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A Deep Dive into Chamoli Tragedy – Causes and Prevention of Future Disasters

A Deep Dive into Chamoli Tragedy – Causes and Prevention of Future Disasters

At Hemp Foundation, we were taken aback at the news of glacier breaking in Chamoli, triggering a flash flood and causing colossal damage of life and property. The enormity of the news took some time to sink in. And when it did, everyone on our team was moving their fingers quickly on their phones, in great excitement and even greater despair, to talk to one another, and our friends and colleagues back there in Tapovan.

The tragedy was mind-blowing and we were anxious to ensure that at least, people we knew were safe. We couldn’t stop our thoughts going back to disastrous Kedarnath floods. While most regard these natural disasters, the fact is, we cannot dissolve our hands of our share of responsibility. At Hemp Foundation, we have been long warning about such disasters waiting in the wings.

Disaster in our karam sthali

We will explain it, but for now, let us talk about our Chamoli connection. Well, Tapovan and Urgam Valley in Chamoli and Rudraprayag have been our ‘karam sthali’ (place of work) since our inception. These hills were the place where Hemp Foundation came into being, grew, and tried to uplift our fellow citizens, working to pull them out of abject poverty.

While we headquartered ourselves in the national capital, Delhi, scores of our volunteers were criss-crossing the undulating Uttarakhand valleys, toiling with the common people and training them in skills that would keep them employed for greater part of the year and earn considerably better, improving their quality of life.

Since we started, we have actively worked with more than a thousand farmers in the region. We visited their villages, stayed in their homes, celebrated festivals with them, stood with them in their sorrow, and in the process, we learned a lot about their lives. And we also watched how the most of the world was acting brazenly to exploit the immense natural resources of the region.

Our close connection to the holy land of Uttarakhand gave us first-hand experience how the local ecosystem was crumbling under pressure. The Himalayas have a fragile ecosystem but who bothers? The forests were being cut unabashedly to provide for burgeoning population, explosives were used to create tunnels inside the hills, urbanization was done right into the lap of nature, and the list continues.

As if this wasn’t enough, the things were exacerbated by neck-braking industrialization across the world and callous attitude of most people towards nature. All they were concerned about was meeting their needs. They didn’t take out a second to understand how their way of life was spelling disaster for centuries old legacy in Himalayan valleys and other such ecosystems globally.

What happened on 7 February 2021 in Chamoli was a signal to humans what could happen if we still don’t stand up now? Sure, it was a disaster but more such incidents, of greater destructive scale, could be in the pipeline!!!

Immediate reason of the indescribable tragedy

What happened was due to the collapse of a hanging glacier, according to the scientists at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology. A hanging glacier is a huge piece of ice that cracks up abruptly at the edge of a steep slope. The rock mass weakened over a period because of freezing and thawing of snow creating a weak zone, which eventually collapsed. The global warming is weakening the ice mass in the glacier across the world, increasing the likelihood of such incidents.

Dave Petley, vice president for innovation at the University of Sheffield in Britain has observed that mountain slopes have a lot of rock fractures but ice functions like a glue holding them together. The warming climate, however, has degraded the ice and it has lost its ability to keep the rocks together.

Connection between Kedarnath and Chamoli tragedies

Seeing the Kedarnath calamity and the Chamoli tragedy separately will be a mistake. There is a connection between the two, but you should be willing to dig a bit deeper to find it.

Kedarnath and Chamoli didn’t happen all of a sudden; rather, it was an adversity in the making. Both these incidents can be attributed to the humans’ interference with nature. Sure, Kedarnath happened because of incessant rains that day, but could we set aside the fact that rampant construction on the site was also responsible for the utter destruction of property and life.

Why glaciers are melting faster than ever now

Chamoli occurred because of the bursting of a glacier. But why did it? How many of us have noticed that glaciers across the world have been melting fast in the last few years? Even in Iceland, since 2000, glaciers have retreated by an area of about 750 sq km. All the glaciers in Iceland are likely to disappear in the next 200 years. Even in the Arctic, 95% of the oldest and thickest ice has already vanished.

Continual shrinking of glaciers is the direct effect of global warming caused by human-induced reasons like emissions of greenhouse gases. In the Himalayas, which host about 600 billion tons of ice, the rate of glacial retreat is alarming.

Most glaciers are several hundred to several thousand years old. Their scientific study reveals how climate has changed over time. We get clear indication how our planet is rapidly getting heated up.

