Uttarakhand floods Nature or Human have aggravated the miseries
The above line seems to be very much true in case of Uttarakhand disaster. The devastation wrought by flooding in Uttarakhand is probably the worst the northern state has faced in recent memory.
The devastating floods of Uttarakhand which ravaged the region by killing thousands and leaving hundreds of other stranded has more man-made factors and less natural cause behind it.
The flood hit Uttarakhand has just not evolved from the havoc of rain but the uncontrolled development and poor disaster planning has aggravated flood damage.
According to environmentalist GD Agrawal "This (disaster) will continue if the central and state governments don't stop the rush to clear projects," As per experts indiscriminate development in hill towns and along rivers has blocked the natural flow of water and exacerbated flood damage. They place the blame on successive governments who have prioritized large scale infrastructure construction and neglected disaster prevention.
The unbridled growth of tourism accompanied with proliferation of roads, hotels, shops and multistory housing in ecologically fragile areas and above all mushrooming hydroelectricity dams that disrupt water balances are the underlying causes of this catastrophe.
It was not unprecedented that Uttarakhand region witnessed such heavy rainfalls as the records show that Uttarakhand has recorded single-day rainfall in excess of 400mm several times, including 450mm in 1995 and 900mm in 1965. Cloudbursts, floods and rapid swelling of fast-flowing rivers aren't uncommon. But this time the floodwaters, loaded with tens of thousands of tones of silt, boulders and debris from dam construction, found no outlet. The routes they took in the past, including ravines and streams, were blocked with sand and rocks. The waters deluged towns and villages, submerging some buildings under several feet of mud, asphyxiating life.
It is highly probable that the floods were exacerbated by Glacier Lake Outbursts Floods (GLOFs) which inundated the Kedarnath temple.
GLOFs, or the explosive bursting of glacier lakes, are thought to be a result of human-induced climate change, which is causing rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, themselves warming at twice the global rate. Lack of an early warning system, effective evacuation plans and a responsive disaster management system added to the calamity.
Modestly priced radar-based technology to forecast cloudbursts would have saved lives. But it wasn't installed. There was failure on the level of local governance too. Sloppy, unregulated construction of roads and bridges was permitted on crumbling, landslide-prone ridges and steep slopes, overlooking the region's delicate geology and high earthquake vulnerability. Large scale deforestation and construction of hundreds of buildings in the flood plains of rivers have taken place. Riverbeds were recklessly mined for sand.
As construction debris accumulated, land contours and flows of streams and rivers changed. Indiscriminate construction of hydroelectric dams was the biggest mistake. These involve drilling huge tunnels in the hills by blasting rocks, placing enormous turbines in the tunnels, destroying soil-binding vegetation to build water channels and other infrastructure, laying transmission lines and carelessly dumping excavated muck.
Many dams have been built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for its regeneration. Over 505 dams, part of 244 hydroelectric projects, have been proposed or are being built on the Ganga and its tributaries — Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Alaknanda — in Uttarakhand. About 45 are already running.
The Char Dham area (the pilgrimage circuit of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri), most affected by the recent floods and landslides alone has around 70 dams.
Activists say despite the many floods, landslides and cloudbursts in recent years, nobody has learnt any lessons. "After the Uttarkashi flash floods of 2012, the local administration prepared a report that recommended the removal of illegally constructed structures on the riverbed and flood plains. But the report did not see the light of day," So the man-made factors that aggravated disaster can be summarized as
1. Development in hill towns and along rivers
2. Growth of tourism
3. Lack of an early warning system
4. Effective evacuation plans
5. Responsive disaster management
6. Large scale deforestation
7. Indiscriminate construction of hydroelectric dams
8. Last but not least Factors causes Global Warning
While mountain ranges in the Europe and US are well equipped with seismology driven equipment, all this is missing from our very own Himalayan ranges.
All is surely easier said than done but the government must start thinking on these lines to utilize the best of technology and enable better disaster management techniques on larger scale.
And of course it goes without saying that better communications infrastructure clubbed with better intelligence could have saved many lives that are lost in the Uttarakhand region.
We should take care of the things and plan better for the good future As "Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now to make your future more brighter & prosperous"
- Vijay Yadav
Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.
The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.
What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.
One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.
The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.
Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.
On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.
In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.
We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.
All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.
Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.
Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.
Climate Change, dams, Flash floods, Floods, hydel power, India, Kedarnath, land slides, Man made, Monsoon, Natural disaster, Rudraprayag, Uttar Kashi, Uttarakhand