This year was no different. Except, the holy shrine of Kedarnath, which is over thousand years old, turned into a grave site with bodies piled up around its structure. The cause: unprecedented flash floods that have devastated the region. Hundreds have died and nearly 6,000 people are missing. An online search engine of “Uttarakhand” will provide several news reports and op-eds on the scale of the devastation. The big question is what caused the floods? It is unclear. The Government of India has set up a committee to do a post-mortem. In the meantime, let us assume that global warming may be one reason, since scientists have predicted these kinds of sudden weather changes as a consequence of climate change. What this catastrophe then illustrates is the vulnerability of people living in nations such as India (and no doubt elsewhere, too).
Since the floods occurred suddenly, there was no room to warn or evacuate before the floods and the ensuing landslides occurred. People were stranded in dangerous terrains in a region that is already difficult to access. As roads and houses collapsed into the water, hundreds were drowned and thousands stranded. The Indian Army’s rescue operations were greatly impeded by unexpected rainfall. Neither prevention nor effective rescue was possible.
For locals in the region, this human tragedy is marked by huge economic loss, as well. Tourism (and hydroelectricity) is a major source of income. The floods hit the region during peak tourist season, causing significant loss of income. The only hope is that the reconstruction process will create jobs, but the human cost at which this may occur makes it a small consolation.
The floods also illustrate the difficulty facing countries such as India in adapting to climate change to avert catastrophic consequences. Thousands of people have to be re-located and buildings re-built. In a region where seasonal tourism or hydro electric power are key sources of income, the cost of such measures may outweigh the risks, at least in the short term. If re-location within the region is not possible, then the question is whether people can be absorbed into other regions. Such a move could also trigger economic concerns, such as finding employment for those re-located.
Any inadequate adaptation action, especially when combined with unsatisfactory rescue operations could chill travel, if such events increase, and result in people staying put. This will doubly affect the local population, who will lose their source of income even as they become increasingly vulnerable to climate change consequences. At that point, no legal intervention can possibly ensure that those affected receive proportionate remedies.
Uttarakhand should serve as a wake up call. To ensure that justice, even considered in the loosest sense, is denied to people such as those affected in Uttarkhand, a proper action plan on climate change is urgently needed. Finger pointing will not resurrect the dead.