M.A. Chitale of India’s Central Water Commission does not give up. Yet again, there is a flurry of consternation over his proposal to cover Himalayan snows with charcoal dust, the idea being that charcoal absorbs solar heat, which helps more snow to melt, which increases the flow of the north-Indian rivers, which, supposedly combats drought. “The threat of drought could be eliminated if the vast frozen ocean on the high mountains were tapped,” says Chitale. Our research, however, reveals the following:
— there are inherent dangers in fiddling with the complexities of nature. Glaciers, such as Pindari and Gangotri are already receding, and artificially accelerating this trend with charcoal could be ecologically costly. Glaciers play a crucial role in controlling climate and water level in the major river systems. The sub-continent does not need man-made catastrophes to supplement natural calamities.
— under Chitale’s plan as reported, the snow can be melted only in summertime, which overlaps the monsoon. Even without accelerated melting, the rivers are in spate almost every year. This year’s floods must give all would-be snow melters pause.
— breathtaking are the logistics of spraying charcoal by helicopter over the Himalayan snow fields. An experiment proved that spraying just one square kilometre is daunting enough, and a computer simulation showed that covering 128 sq km with the finest grade dust would require 400 metric tons of charcoal, which is many, many helicopter trips.
— incidentally, we presume the charcoal would come from burning Himalayan woodlands. This is a great idea, because the resulting deforestation would lead to immediate runoff of rainfall, which would certainly augment the flow of river water to the parched plains. This is called killing two birds with one big block of ice.
— we seem to have read somewhere that the worst droughts are not in north India but in Rajasthan and Gujarat. If so, it might be a good idea to first invest in a canal linking the Ganga to the Narmada before casting covetous glances at the high slopes.
— a 1976 study by the Department of Science and Technology reportedly found that “the pollution and logistic problems involved in charcoal dust spraying are very considerable”. Indeed, what is the physical, chemical and other ecological fallout from yearly doses of charcoal dust. Will there be additional turbidity in the rivers lead to reduced fish catch? And what else?
Amidst a storm of criticism, we hear that Chitale has backtracked, maintaining that the scheme is at a “conceptual” stage. Until we know more, the glaciers must be left alone to melt at their own pace. — Editors of Himal