Friday, September 23, 2011

A Tragedy to Come

A tragedy has struck the Himalayan belt.
An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, centered around the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area in Sikkim, near the border of Nepal, occurred on September 18 in the late afternoon.
The tremors were felt across the entire North-East.
More than a hundred people are feared dead, mainly in the East Sikkim district, but also in Chungthang area of north Sikkim, Nepal and even Tibet (particularly in the Chumbi Valley).
Reports mentioned that heavy structural damage occurred in the bordering States of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the North-Eastern States.
The Sikkim Chief Minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, announced that Sikkim itself has suffered a loss of more than one lakh crores rupees.
The Army which took control over the rescue operations along with the State government’s administration, slowly realizes the enormity of the damage. The first reports mention 15,000 houses being razed to the ground and more than 1 lakh partially damaged.
Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Bikram Singh pointed out: "The biggest challenge right now is to get the lines of communication through, to supply food to needy people."
The tragedy has a serious collateral. It has caused massive damage to the structures at two of the five sites of the 1,200-megawatt hydro-power project on the Teesta river. Some workers and officials are said to have lost their lives. This triggered a mass exodus of many employed by Teesta Urja Limited, the company constructing the Rs.10,000 crore hydro project. Though the workers left the site in a state of panic, the company affirmed that no damage was done to the structure (particularly the tunnels) of the hydro-power plant.
However, the earthquake raises serious questions.
Geologists are well aware that the Himalayan belt is one of the most seismic regions of the planet. Remember May 12, 2008, an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale occurred in Sichuan province of China which resulted in the death of some 87,000 people..
Fan Xiao, the Chief Engineer of the Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau explained that it was very unusual for this area: “The historic records show that the highest recorded earthquake in this area was magnitude 6.5, and no seismic activities of more than magnitude 7 occurred” in the region.
This reminds us of Fukushima where nobody could have thought that a tsunami of this magnitude could hit coastal Japan, but it did.
Fan Xiao further elaborated about the Sichuan tremor: “in the Longmenshan seismic belt [where the tragedy occurred], the earthquake authority conducted studies and predicted that an earthquake could occur, but not with a magnitude above 7.” Like in Fukushima, the reality was much harder than the predictions.
But more ominous, Fan said that this unusual quake was probably triggered or induced by the reservoir of the famous Zipingpu dam nearby.
The Chinese geologist explained “For earthquakes, generally speaking, there is a cycle of occurrence every 100 or 200 years. But the phenomena of RIS (reservoir-induced seismicity) is likely to change the timing, the location of the epicentre, and the seismic intensity of an earthquake.”
In another words, the catastrophe was probably a man-made disaster.
Interestingly in August 2011, a Chinese NGO Green Earth Volunteers organized a Seminar on the Diversion of the Brahmaputra. Experts in geology, meteorology and wetlands conservation met with the ‘Father’ of the diversion proposal, Guo Kai.
Without entering into the merit (or more accurately, the demerit) of the project, the ‘experts’ doubted the feasibility of the scheme for one main reason:  the high seismicity of the Tibetan Plateau,
Xu Daoyi, a former researcher at China Earthquake Administration’s Institute of Geology rejected the scheme saying the proponents have barely studied the seismic and environmental risks. He listed 10 major earthquakes that have struck the Tibetan plateau over the last 60 years.
Yang Yong, a geologist who worked on water diversion project in China pointed out there was presently in China, a “vigorous debate over the risk of triggering earthquakes and geological disasters on the Tibetan Plateau with such schemes”. Should it not be taken into account?
Yang also asked if “the project had the necessary mechanisms and systems to respond to situations such as drought, or climatic changes caused by the scheme, as well as earthquakes and mudslides.”
That is the point: it is rather easy to get a quick clearance from a usually pliable Ministry of Environment and Forests, but does it mean that ALL the factors have been taken into the account, particularly phenomena linked to the ‘development’ of the hydropower plants such as construction of roads, building new townships for workers, deforestation, etc.)
To understand the seriousness of the question, let us have a look at another event which took placeway back in 1950. In the evening of August 15, one of the most powerful earthquakes of the centuries shook Eastern Tibet. "This was no ordinary earthquake; it felt like the end of the world," wrote Robert Ford, the British Radio operator working for the Tibetan government in Eastern Tibet. “Mountains and valleys exchanged places in an instant, hundreds of villages were swallowed up, the Brahmaputra River was completely rerouted and for hours afterwards, the sky over south-eastern Tibet glowed with an infernal red light, diffused with the pungent scent of sulphur.“
A month later, Prime Minister Nehru visited Assam and made a long vivid description of the damages and sufferings of the people on All Indian Radio: “rivers were blocked up for a while, and when they broke through, they came down with a rush and a roar, a high wall of water sweeping down and flooding large areas and washing away villages and fields and gardens. These rivers have changed their colour and carried some sulphurous and other material which spread a horrible smell for some distance around them.”
This was a month after the earthquake and a few hundred kilometers south of the epicenter. One can imagine what happened in Tibet; Nehru’s broadcast gives us an idea. Today, one dare not think of what could happen to the hydro power projects presently built in the North-East would a seism of a much larger scale than the present one in Sikkim occur.
A report of an Inter-ministerial Group to study the hydropower potential of the North-East concluded that Sikkim had a capacity of more than 4,200 MWs, out of which some 2,500 are already developed or under development (while the entire North-East has a capacity of 59,000 MWs). This may bring about short time benefits for Sikkim and the Seven Sisters, but what about the dangers? The same report lists 25 hydro-electric projects allotted to Sikkim, all above 20 MWs.
While nuclear plants in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are hotly debated, projects several times more dangerous for millions downstream are not even studied in a multidisciplinary way.
During the August Seminar in China, Tao Zuyu, a retired professor from Peking University’s Department of Atmospheric Physics said that China needs to learn from international experiences. He cited the former Soviet Union which once transferred water to Kazakhstan, but ended up turning the local soil salty and also mentioned “the colonisers of America planted grain on land once used for grazing – and caused desertification”.
His conclusion was: “We must respect nature”.
His remark is valid everywhere, even in India.

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