When uttarakhand disaster happened?
The extreme rains of June 16 this year lead to a disaster of
unprecedented proportions in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
Many theories and explanations for the disaster have surfaced in the
aftermath of the floods in the state. Now clearer satellite images of the
upstream and downstream areas of the Kedar valley that have
emerged are enabling a clearer understanding of the scientific and
environmental reasons for the tragedy in the state.
Reasons of the disaster?
A powerful landslide
It is believed that a massive landslide occurred upstream in the
northeast region of the Kedar valley. Heavy rainfall occurred at the
same time formed a small lake in the north-west of the valley. The
debris from the landslide and water from the lake travelled down the
slope, channelled into the glacier, and came down to Kedarnath town.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is yet to come up with
a detailed analysis but agrees with this possiblity.
The theory has been proposed by Dave Petley, professor, Department
of Geography at Durham University, United Kingdom, and reported on
his blog. According to Petley, high resolution images from ISRO's
geographic information system (GIS) platform, Bhuvan, show that the
flow of the landslide eroded a large amount of material. He has
estimated rough parameters using images of the landslide retrieved
from Google Earth.
The difference in height between the crown of the landslide and the
channel below was about 500 meters, and the length was about
1,200 meters. Petley puts the scar width at about 75 metres,
considered a large landslide. As the downside of the landslide was
active and prone to erosions, it created a further accumulation of
debris downstream. The amount and flow of debris was so high, that
the boulders did not stop at Kedarnath and were carried to Rambara
village and beyond.
Heavy rainfall that occurred in the area at the same time formed a
small lake in the north-west of the valley. Under normal
circumstances, the water would have flowed away. But a block formed
by debris led to the accumulation of water. When extreme pressure
caused a breach in the boundary of the lake, a large amount of water
gushed out, forcing another rock to flow away. This created a new
stream, in addition to the two streams that existed already. The
amount of water, moraines and debris was high enough to increase
the level of the biggest stream in the west, create a new stream in
between, and increase water level substantially in the eastern stream.
ISRO believes that the disaster in Uttarakhand was aggravated by the
large number of landslides in the area between June16 and 17.
Though a landslide inventory is still being prepared, preliminary data
shows that a total of 745 landslides occurred along the river valleys of
Mandakini, Mandani, Kali and Madhyamaheshwar. The debris created
by these landslides was carried along with the flood water and added
to the destruction.
Factors that caused Uttarakhand devastation
The Eco-fragile Uttarakhand has become a victim to human greed. A
sum of 427 dams are planned to be built on rivers on which 70
projects are proposed or built on the River Ganga alone. The continual
construction has affected 80% of the Bhagirathi and 65% of the
For the construction of dams, Dynamite blasts are required to cut the
mountains. Such blasts, on a Richter scale, are equivalent to a
magnitude 4.0 earthquake, are responsible to worsen landslides.
Increase in the number of vehicles
A series Natural Disaster have forced devastating consequences. In
2005-06, around 83k vehicles were registered in the state that rose to
around 180k in 2012-13 on which 4 wheeler vehicles increased the
most. In 2005-06, 4k such vehicles were registered, which soared to
40k in 2012-13. Apparently, this rise in the number of vehicles, on one
hand polluted the environs, on other aggravated landslides.
In spite of having sufficient funds received through donations, the
Badrinath-Kedarnath temple administration committee says that they
neither have the resources nor the manpower.
There is no one trained to manage a natural disaster; and only 100
police men are trained on emergency medical procedures.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahugun, in an interview with CNN-
IBN, said that the disaster management committee in the state had
not met for six years and they were not at all prepared to handle such
a huge devastation.
There is no governing authority set up to manage pilgrims visiting
Char dham. Even, a single Nodal Officer is not present to monitor the
yatra arrangements. No tourism management as well crowd
management is setup in the state.
The Monitoring, forecasting, and early-warning systems in the Met
department are very poor, specifically in Uttarakhand and needs to be
Reduction in Forest cover
The forest cover in Uttarakhand in 1970 was 84.9% which got reduced
to 75.4% in 2000.
