Lessons from the Uttarakhand disaster

In the aftermath of the Chamoli disaster of 2021, the spotlight turned to the area’s proliferating development that made it particularly vulnerable to disasters. The environmental capacity to sustain damage had been severely reduced because of the impact of climate change. Also, the thrust on construction of hydroelectric dams to generate power in the friable mountain range had made it more vulnerable to disasters.

The incident on February 7, 2021, caused by a landslide, an avalanche or a glacial lake outburst flood in the Rishiganga river damaged the lives and livelihoods of several people. Headlines reported that 70 people have died and 139 are missing. The state government promised to provide financial aid of Rs. 4 lakh to the family of the deceased.

Disasters in Uttarakhand date back to the 1990s. Thirty years have not been enough for proponents of economic development to prevent such massacres. In this backdrop, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, India Water Portal and Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar organized a panel discussion on Uttarakhand flood disaster 2.0: From analysis to action. The session was chaired by Shri Rajender Singh, Chairman, Tarun Bharat Singh.

“Rivers in the Himalayan region flow through steep slopes and seismic zones. The choice between conserving and developing such areas is a critical issue and the government has to do a tradeoff between promoting tourism or river conservation. Climate change will magnify existing risks and hence river conservation policies should address climate change. Overexploitation of rivers and natural resources at the source or origin will produce devastating results,” said Singh.

Construction of dams and hydroelectric projects in these geologically sensitive areas involving steep slopes amounts to a huge economic loss. Such losses get magnified if the project cost and the ecological cost are also considered.

For decades, people have been protesting against the construction of such projects. The government instead of exercising caution about developing hydropower has gone ahead with projects on the plea of building defence capacities or for promoting the tourism sector. These reasons are never-ending, but a cost-benefit analysis will be useful to assess the economic and social impact of the disasters and economic returns from tourism. Further, naming these disasters as ‘natural disasters’ and not man-made is nothing but greed that mankind hasn’t been able to contain.

Prof Milap Punia, Professor, JNU speaking at the event shared some of the recommendations from his paper ‘Governance and disaster: Analysis of land use policy with reference to Uttarakhand flood 2013, India’. He pointed to the increase in flood risks due to intense development activities and climate change that led to the losses wrought by the flood events in June 2013 in the state.

He highlighted the regions prone to landslides in the state such as a place between Joshimath and Badrinath. Although dormant now, this spot is a dangerous one if a landslide strikes. The chances being even more with the construction of the Char Dham project. Punia advocated the need to regulate such ‘development’ projects and strengthen the weak legal framework. Governance issues were responsible for triggering the disaster.

He recommended the revision of hydropower policy, the need for proper environmental impact assessment, ensuring of proper environmental flow, lock-gate operations, mandatory installations of automatic weather stations and real-time flood forecasting systems at every medium to large hydropower plants and strict implementation of the Dam Safety Bill of 2005.

Punia stressed the need for a resilience program to cope with the vulnerabilities of such projects and also the aftereffects of a disaster. Commenting on the loopholes in the 2021 glacial break disaster, he said that in the upstream reaches, an advanced warning system should be installed to warn of any possible overflow or unusual behaviour in the stream. This was not the case with the Rishiganga flood.

Citing the observations of ground-level workers and GIS experts, he stated that the disaster was worsened due to the sudden impact of the falling of rock debris which collected ice along its way thus forming a sludge (height 1800m) turning it into a catastrophe.

Speaking about how the gaps in policies, as well as the practice, could be remodelled to strengthen resilience, he stressed the need for coordination amongst the different agencies - be it a research institute, government body, policy firm, academicians or individual experts. They should avoid overlapping agendas and there is a need to develop clear roles among institutions.

Nivedita Khandekar, independent journalist, resented the government’s defence of the Char Dham project. “Only after seven years of Kedarnath tragedy, Uttarakhand got its first Doppler radar, which is an essential early warning tool. This shows the ineffectiveness, slow action and tardy rate of implementation of measures focusing on disaster mitigation,” says Khandekar.

She recommended two specific actions. First, there is a need for monitoring glaciers, rivers and weather in general. The flood forecasting by the Central Water Commission as well as the state governments are very weak and need revamping. Second, there is a need to restrict entry/footfalls in the higher Himalayas, where the restriction on the height can be debated and discussed.

‘Common alerting protocol’, a centralized system of information and warning dissemination by collecting data from various government bodies and sources, has been in the pipeline for some years with the Government of India. This needs to be put in place. The information will not just be sent personally to individuals but also broadcasted and communicated at a larger scale.

“No practical lessons have been learnt from the 2013 deluge,” said Hemant Dhyani, Convener, Ganga Ahwan Movement and Member, High Powered Committee of Supreme Court on Char Dham project. There is a need for accountability for such criminal negligence. His two-step solution includes developing early warning systems in the upper Himalayas and regulation or closure of hydroelectric power plants in paraglacial zones.

On the state of dams, he said that the situation could have been much worse if some of the other projects, which were cancelled were commissioned. The project’s apathetic attitude to the workers is evident. Not even a single siren was called on to help the workers get to a higher altitude to save their lives.

He appealed to the government that the entire catchment area be declared as an eco-sensitive zone and, a strong regulation be brought in against the growing urbanization that has led to deforestation, soil degradation and loss of water quality.

Dr Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, highlighted findings and inference from three studies trying to understand anthropogenic activities’ effect on the social and physical strata of the region. The findings of the report published in 2019 indicate a strong climatic link to disasters.

“Out of the thousands of glaciers present in Uttarakhand, only a few are monitored in terms of disaster response and subsequent action. With the access to basic resources like water, sanitation, roads, etc. being quite low, some infrastructure and development projects are therefore required and make sense but those which directly affects the ecology of the place should be checked and regulated upon,” said Prakash.

Highlighting the best practices from India’s neighbouring countries - Nepal and Bhutan, he says, the decision-making process for building dams and other commercial activities in the mountainous regions involve strict monitoring even from the highest governing bodies themselves and assurance to the citizens and the locals that the environmental impact will be at the most minimum.

Ranjan Borah, Disaster Management Specialist, Centre for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPPGG), Government of Uttarakhand, recommended micro-level planning and training and building capacity amongst the local communities along with the empowerment of the panchayat raj institutions to build in strong resilience.

He pointed to some of the important points in the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines to cope with disasters: a) focus on mitigation policies b) local governing bodies should incorporate these mitigating guidelines and c) enforcement of the law, regulation and accountability.

Acknowledgement: Indranuj Pathak is a research intern at IMPRI. He is pursuing Masters (Public Policy) from NLSIU, Bengaluru