How to effectively manage the impact of infrastructure projects on the environment

Correspondence between Neelam Singh (student at National Law University – Delhi) and Andema Muniali Armand (chercheur, Sciences de l’Environnement à l’Université Catholique de Bukavu)

Dear Andema,

You might have heard that a glacial lake recently burst in the State of Uttarakhand, one of the states in the Himalayan region. When I had proposed this topic, I had come across a news article according to which the Archaeological Survey of India had for the first time approved the expedition to study the Ram Setu or Adam’s bridge. This made me curious about the possibility of ecological damage whenever the humans meander into nature that is still left untouched or has not witnessed human interference before. In India we have many legislations to address the issues concerning the environment. However, these legislations do not appear to be working as well as many of us would like. There is always scope for improvement and so is here!

In the Himalayan region, there are many towns that have been built on the rivers, and these all are old towns which were settled when the population used to be less enough. Many houses, hotels or other buildings are situated very close to the river. It seems that they are hanging on the river. Almost every year, we witness heavy rainfall in Northern India and these rivers go wild, overflowing and wreaking havoc on whatever comes its way. We had a flood in 2013. We had another flood like situation in some parts of the course of the river parallel to that in the same region that witnessed the floods in 2013. Though this time, damage was not caused to residential areas, but it damaged the ongoing dam construction projects and took the lives of many. The 2013 flood swept away buildings (many of them were houses), agricultural lands next to the river, and whatever else came into its way. The ‘melting Himalayan glaciers-Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFS)’ is a silent time bomb and we don’t even know how much time is left on the timer. It is only natural that when these glaciers will melt and these glacial lakes will burst that damage would be caused to everyone and everything that comes in the course of the rivers, equally so in the plains and in the hilly terrain.

In light of the natural landscape of the northern India, no infrastructure should be allowed to be constructed right next to the river. It is not uncommon to see a hotel next to the river boasting a riverside view as its selling point. Places like these are one of the first to be affected by floods. Every time the rivers swell up, the damage is most certainly caused to life and property. In addition to the swelling up of rivers, the silt from these rivers is in high demand. This river silt is very frequently transferred from its rightful place in and around the river. This negatively affects the course of the river and ultimately the nearby residences.

We need to give nature breathing space, for example, instead of venturing into natural habitats which shall be left for the rest of the living organisms to thrive, we should find ways to improve upon our technology so that we all can manage within the portions of the planet we have reserved for ourselves excluding the wild animals and plants from all the urban and rural areas.

It is now more than ever important to invest in technologies that are pro-nature and reduce carbon footprint in addition to ensuring that the infrastructure built is safe for everyone, including nature. Sustainability is the key. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are certainly helpful in this matter. If all of us even manage to attain the SDGs, nothing could be better than that. In addition to that, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) should be a prerequisite condition for any infrastructure project anywhere in the world, and it should not just be for the sake of conducting EIA, but rather to ensure that no project is undertaken if the result of the assessment is in the negative. It is no doubt that infrastructure development is needed everywhere, but we must not forget that we need to cater to the needs of nature as well for it is only the nature that nurtures us.

I would like to know what you think could be possible ways in which the issue can be better addressed provided your exposure to the study of ecology and management of aquatic ecosystems.

Looking forward to your response.

Regards,

Neelam Singh
18-FEB-2021, Delhi

Chère Neelam

J’ai lu avec beaucoup d’attention votre essaie. Je vous assure que j’ai trouvé votre analyse suffisamment objective dans la mesure où tout d’abord vous avez eu à aborder une question d’actualité avec maitrise du milieu. J’ai apprécié le fait que vous avez annoncé un risque imminent et négligé alors que des catastrophes se sont manifestées en 2013 dans la même région. En outre, vous ne vous êtes pas limité à annoncer le danger mais vous avez pris soins de proposer une solution pour prévenir le pire et éveiller la communauté.

Je me permets de souligner que même si je me suis documenté sur le milieu et le danger qui guette la population, il se trouve que je peux aborder la question avec certaines réserves je que vous pris d’admettre. Dans les lignes qui suivent, nous présentons en résumé les éléments nécessaires pour aborder la question de la fonte des glaciers de l’Himalaya et l’inondation des lacs glaciaires constituant une bombe à retardement.

