Sunday, March 16, 2014

Uttarakhand Disaster

Uttarakhand Disaster: Lessons to be Learnt - Abhay Kumar 

In June, 2013, a major disaster struck Uttarakhand, a tiny state ensconced within the Himalayan ranges of mountains, where floods and landslides killed thousands and devastated the local flora and fauna. Most of the victims were tourists as they were visiting one of the famous Char Dham Hindu pilgrim sites, Kedarnath temple located in the Rudraprayag district (Garhwal region) of the state. Many more were rescued by the armed forces as the civil administration failed miserably once again in the face of disaster.

The immediate reason for this disaster was massive rainfall in a short span of time that caused landslides to hit the temple town of Kedarnath. The calamity was further compounded by the fact that Chorbari tal (a lake formed by a retreating glacier; about 3 km in the North West direction of Kedarnath town) breached lateral moraine, pounding the Kedarnath town by a massive wall of water.

The frequency of extreme weather events, such as massive rainfall in a short period of time (cloud bursts), has increased in recent times. Climate change is said to be the reason for such spate in extreme weather events. Climate change has also impacted monsoons in India. Climate is a function of complex interactions between land, air and oceans, and climate change is mainly caused by the increased concentrations of Green House Gases (GHGs) in atmosphere.

The world has to grapple with climate change in a sustainable fashion sooner than later. However, in the meantime, it is important to mitigate its consequences on human society. In the face of Phailin, a cyclonic storm that landed Orissa in October, 2013, a determined government’s massive preparations ensured that human casualties were kept to minimum. Once again, polar freeze that engulfed Canada and parts of USA bringing temperatures down to minus 50 degree Celsius could have devastated the region had the governments been not determined to minimize the consequences. The point, therefore, is to tackle climate change on all fronts. While every effort should be made to reduce the concentrations of GHGs in atmosphere, the human society must be more prepared to face the impacts of climate change.

So, what is there to learn from the Uttarakhand disaster so that we are not condemned to face similar consequences in future? Some of them are discussed below.

1.     The Himalayan range of mountains is the youngest range of mountains on the Earth. It’s only 75 million years old. It originated when the Indian plate collided with Eurasian plate to uplift Himalaya. Geologically it is still active and believed that a few millimetres of the Indian plate is still penetrating deep into the Asian plate every year, making it an earthquake prone region too. The ecology of the Himalaya is said to be fragile, implying its high vulnerability. In the face of even small perturbations, such fragile ecosystems decay to degraded state. It should be noted that the Himalayas is home to the origin of some of the largest river systems in the world, viz., Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that we conserve the Himalayan system and only a sustainable model of development be allowed. In the last few decades, there has been a spurt in the construction of roads and big dams in the region. Trees have been felled indiscriminately. Most of these projects are devoid of any sound scientific judgments and robust engineering planning. Greed and profit driven motives have led to such state of affairs in the region.

2.     When the state of Uttarakhand was carved out from Uttar Pradesh in the year 2000, one had hoped that the developmental paradigm of the region will not only be sensitive to the uniqueness of the region but also be pro-people. However, happenings of the last one and half decades have belied such hopes. The new developmental paradigm of the state is not only bereft of any reliable scientific and engineering prudence but is also conspicuous by almost complete absence of people’s involvement in their own destiny.

3.     Construction of hotels, resorts and guest houses on river banks or rather on the river bed itself was an invitation to danger. The entire temple town of Kedarnath, proverbially, was sitting on the powder keg, waiting for disasters to happen. Hotels, houses, resorts, guesthouses and such developmental activities be allowed only in identified safe zones in the region. Safe evacuation routes should also be identified in the region. This region is earthquake prone too. Other such regions/areas should also find safe evacuation routes about which people should be made aware. 

4.     A moribund warning system, whose warnings no one heeded and no one cared about, coupled with an equally callous response system was perhaps the tell-tale sign of the disaster preparedness of the government. No wonder that no one gave any heed to the Indian Meteorological Department’s (IMD) forecast of heavy rainfall in the region. Many believed it to be a routine warning that IMD keeps forecasting. The State Disaster management Authority chaired by the Chief Minister remained a mute spectator. The District Magistrate (DM) of Rudraprayag district suffered a mild heart attack.

Eventually, it was left to armed forces and a few NDMA personnel to put in gargantuan efforts to provide relief to thousands stranded at different places. It was inexplicable as to why a nation, which competed with the best in the world in the field of remote sensing technology, was left wanting in the use of the same technology for itself. High resolution imageries do help in these situations a lot. Quite clearly there was an absolute lack of coordination and faith on each other among different organizations of the government. India’s warning and response system should be technologically robust, up-to-date and be ready to face any kind of disaster in no time.

Uttarakhand’s failure to see the disaster coming and its inadequacies in meeting the challenges in the aftermath of disaster has several lessons for everyone to learn. The then Chief Minister became so unpopular that he now is being replaced by his own party before the country goes for general elections. It has important lessons to offer on environment, development and disaster preparedness. Only there is a certain melancholy in this discovery.

(Views expressed here are those of the author and not of the organisation that he is associated with.)

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