All the mentioned reasons seem to have a relation with either human-
greed or mismanagement. There seem to be some religious reasons as
well (we can’t neglect these factors as they are based on firm faith of
locals) like :
1- Opening of Kedarnath Kapat at wrong muhurat is said to be one of
the religious reasons behind the catastrophe, as per one Nepali pundit.
2- Dhari Devi Temple Relocation is considered to be the main reason
behind the catastrophe as per the local beliefs. Reports are that on
June 16, 2013, weather was normal until the devi temple was
relocated and soon-after, flood started. It is evident that there were
several protests from sadhus and locals for not to displace the devi
mandir but the greedy, insensible government did not pay any
attention to the beliefs of people and on the doomsday, displaced the
temple in order to construct a dam there.
In June 2013, a multi-day cloudburst centered on the North Indian
state of Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides in the
country's worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Though some
parts of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in India,
some regions of Western Nepal, and some parts of Western Tibet also
experienced heavy rainfall, over 95% of the casualties occurred in
Uttarakhand. As of 16 July 2013, according to figures provided by the
Uttarakhand government, more than 5,700 people were "presumed
dead." This total included 934 local residents.
Destruction of bridges and roads left about 100,000 pilgrims and
tourists trapped in the valleys leading to three of the four Hindu Chota
Char Dham pilgrimage sites The Indian Air Force,
the Indian Army, and paramilitary troops evacuated more than
110,000 people from the flood ravaged area.
Death and damage
Landslides, due to the floods, damaged several houses and structures,
killing those who were trapped. The heavy rains resulted in large
flashfloods and massive landslides. Entire villages and settlements
such as Gaurikund and the market town of Ram Bada, a transition
point to Kedarnath, have been obliterated, while the market town of
Sonprayag suffered heavy damage and loss of lives. Pilgrimage
centres in the region, including Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and
Badrinath, the hallowed Hindu Chardham (four sites) pilgrimage
centers, are visited by thousands of devotees, especially after the
month of May onwards. Over 70,000 people were stuck in various
regions because of damaged or blocked roads. People in other
important locations like the Valley of flowers, Roopkund and the Sikh
pilgrimage centre Hemkund were stranded for more than three
days. National Highway 58, an important artery connecting the
region was also washed away near Jyotirmath and in many other
places. Because summers have more number of tourists, the
number of people impacted is substantial. For more than three
days, stranded pilgrims and tourists were without rations or survived
on little food. The roads were seriously damaged at more than 450
places, resulting in huge traffic jams, and the floods caused many cars
and other vehicles to be washed away. On 18 June, more than
12,000 pilgrims were stranded at Badrinath, the popular pilgrimage
center located on the banks of the Alaknanda River.
Rescuers at the Hindu pilgrimage town of Haridwar on the river Ganga
recovered bodies of 40 victims washed down by the flooded rivers as
of 21 June 2013. Bodies of people washed away in Uttarakhand
were found in distant places like Bijnor, Allahabad and Bulandshahr in
Uttar Pradesh. Searching for bodies who died during the extreme
natural fury of June in Kedar valley continued for several months and
even as late as September, 2013, about 166 bodies were found in
highly decomposed state during fourth round of search operations.
It is about 10 days since Uttarakhand was hit by torrential rains and
cloudburst of a scale not seen in the state in over 50 years, which,
along with accompanying floods and landslides, have caused untold
devastation in the state.
Thousands of locals and out-of-state pilgrims on the famous char
dham yatra routes (to the 4 holy sites of the Kedarnath and Badrinath
temples, and the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and temples) have
died, many villages have been totally destroyed, many towns have
suffered horrendous damage, and several roads and bridges have been
swept away. The material damage and the toll on people has been so
heavy, and the civil administration has been so unprepared,
disorganized and overwhelmed, that a week into this disaster even the
essential rescue work is still incomplete, while relief, rehabilitation and
reconstruction have not even begun to be envisaged.