Avec la succession des dommages enregistrés dans la région, dans les dix dernières années, la population devrait déjà éviter d’habiter les zones à risque, mais aussi les Etats devaient déjà s’impliquer urgemment dans la prise en compte d’un danger imminent, l’inondation. Malheureusement, il se trouve qu’il y a un problème d’information dans la communauté. Pour décourager les habitants de construire ou de loger dans des zones à risque majeur, il est recommander de réaliser une éducation environnementale en vue d’instruire la communauté sur les dommages qui attendent ceux qui s’exposent la bombe à retardement dont il est question.

Comme nombreux des infrastructures ont été installées dans la région, l’idéale seraient de déplacer toute la population exposée, malheureusement cela doit impliquer des budgets colossaux. Néanmoins, certaines mesures peuvent être mises en application pour préparer la population à une éventuelle inondation. Tout d’abord, la vulgarisation des mesures nécessaire pour prévenir ou réduire les impacts négatifs de ce problème.

Pour une bonne gestion des écosystèmes aquatiques de cette région, un système de gestion de risques et des catastrophes doit être mis en place s’il n’existe pas encore, ou bien il doit être renforcé s’il existe déjà. En outre la législation en matière des écosystèmes aquatiques se doit d’être revue et enrichie, et elle doit considérer la question sur les constructions sur les rives des rivières.

Les études scientifiques approfondies deviennent alors un besoin très important pour produire des connaissances scientifiques sur ces écosystèmes en vue de faciliter les prises de décisions pour une bonne gestion et la protection de ces écosystèmes. Bien que pour plusieurs pays, la législation autorise de construire à 10 à 100m de rive,  ces études doivent clarifier le nombre de mètres de rive minimum pour éviter des dommages en cas d’inondation mais aussi pour diminuer les impacts négatifs des activités anthropiques sur la faune, la flore, et le biotope des écosystèmes de la région.

Une des études importantes pour comprendre le phénomène et faire de bonne prévision est d’établir le régime d’écoulement (limnigramme, hydrogramme et débit liquide) des eaux de la rivière en question et d’autres rivières de la région. Une surveillance faisant recours à la télédétection est appropriée pour plus d’efficacité, et pour savoir à temps réel, les niveaux des eaux des lacs glaciaires et des rivières de la région, tout cela pour être à mesure de faire des prévisions journalières voire hebdomadaires.

Nous appuyons fortement la proposition selon laquelle aucune infrastructure ne devrait être autorisée à être construite juste à moins de 10m de la rivière. C’est parce que des endroits comme ceux-ci sont parmi les premiers à être touchés par les inondations. Car chaque fois que les rivières gonflent, les dommages sont certainement causés à la vie humaine et aux biens. Néanmoins pour une exploitation durable des ces rives, les initiatives de reboisement de ces zones, l’érection des jardins floraux, etc. sont à encourager.

Cordialement,

Andema Muniali Armand
4-MARS-2021, Bukavu

Dear Andema,

Thank you very much for your email. Your email was certainly very enriching. I really appreciate the solutions that you offered for combating the dangers posed by swelling rivers. 

As you mentioned in your previous correspondence, there is a need for people to migrate from such high risk areas. And no doubt, this has its own budgetary constraints and I am not sure how feasible it would be for the government and people.

However, distancing human population and constructions on river banks about 10m to 100m or whatever minimum distance should be there between the river banks and human establishment, is certainly feasible. You rightly mentioned that there is a need to conduct further research to ascertain the minimum distance between humans and related infrastructure and the flora, fauna and biotope. Without these, we are incomplete.

I appreciate that you brought up the importance of, and requirement of safeguarding fauna, flora and biotope in addition to safeguarding human life and property. Many times, we humans forget to take into consideration flora, fauna, and biotope while offering solutions to environmental issues caused by us, raising concerns for us.

I agree and appreciate your suggestion with respect to the sustainable exploitation of river banks, reforestation and flower gardens should be encouraged. I believe that reforestation and flower gardens can be extended to other areas as well.

Remote sensing of water levels of glacial lakes and rivers in the region are certainly the technological savvy solutions, and need of the time. These and other tools can certainly help us in understanding the level of risk and ascertaining the time available to us, in order to take mitigating measures.

But, all these solutions cannot work if we do not take relevant measures in each and every direction. Only installing technological tools would not in itself ensure that people, property, flora and fauna will be protected. We need to take firm steps and take everything together.

Regards,

Neelam Singh
9-MARS-2021, Delhi