A Himalayan Threat

This article was first published in The Pioneer on Thursday, September 19, 2019. | KK Paul

A Himalayan Threat

Fires that engulfed the Amazon rainforests should awaken us to the threat closer home. Shivaliks and lower Himalayas, too, witness the same risk almost every year.

Recent fires that have ravaged the Amazon rainforest in Brazil have not only generated sufficient heat to light up the scene for a fresh debate on development and environment but are also responsible, to some extent, for overheating the world of diplomacy, which was much evidenced at the G7 summit held in France last month. It is obvious that major forest fires like the ones around the Amazon rainforest and the Indonesian blaze can no longer remain a localised affair. They tend to assume international dimensions in view of the overall impact on the environment and in the long run, on climate change. The temperature spikes in carbon sinks across the world end up melting our glaciers.

The allegation that the fires had been lit intentionally to make way for developmental projects being undertaken by the Brazilian Government in collaboration with private entrepreneurs may or may not be true but the damage to the environment has already been done. Imagine, Brazil was host to the earth summit in 1992, where the concept of sustainable development was initiated and a long term strategy to deal with climate change was formulated for the first time.

Back home, we have similar problems in our forested areas, except for those where rainfall is heavy and trees are able to retain sufficient moisture. The coastal areas and forests of the North-East as well as the Andamans are a case in point. Fires in the forests of Shivaliks and lower Himalayas are well-known. In fact, they have become a regular feature, except that they keep varying in intensity. Experience shows that forest fires in hill areas are more difficult to tackle due to the problem of accessibility as is noticed in several districts of Uttarakhand.

The year 2016 almost created history, both in the number of fires as well as their spread with at least seven casualties being reported. On account of a virtual absence of winter rain, signs of a difficult impending summer were quite visible even in mid-February during that time. During my journey from Dehradun to Nainital, while my helicopter was overflying the forests of Tehri and Pauri, a few isolated cases of smoke rising from deep inside the forests were visible. The absence of any rainfall through the months of March and April, along with an unusual rise in temperatures, compounded the situation.

Despite sufficient warning time being available, necessary steps were not taken. Mobilisation of volunteers and other personnel on the ground remained inadequate. By the end of March, almost a crisis situation had developed when the fires appeared to threaten settlements and peripheral areas of some of the towns. By then, the State had come under President’s Rule and as the then Governor, containing the damage done to forest wealth besides saving life and property became one of my top priorities. It was strange to see that the forest department was neither adequately prepared nor committed to fighting the fires. It was considering them to be a normal and an annual feature.

Given the gravity of the situation, the State disaster response force along with personnel from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in large numbers were inducted into the operation. Simultaneously, the police personnel, who were accompanied by the district revenue authorities, were also mobilised. As the fires became more menacing and life-threatening, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was approached, who with the personal intervention of the then Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, responded almost instantaneously.

Choppers with Bambi buckets were available at the Sarsawa airbase, not far from Dehradun, which flew to Pauri and Nainital without any loss of time. They were immediately operationalised with the lake at Nainital and the reservoir at the Tehri Dam providing adequate supply of water. The only problem faced was the supply of fuel for the choppers as the tankers moved at a very slow pace on the winding hilly roads. The ordeal was finally over after a few showers towards the end of April, breaking one of the longest dry spells of more than 50 days at a stretch.

While only a certain amount of damage by fires can be quantified, the adverse impact on biodiversity and ecosystem remains immense and unquantifiable. Suffice to say that huge volumes of carbon dioxide so released lead to serious environmental impact. In addition, nano-sized particles from the smoke tend to settle on snow-covered areas in the vicinity, which is a separate field of study in glaciology. It is, however, well-known that such depositions and even a fractional rise in temperatures lead to erosion and consequent retraction of the glaciers.

Two very important glaciers in the vicinity of the fire impacted area are Gangotri and Milan. Both have extensively been studied by experts. Water from these glaciers flows entirely into the Gangetic river system.

Almost 65 per cent of the landmass in Uttarakhand is under the cover of forests out of which the Chirpine (pinus roxburghii) occupies about 20 per cent of the area, which is about four lakh hectares. Every year, large quantities of dry pine needles fall on the ground. These are very rich in oil, are highly inflammable and constitute a major source of fire hazard in the State. The Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Department Agency (UREDA) has since launched a scheme whereby pine needles are collected by villagers, who are paid on account of the weight of their collection. The needles are then used as fuel to generate power.

During the post-fire analysis, one aspect that was mentioned very emphatically by one and all was that the participation of Van Panchayats had almost been negligible. Earlier, forest dwellers used to provide volunteers, who would maintain a strict vigil and help prevent and extinguish the fires well in time. After the introduction of and sometimes over stringent application of the Forest Rights Act, traditional forest dwellers from certain areas faced eviction, leading to a sort of vacuum with none to look after the vast tracts of forests. The official departmental guards are either too inadequate or permanently absent from duty.

In some foreign countries, like Australia and elsewhere, spraying of fire retardants is not uncommon when the fires become life-threatening. However, such sprays have not been used in India. Nevertheless, there is enough scope for technological innovations in this important area that impacts the environment. At one time, the Uttarkhand Government had sought to do away with the chirpine plantation and resorted to large scale afforestation through oak and other hardy trees. But this was dependent on expert advice as it had serious implications for both the soil structure and the environment. Considering their impact on the environment as well as biodiversity, vital decisions need to be taken in the right earnest.

(The writer is a former Governor of Uttarakhand and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)