Deep link between changing weather patterns and melting of glaciers

As glaciers are melting and oceans are getting warmer, the weather patterns are changing across the globe. This is affecting industries dependent on vibrant fisheries as the change in water temperatures and ocean currents is also altering the places where fish spawned. In coastal area, cyclones have become more intense and flooding has become more frequent. In the Arctic, melting of ice has made walrus lose their home and depriving polar bears of their chances to hunt seals in the frozen seas.

What happened in Chamoli was a part of this worldwide phenomenon. Glaciers burst when they are melting on the inside. And when they do without any immediate notice close to a human population, it turns out to be a disaster, as it happened in Uttarakhand this time.

Ecological devastation of the Himalayas and the poles

Humans’ greed has almost devastated delicate regions like the Himalayas and the poles. These regions face serious threat to the environment, biodiversity, and human livelihoods. In the Eastern Himalayas, less than 25% of the natural habitat has remained free of harm. More than 160 species are under existential threat across the globe.

Condition of the Eastern Himalayas holds importance as they have the largest concentration of glaciers outside the poles. These glaciers are a reservoir of fresh water. Climate change will accelerate glacial retreat, leading to changes in freshwater flows, and subsequently, in our ecosystem. In the long term, it will put in peril the safety and development aspirations of hundreds of millions of people.

There are more climate-induced glacier-related hazards than outburst floods and the collapse of slopes. A glacier is a stream of solid ice, which supports the slopes of the ice body. However, as a glacier retreats, the slopes lose the ice that buttresses them. This might result in a sudden collapse of tons of ice and in some cases, an ice-rock avalanche.

The threat to the Himalayan glaciers is not just the climate change. Other activities that endanger their existence include conversion of forests to agricultural land and other development purposes, and the cutting of trees for fuel, timber, and fodder. At several places, the construction of numerous dams without proper environmental impact assessment has led to arable lands and biodiversity hotspots drowning under water.

Connect the dots and the deep reasons behind the devastating Chamoli tragedy will be visible. We need to take immediate steps to reverse this deterioration of the Himalayan ecosystem before it becomes too late. Every little interference we make in the natural harmony is sure to have a ripple effect. All of us collectively need to make a pledge to refrain from doing anything that harms the environment we all live in.

Could this turn into a volley of calamities

The authorities were quick to launch a rescue operation and the survivors will also be probably rehabilitated; so far so good. But the calamity will strike again unless we work on the cause beneath the tragedy.

We need to work collectively to prevent the climate from getting warmer. The Chamoli calamity is a warning and if we don’t yet mend our ways, a flurry of tragedies is set to strike again. Hope, these volley of calamities doesn’t transform as a catastrophe!

But it won’t happen on its own. We will have to work hard together to prevent it.

How could we reverse this possible chain of events

The first thing we need to do is to embrace an eco-friendly lifestyle. The way we live now has a deleterious effect on the environment we live in. We impact our environment in several ways – pollution, overpopulation, deforestation, burning fossil fuels, and using materials that are hazardous for our ecosystem.

In our quest for ‘progress’ we never really bothered how our actions were harming our environment. Unchecked exploitation of groundwater resulted in the water levels falling down alarmingly. Textile and paper industry contaminated our sources of water. Gases our vehicles were emanating made our air polluted. Amplifiers added up to noise pollution. Environment of our planet degraded at every scale of measurement.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, the indicator of success is the wealth we own and our consumption. Society measures our success and happiness from the size of our house, salary, brand of our cars, and our locations. We forget that physical things don’t necessarily make a connection with our happiness and sustainability of our planet. This race for unsustainable consumption is the basic cause of ecological destruction we are witnessing around, such as Chamoli accident.

The foremost step time demands from us all is to do all we can for sustainable living. We may arrange for ourselves all the comforts in life but what its use is if it destroys the planet and leaves nothing for our coming generations.

Minimizing the release of carbon in the atmosphere is important

Consciously, we need to commit only to use the stuff that minimizes the release of carbon in the atmosphere. It will help keep the temperatures within permissible limits and preserve the land for our children. Increasing amount of carbon around is the main reason behind the threat of global warming.

Another step we need to take is to prevent poisoning of our valuable water resources. Without water, no life is possible on the earth. This requires a full stop on the usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Crops like cotton which consume colossal amount of water and pesticides have to be shunned and replaced with stuff like hemp which would need a fraction of the water used by cotton and negligible usage of pesticides.

When we use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, most of these percolate down the groundwater, contaminating a valuable natural resource and making it unfit for human consumption. Even the currently prevalent industrial methods of dying clothes leads to release of hazardous chemicals in water bodies. These need to be replaced with organic methods of dyeing.

