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Glacier bursts are a cascading risk, says UNESCAP

Vinson Kurian Thiruvananthapuram | Updated on February 28, 2021

Rescue operations underway near Tapovan Tunnel, after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Monday, February 8   -  PTI

Himalayas, Hindu Kush-Karakoram, Tien Shan at risk

Many mountainous communities are at risk from cascading disasters of the type witnessed recently at the Nanda Devi glacier in Uttarakhand. They live within multi-hazard risk hotspots characterised by ecological fragility, active seismicity, high infrastructure exposure and socio-economic vulnerabilities.

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods thus pose a serious threat to mountainous communities across Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan from the Himalayas to the Caucasus, Pamir, Hindu Kush-Karakoram and Tien Shan mountain ranges, says Sanjay Srivastava, Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction at the UNESCAP.

Predecessor event at Kedarnath

In June 2013, nearby Kedarnath witnessed devastating floods and landslides that killed more than 5,700 people and caused large-scale destruction of bridges and roads, leaving about three lakh pilgrims and tourists trapped in the valleys for many days, Srivastava wrote to BusinessLine from Bangkok.

A comprehensive study using 40 years of satellite observations across India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, indicates that glaciers have lost the equivalent of over a vertical foot and half of ice each year since 2000 – which is double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000.

The study, titled ‘Acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas over the past 40 years’ is the latest credible analytical finding on the impact of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers, including the Garhwal range of Uttarakhand, Srivastava pointed out.

Stick to Sendai Framework

The Sendai Framework must be operationalised in multi-hazard risk hotspots like the Garhwal Himalayas, where people’s livelihoods, health, cultural heritage, socioeconomic assets and ecosystems are under threat. It identifies strategic actions required for managing disasters in multi-hazard risk hotspots.

There is, therefore, a need to strengthen the understanding of impacts of rapid urbanisation and development of critical infrastructure in the fragile regions. Destruction of two hydropower projects at Nanda Devi demonstrates that water-related infrastructure in mountainous regions need be to suitably risk-informed.

The sequence of events that led to the Nanda Devi disaster was hard to predict, says Srivastava. This would, therefore, call for a need to strengthen early warning systems with dense sensor networks and online data platforms so that warnings can reach key stakeholders and at-risk communities.

Published on February 28, 2021

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