A more detailed assessment of the disaster management undertaken
will no doubt be done by authorities at both State and Central levels
later, both so as to identify problem areas and so as to put in place
adequate strategies, capabilities and institutional mechanisms to be
able to cope better with the next calamity. Hopefully, the considered
opinions of experts, academics, social organizations, panchayat
representatives and others would also be taken on board.
Yet even at this stage, even while the tragedy unfolds, some things
are quite evident and need to be understood and borne in mind. In the
midst of relief operations or while dealing with the numerous detailed
aspects of reconstruction and rehabilitation, or even while writing up
post-disaster reports recommending follow-up actions, some basic
even causal issues are often forgotten or ignored. Before getting lost
in the minutiae of logistical issues, detailed disaster management
plans, procurement and placement of equipment, manpower training
and so on, all of which are undoubtedly important and necessary, it is
crucial that we also step back and look at the larger picture, at
underlying factors and issues, so that long-term preventive,
precautionary and preparatory measures are taken alongside those to
deal with disasters after they have occurred.
This is critical because, while the disaster itself was precipitated by the
sudden and unprecedented downpour, the calamity cannot, indeed
should not, be considered a purely “natural disaster.” Even if one
cannot take the disaster as a fully man-made one, human activity has
contributed greatly to the consequences of the torrential rains and the
trail of destruction wrought. The pattern of development in the
Garhwal hills, the poor planning and worse implementation with
respect to settlements, infrastructure and tourism, the nexus between
political, bureaucratic and commercial interests leading to numerous
sins of commission and omission, all these have contributed to and
enlarged the scope of this disaster. And even the main causal factor
behind this calamity, the extraordinarily heavy rainfall, can be at least
partially attributed to societally-induced climate change that has
resulted in erratic monsoons and increased incidence of extreme
weather events worldwide.
Climate variability and extreme weather events
Extreme weather events are one of the many well-recognized
outcomes of climate change. The increased occurrence of cyclones,
tornadoes, heat waves, excess rainfall and flooding in recent years has
been well documented. But how do we know that these are taking
place because of human-induced climate change, rather than to the
usual variability in weather? After all, it rains more in some years than
others, there are floods in some years and droughts in others.
Scientists are now much more confident than a few years ago about
the linkage with climate change. First, the increase in these incidents
is well above the standard statistical variation seen over the last many
decades. Second, the severity of these events too is much greater.
Just as the decade 2000-2010 saw nine out of the ten hottest years in
this century, so too in the past several years unprecedented quantities
of rainfall have been recorded over very short periods in many
instances all over the world. Much more frequent Category 4 and 5
hurricanes have occurred in the Atlantic and the Pacific in each of the
past few years, massive snowstorms and blizzards have hit North
America and Europe in the winter of 2011, unprecedented heat waves
and drought have hit the US, France and Spain. In 2012, Beijing in
northern China saw as much rainfall as is usual in southern coastal
provinces, and 170mm of rain fell in Beijing just a 17-hour period with
some pockets recording over 520mm, breaking all known records by a
huge margin. In Australia, record rainfall described by officials as of
“biblical proportions” led to floods covering an area more than France
and Germany together. And who can forget the torrential rains in
Maharashtra in 2005 when Mumbai received a record 666mm of rain in
a 24-hour period with some city areas recording 944mm!
The scientific reasoning behind why such extreme weather events take
place, and why they can be attributed to climate change, has been
clear for quite some time. Rain or snow fall, in other words
precipitation, takes place because water vapour in the atmosphere
condenses upon cooling. With global warming, the quantity of water
vapour in the atmosphere increases. Cooling however is less efficient
due to excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps heat
and allows less heat to escape, so total rainfall may not increase that
much. But when it does rain over specific areas, the rainfall is likely to
be heavier due to excess accumulated moisture. Similar explanations
relating to changing patterns of upper air circulation due to global
warming can be offered for the increased frequency and intensity of
cyclones and dry-weather events or droughts.