Even in industries, we need to set up systems for the treatment of waste water. It is the callous disregard of nature to see huge pipelines emitting chemical-laced water in the rivers and lakes, the same water bodies that have been the lifeline of human civilization for centuries. It is high time we get over this nonchalant attitude and take over the responsibility of protecting our planet.

Sure it will cost some bucks to abandon the methods polluting our environment and switching to nature-friendly ways. But it will certainly be better than the high costs we are paying like the accidents of Chamoli and Kedarnath.

Global warming deserves topmost priority by governments

Governments need to prioritize challenges like global warming. We need strict laws to prevent unchecked development of property in the fragile ecosystems like the Himalayas. While the country needs development, it should not happen at the cost of environment.

Admittedly, just a ceremonial prioritization of an issue like global warming won’t result in an overnight elimination of everything which was detrimental to environment. It will be a long, step-by-step process. But, at the least, it will help in the planning. The desire to bring change on the ground has to be visible.

Tipping points must not be breached

Often, humans show a tendency not to react to threats that seem slow-moving and distant. However, it will be like hitting your own foot if we fail to take the remedial steps right away. If tipping points are breached, it would fundamentally disrupt the planet’s climate. A mass methane release would culminate in melting of all the ice on the land masses, causing sea levels to jump by up to 30 meters, threatening the existence of several major cities in the world.

If we ignore the ominous signs today, the temperature will keep rising steadily, generating heatwaves to melting of glaciers to rising sea levels. The biosphere of our planet stores and releases carbon in a cycle. The global warming, however, could take things past the tipping point, producing an abrupt climate change.

Worse, breaching of tipping points could trigger a domino-like cascade. Tipping of one point could cause the fall of others, and climate would change very swiftly. Could we afford a situation when there is a string of Chamoli-like accidents?

Unfortunately, some simply refuse to understand, putting the life of their own fellow citizens at risk. The timber mafia, for instance, would deliberately set forests in the Himalayan foothills on fire, to conceal illegal tree cutting. It happens every year, but in 2016, the blaze became uncontrollable. This indicates micro-climactic changes in the lower Himalayas.

What we can do to reverse the process of ecological deterioration

You may probably be eager to know what you can do to soften the threat. Well, as the saying goes, change yourself if you want to change the world. In our daily lives, we will have to figure out how we can be more eco-friendly. For example, you can begin wearing clothes made of eco-friendly fabrics. As you may have learned from cotton, every natural fabric does not support environment.

Little things like changing lightbulbs to LEDs or buying clean electricity will help. Switching from the conventional paper to hemp paper will be an important step as well as the paper made of wood pulp has led to destruction of forests on a vast tract of land. All of us need to work together on reduction the emission of carbon in the atmosphere and saving every possible drop of water.

Hemp, the wonder plant, can be a potent tool against ecological destruction

Based on our experience with hemp and the work we have done in the Himalayan villages, we can’t stress more on the role hemp can play. It isn’t termed a wonder crop for nothing. It can help giving back to nature what we have taken from it. Replete with nutrients needed with plants, its cultivation restores fertility of plants after years of exploitation has led to soil slowly losing its ability to produce.

Its long roots hold the soil, preventing it washing away in rainwater and floods. Most importantly, hemp doesn’t require chemical fertilizers or pesticides. When purchasing from organic suppliers, you can be sure that no chemicals were released in the atmosphere while dyeing as well.

Hemp paper can also be worthwhile replacement of the conventional paper, thus preventing rampant cutting of trees which amounts to 2.4 acres of forests, equivalent to two football fields, destroyed every second. This repent-less obfuscation of forests comes at a huge environmental cost for the earth. As the production of hemp is considerably more than tree wood per hectare within a definite period, hemp comes across as a better option.

Another big contribution hemp can make is taking out something like cotton, which has been a huge burden on our planet. Contrary to popular perception of cotton as an eco-friendly fabric, it consumes water as well as in high quantities. Add harmful chemical dyes as well to the equation and the damage that cotton brings along becomes evident.

Hemp, on the other hand, is a sort of independent crop, requiring minimal intervention. It enables us getting our fabrics in an eco-friendly manner.

Closing thoughts

The environmental ecosystem of our planet is hanging by a thread. No one knows when a tipping point gets breached and the climate begins changing irreversibly. As the most intelligent race in earth, we can’t allow it to happen. Moreover, it is the humans who are liable for the degradation of the environment and the emergence of a threat that is looming over our head.

It is high time we gird up our loins and begin working to reverse this trend. Embracing an eco-friendly lifestyle is the foremost step we need to take to restore order. Hemp can be a potent tool in the humans’ hand in this objective.

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