The Third Citizens’ Report on the State of India’s Environment, which looks into the causes and effect of the annual floods on the lower plains of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, has attracted some decidedly hostile reviews. But the criticisms therein are disturbing more for what they reveal about the health of the Indian environment movement than for the considered analysis provided by the authors of the report.
The Third Citizens’ Report represents a step ahead for CSE in many ways. Researchers concerned with upland-plains ecological linkages have long understood the correlation between various types of floods and deforestation in specific areas of the Himalaya. Unfortunately, the confused correlation put forward by Erik Eckholm, an American researcher and journalist, fired popular imagination and seriously set back public understanding of the ecological processes at work. Eckholm arrived two decades ago and in 1976 published a simplistic treatment of Himalayan soil loss which related all lowland floods with Himalayan deforestation.
What Eckholm had to say was of course a distortion of Himalayan ecological studies. It was a bad joke on the Himalayan population, yet his doomsday predictions in articles and in his book, Losing Ground (Worldwatch, 1976), encouraged the growth of know-all environmentalists in all the Himalayan countries. Truth and seriousness lost out to reductionist treatment and sensationalism. The report is a courageous attempt to marsh all available research to fight such sensationalism. Is it any wonder that the active champions of reductionist environmentalism in India are alarmed? There is need for holistic thinking about floods in the Ganga-Brahmaputra plains, and the CSE has produced a useful document which will encourage the earnest peruser to read further.
Were the authors, in preparing this report, aware of the fundamentalist thinking among Indian environmentalists? Perhaps they were not, or they might have introduced the reader to the types of floods in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin and described how changes in land-use in various parts of the Himalaya affect them. Perhaps they should have known better, because for many plains-based lovers of the environment, floods are of one kind and are caused solely by the cutting of trees in upper catchment areas, Those who do not find it necessary to. read, would not know any better.
The most notable critics of the report are N.D. Jayal (India Today, 24 February 1992), B. Sahgal (Illustrated Weekly of India, 27 October) and V. Shiva (Sunday Observer, 8 March; National Herald, 20 January). Had these renowned Indian environmentalists-turned-critics paid attention to recent publications on the subject of Himalayan deforestation and floods, they might have been less surprised by what the CSE team had to say, and their self-righteous anger might have been blunted somewhat. For the ideas presented in the report have had currency among serious students of Himalayan environment, witnessed in a number books including Himalayan Dilemma (Routledge, 1989) and in journals such as Mountain Research and Development. Himal, too, has carried, several articles on the subject, including one by D. Gyawali and this writer in Sept/Oct 1989 which analysed the ecology of the Ganga-Brahmaputra. floods with respect to upstream deforestation.
In a nutshell, deforestation on hill slopes that receive rain undoubtedly causes flash floods in the respective foothills. But the hydrological behaviour of the entire Himalayan region — 3000 km in length, with diverse forest cover and fantastic climatic differences — cannot be extrapolated from the performance of a single micro-watershed. To do so would be folly.
Floods can be, caused by several factors during the various stages of a Himalayan river’s journey to the sea: the outburst of glacial lakes; opening up of landslide dams; natural spreading of the rivers at the foothills due to sharp declines in slope, and so on. Towards the lower reaches, rivers flood mainly due to heavy local rainfall, high-tides, and the simultaneous peaking of tributaries. Human activities which are not ecologically informed, such as the construction of embankments, help back up water, causing water-logging.
Shiva’s claim that the 1978 Uttarkashi blockage of the Kanodiagad, a small tributary of the Bhagirathi, which is a tributary of the Ganga, led to “flooding of the Ganges basin all the way to Calcutta” — more than 1000 km downstream on a distributary known as the Hooghly — is laughable. This is only among the more egregious examples of the “evidence” brought to bear in criticisms of the CSE report.
Among the so-called experts of India, why is there so little self-control in making public display of one’s ignorance? And do these persons who find it so easy to hold a heroic stance not realise that their fantastic rhetoric serves only to divert attention from the unscientific and pathetic record of water-management in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin?
The main contribution of the report are the holistic insights it offers on the processes of flood creation, thereby aiding the search for solutions. The report also provides much data on flood damage and protection works. One major criticism is that, for all its data, the report does not provide a series of annual hydrographs of the various rivers. All superficial talk on deforestation in the Himalaya causing floods would have been dismissed right there.
The report also provides a detailed description of the orogeny and geology of the Himalaya, which is useful general information. The reader is forced to consider the Himalaya as a source of mountainous volumes of sediments throughout geological time which helped to form much of what is today’s Bangladesh. Thus, the new islands forming on the Bay of Bengal did not begin to do so after Independence. Just because satellites now give us pictures of some ecological processes, it does not mean that soil loss, siltation or flooding are new phenomena.
Undoubtedly, deforestation on slopes of the Himalaya increases soil loss, but this is insignificant compared to the debris created by the natural uplift of five to ten millimeters a year. This is why reforestation in the Himalaya is unlikely to reduce appreciably the heavy sediment load of Himalayan rivers. Certainly, rain-receiving slopes must be protected by full-canopy forest cover to reduce the power of flash floods. But only a fraction of the total Himalayan catchment, say between five to seven per cent, receive heavy and intense rainfall and need such protection. The forests in the Himalaya are vitally important to the agri-pastoral economies of the mountains. And this alone is reason enough for reforesting the Himalaya.
It is a pity that such well-known actors in India’s environmentalism missed the main point of the report, that is, the need for a holistic understanding a floods in the plains. With their naive outburst, the reviewers have merely exposed their own ignorance about up-to-date scientific information and their proclivity for sensationalism. Two reviewers (Jayal and Shiva) virtually condemn Agarwal and co-authors of being anti-national in referring to the work of an American scientist, Larry Hamilton, of the East-West Center in Hawaii. They little realise that Hamilton is among the best ecologists to have set eyes on the Himalaya.
As such, there is no serious challenge to the CSE report from Sahgal, Jayal or Shiva. Sahgal and Jayal, being ardent lovers of forests and wildlife, have over-reacted to the reduced importance of forests in the scheme of things described by the researchers. Shiva goes a step further. “Maybe it is time to investigate why so much international money is coming the way of CSE. The Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Canadians are all (reportedly) sending funds to CSE, an organisation which seems to exist only for the sole purpose of pleasing those in political power,” Shiva wrote in Sunday Observer, 8 March. This incredible charge, linking foreign donors and alleged motives of CSE in trying to divide the ranks of Indian environmentalism, represents a trend that is slightly sickening. The time has come to stop slinging mud and to start getting a hit more serious about treating their vocation as a science. If not, environmental movements in India stand to lose much of their credibility.
Bandyopadhyay is one of the authors of the newly released State of the World’s Mountains (Zed Books, 1992)