Flooding in Uttarakhand Shows Why India Needs to Take Environmental Security More SeriouslyAugust 19, 2013 By Dhanasree Jayaram
The disastrous flooding in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand this summer, which claimed more than 6,000 lives, was the outcome of a changing climate and poorly planned development. It was also another case in point of the increasing importance of environmental security in India – especially for the military.
India’s armed forces emerged as heroes from the tragedy. At a time when the civil administration failed to implement some of the most basic disaster management policies, the military came to the rescue by carrying out the largest aerial search and rescue operation in the country’s history. Air Force pilots flew more than 1,400 sorties, rescuing more than 12,000 people in total, a spokeswoman told The New York Times.
With a spurt in the number of extreme weather events and natural disasters in the sub-continent, coupled with the incompetence of civil administrations, there is perhaps a need for defining a clearer role for the military, in disaster management in particular and environmental security policy and planning in general.
Disaster in Uttarakhand
The unpredictability of India’s summer monsoon rains, like those that struck Uttarakhand, is not a new phenomenon; however, with rising temperatures and continued development, the consequences of that unpredictability has become a major concern.
This summer’s disaster, called the “Himalayan Tsunami” by some, was initially thought to be a glacial lake outburst flood. Later reports suggested the huge amount of water that surged downstream was caused by a breach in the boundary of a small lake that formed due to a huge landslide and heavy rainfall upstream. The monsoon rains that created the landslide and back-flooding reached Uttarakhand almost two weeks earlier than normal, when the rivers had heavier flows due to seasonal glacial melting.With rising temperatures and continued development, the consequences of that unpredictability has become a major concern.
Such a concentration of unusual events may be becoming less unusual, thanks to climate change. A recent World Bank report said that an “extreme wet monsoon, that currently has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years, is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of this century.” Many other studies, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have also established a link between climate change and extreme weather events in South Asia. Cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata are frequently identified as among the most vulnerable in the world, threatened by extreme river or coastal flooding, more intense tropical cyclones, and sea level rise.
But the disaster in Uttarakhand was also a result of indiscriminate, unchecked development. Experts say the dozens of dams and hundreds of kilometers of diverted river flows in the area were a disaster waiting to happen. Despite a ban since 2002 on building within 100 meters of a river, construction along riverbanks continued to take place. For example, an attempt last December by the central government to declare a 135-kilometer stretch along the Bhagirathi River an “eco-sensitive zone” was struck down by successive state governments in the name of development and tourism. The state authorities also claimed that road-building in the area was important for the movement of the armed forces since the state borders China. Ironically, the roads that were so critical that they drove the state government to overturn the environmental initiative have now been washed away.
A Role For the Military?
In this context, India needs to realize that environmental security should have a place in the country’s national security policy and strategy.
In countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the military has helped lend a sense of urgency to addressing climate and environmental change by minimizing the environmental impact of their activities, providing support to environmental protection activities, and assisting in relief and humanitarian assistance in places struck by natural disasters.
The Indian military has been playing its part, but the government maintains such strict bureaucratic control over its actions that it diminishes the country’s ability to start more comprehensive and forward-looking initiatives in environmental security.
The consequences of environmental change for Indian military are many. India comprises a long coastline; large low-lying areas, including flood plains and deltas; fragile mountainous terrain; and active earthquake zones. And as evidenced by the recent flooding, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Ladakh flash floods in 2010, and the Sikkim earthquake in 2011, the military is heavily relied upon, perhaps overly so, in natural disaster response.
RUSI’s Tobias Feakin on the European debate over the role of the military in climate change response
Environmental change could also have more direct effects on the military. The Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield and a critical flashpoint with Pakistan, is melting at an accelerated pace – how will that affect tactics or strategy there? Land routes could open up in the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and along the line of control with Pakistan – do they need to be guarded? The Indian Ocean region is extremely vulnerable to changing climate patterns such as rising sea levels and changes in water temperature – how will these changes alter naval battlegrounds? The Indian military is exceedingly dependent on external energy sources – is that a vulnerability, and can new energy technologies help mitigate any weakness? How vulnerable is critical military and energy infrastructure?
Make Planning a Priority
To answer these questions, there is dire need for long-range, strategic planning that would assess the risks of environmental change in India. The military is yet again expected to step up, as it has the best available expertise in disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, relief, and recovery in the country. But the armed forces would do well to also look inwards and determine how these changes will affect its mission and operations and whether its current rapid response role is sustainable.
Still, although the armed forces hold a great deal of potential in helping India cope with environmental changes, it’s high time the government stop treating them like a sacred cow. It would be worthwhile to require every government agency or department, including the armed forces, to conform to a carbon budget. Such an initiative would spur improved efficiency in existing hardware and help improve the use of renewable energy technologies in the armed forces, which would not only help the military adapt to the changing environment but reduce their footprint as well.
The central government needs to identify those areas in which the military can be given considerable autonomy (such as “greening” efforts and long-term planning); areas in which the civil agencies should better cooperate and coordinate with the military (such as disaster management); and areas in which strict civil control should be maintained (domestic or regional conflicts).
With their continued disaster response responsibilities, the Indian armed forces have a chance to expand beyond their simple “aid to civil authorities” instructions and develop a more forward thinking national strategy without shaking the pillars of Indian democracy.
Dhanasree Jayaram is the author of Breaking out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka.
Sources: Air Power, Business Standard, Center for Science and Environment, Deccan Herald, Down to Earth, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, India Strategic, Indian Army, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NDTV, The New Indian Express, The New York Times, The Pioneer, Press Trust of India, World Bank.