In the Indian monsoons, rainfall data going back to the late 19th
century available from Indian Meteorological Department weather
stations all over the country show that the monsoons are arriving later
and withdrawing later, by roughly two weeks on average. The late
arrival and departure of the monsoon rains, combined with the
different temperature profile in the changed period, is expected to
have a serious impact on agriculture and crop yields.
On the other hand, the monsoons this year have been at least two
weeks early. This is quite characteristic of weather conditions under
Whereas it is known that more extreme weather events will take place,
that there will be more days of heavy rainfall, that the monsoons are
shifting to a later period, climate change also makes weather events
more unpredictable. For disaster preparedness, the key lesson is to
take note of these broad trends, and be prepared for the worst in
terms of heavy rainfall and resulting floods, more severe storms, heat
waves and droughts.
There has been a great deal of comment in the media about the
management of rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand, and as
discussed earlier, even preliminary discussions about reconstruction
and rehabilitation have not taken place. The Armed Forces, along with
some paramilitary forces such as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and
the National Disaster Response Force (NRDF), have performed not just
commendably but remarkably in the still on-going rescue operations
mainly targeting pilgrims and the occasional airlifting of relief supplies.
The military in particular has shown yet again that it stands out among
institutions in the country as regards preparedness, capability,
performance efficiency and dedication. But the civilian administration
in Uttarakhand in particular, and that at the central level as well, has
shown itself to be thoroughly incompetent, unresponsive, ill-equipped
and unwilling to or incapable of learning the right lessons and
institutionalizing requisite changes.
The Disaster Management (DM) apparatus at both Centre and State,
with the exception of the paramilitary NRDF comprising battalions from
the CRPF, BSF, CISF and ITBP, has itself been an unmitigated disaster.
The first and perhaps most important element of DM is preparedness,
which has been self-evidently and woefully lacking. This is obvious
from the poor condition of the roads, the lack of earth-moving
equipment anywhere in the disaster zone, the total absence of any
measures to anticipate the flooding and take precautionary flood
control or protection measures near settlements, and the obvious
absence of state or local level first responders who have perforce had
to be military and paramilitary.
It is not yet clear what role the National Disaster Management
Authority has played in the post-disaster scenario, but given the
developments of the past ten days, one is left wondering if there was
at all any DM Plan for Uttarakhand and what if any steps had been
taken to build disaster response and management capabilities in the
State. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 had envisaged a
paradigm shift from the usual pattern of post-disaster response to a
pro-active, integrated disaster management system with emphasis on
prevention, steps to minimize impacts and preparedness for dealing
with disasters when they occur. This would involve preparation of
response and contingency plans, building capacities in the civilian
administration including the police, instituting physical measures
including acquisition and deployment of equipment and working with
local communities to build disaster preparedness in the population as a
whole. It is obvious that none of this has been done in Uttarakhand, a
state known to be prone to a variety of disasters and which has
suffered major calamities in the recent past, for instance the infamous
Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991.
The State Disaster Management Authority is virtually non-existent, not
having had a single meeting the past several years. And the National
Authority, the NDMA, had been without a Head till one was hurriedly
appointed several days after the Uttarakhand calamity. What a
No relief for locals
At the time of writing, reports from the ground by the media, NGOs
and social workers all reveal a virtual vacuum of disaster response
other than the military and paramilitary. The civil administration is
conspicuous by its absence. Pilgrims have herded together by
themselves and waited for military helicopters to airlift them, with no
local authority to organize orderly rescue prioritizing women, children,
the aged or infirm. While rescue efforts have proceeded apace, with
close to 100,000 people mostly pilgrims having been evacuated to
date, little or no relief operations such as provision of food, temporary
shelters, first aid or medical care, clearly not the mandate of the
military, have been visible. All the focus has been on pilgrims, which is
understandable to some extent since they are outsiders without local
shelter, care or support systems.
But hundreds of villages have been destroyed in the Kedar valley,
Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Pauri, Chamoli and elsewhere. Hundreds
maybe thousands of local inhabitants have lost their lives or been
seriously injured, numerous people are still missing, tens of thousands
have lost all their property and been rendered homeless. Many
thousands of people from various parts of Uttarakhand, who move to
the disaster zone during the yatra season looking to earn some
additional income or even as their main cash income for the year, have
been severely affected. No attention has been paid to any of these
local people and their problems, no arrangements have been made for
food, medical care or shelter. Even at the time of writing, leading state
authorities are declaring their immediate and “sole priority” is rescuing
the pilgrims from locations of large concentrations, and that “all other
issues will be addressed later.”
One understands of course that in disasters of such magnitude, local
administration officials, police and health workers are also among the
disaster-affected and it therefore takes time for them to get organized,
leave alone activate themselves for first response. But this is precisely
where leadership plays a role, be it from ministers or elected
representatives or from bureaucrats and the police. Regrettably, none
has been forthcoming in Uttarakhand, or for that matter from Delhi.
Pilgrims on the char dham yatra have no doubt had a harrowing time,
but at least most of them have been rescued, with the military taking
the lead role with respect to their travails. The local inhabitants, the
people of Uttarakhand, have unfortunately been completely left to
themselves, with nobody to hear their laments or look after their
needs. Victims of a calamity largely man-made and certainly
compounded by governmental callousness and incompetence.
Disaster waiting to happen
Uttarakhand is not alone in having to suffer from unconscionably poor
governance in India. But its people are certainly paying a heavy price
for decades of poor or no planning, rotten implementation, corruption,
collusion of public authorities with vested interests, and a willingness
of certain sections to go along with ad hocism and violations of norms
for short-term gains.
Large townships have grown on, or too close to, river banks. For those
who have not visited Uttarakhand, visuals on TV and in the print media
show densely packed multi-storeyed houses, hotels and other
properties almost on the waters edge. Many such buildings have
collapsed or lie buried under two storeys of mud. Over the years,
property sharks and local officials and politicians have minted money
from permitting or encouraging such “development.” Anyone who has
visited Uttarakhand recently would have seen the haphazard
development or expansion of townships, new restaurants, hotels and
tourist facilities, all coming up along river banks, with nobody having a
clue as to how and by whom permission was granted.
Then there are the roads. Garhwal has long been known for its poor
road infrastructure, even in comparison with the Kumaon region of
Uttarakhand, a story of neglect and backwardness that questions the
logic of a new hill state. Now roads have certainly been built,
especially along the yatra routes and linking major towns. But the
roads are of poor quality, the road-cutting leaving already the unstable
hillsides even more bare and unstable, prone to landslips even during
normal rains, and proper measures for stabilization of the slopes are
not taken. Blasting and other such techniques are often used
unscientifically and without due precautions, damaging not only hill
slopes but also nearby habitations. Material from roadworks or other
civil works such as in tunnels, dams etc are routinely simply dumped
into the rivers flowing beneath, especially by private contractors while
authorities are least bothered. This has significantly raised the river
bed, making the rivers more prone to flooding even with a little
additional or sudden rush of waters.
A controversy has recently arisen, and will undoubtedly be stoked in
the coming weeks, about declaring some regions of Uttarakhand as
“ecologically sensitive.” The issue is not with the label assigned, but its
implications. For instance, whether it means “no construction” or “no
development” zones, as with certain forest areas. All concerned would
do well to remember that people of the Uttarakhand hills have long
suffered due to lack of roads and communication infrastructure, poor
access to health facilities and to markets for their produce. Issue is not
whether development but what kind of development?
The growing road infrastructure, urban centres and their commercial
facilities, and yatra tourism have all grown far beyond the carrying
capacity of these fragile mountainous areas of the Shivaliks and
Himalayas, or at least have not been planned and executed keeping
this carrying capacity in mind. A proposed River Zone Regulation,
along the lines of the Coastal Zone Regulations, to regulate
construction, commercial and other activities along river banks has
been under consideration for long but has never seen the light of day.
Can it be taken up for consideration at least now? Can the supposedly
sacred rivers and mountains be treated with the respect they require?