We've blamed nature and we've blamed God, but who's really to blame for the lack of understanding of a region's characteristics and poorly-planned 'development'?
House washed away by the Uttarakhand floods
If you thought that Uttarakhand was a land populated solely by tourists, I wouldn’t blame you. After all, that’s been the focus of the media in relation to who’s been affected by the recent floods – pilgrims at the Char Dhams and at Hemkund Sahib. The numbers are staggering, no doubt. As of 6pm on June 22nd, 73,000 people have been rescued, 50,000 people remain stranded and at least 1,000 are presumed dead (source: reliefweb). The 10,000 armed forces and paramilitary personnel that are putting their own lives at risk to rescue these people, the massive mobilization of help, the gathering of 40 helicopters and round-the-clock building of bridges are all being done for tourists who should not have been there in the first place.
Impact on people
There has been a sharp influx of tourism in this region over the last 10 years. In Kedarnath, the number grew from 1,69,217 tourists in 2002 to 5,75,040 this year and in Badrinath it went up from 1,34,010 in 2002 to 5,95,020 this year (source: Hindustan Times). While peoples' desire to visit the shrine is understandable, regulating it to prevent similar disasters such as this, especially since the Yatra season is at the beginning of the monsoon, is paramount.
The media’s touristy focus on this situation in Uttarakhand hides the fact that this 'calamity' is only a part of the difficulties imposed on the locals by a misguided 'development' strategy and inefficient governance from the Centre. Practically none of the reports speak of displaced villagers or submerged villages in the region.
In 2009, 233 villages in the state were identified as vulnerable owing to their location 'at the mouth of landslides'. The Rs. 500 crore required to shift them to a stable location was not sanctioned for 4 years (source: IBN live). The consequences of this delay are evident today. There are hardly any reports of the condition of the people in these regions. So far one report received from Kharasi village on the Barkot-Yamunotri road talks of people being frustrated and terrified enough to block military attempts to rescue pilgrims while ignoring the locals (source: IBN live). This story is offset by those of people in villages like Bagori opening their houses and kitchens to stranded people (source: Hindustan Times).
Slideshow: Impact of dams, construction and tourism on the Bhagirathi river
The Char-dham yatra was once considered so difficult that people would attempt it only once in their lifetime. What a contrast to the situation today – where it has become an annual trip, much like a regular holiday! Motorable roads right up to the last point, helicopters to fly people for a hefty a price, comfortable hotels with round-the-clock hot water and a bustling market place that even had an ATM – it was nothing short of a tourist hotspot until one week ago. Now there are only boulders everywhere. While the state is undeniably landslide-prone, the calamity that happened was caused by many factors.
Lack of disaster preparedness
Even as the state government feels tourism holds economic importance for Uttarakhand, these floods prove that the state was not prepared to welcome so many of them. In Kedarnath, where millions come during summer, there was not a single rain gauge until after the floods, forget an early warning system to forecast extreme events. This only came up as an important issue after the disaster struck prompting the Indian Meteorological Department to send out regular updates. Similarly, a doppler radar system, which costs about Rs. 15 crore and which can predict events like a cloudburst, has been sanctioned for Uttarakhand, but the state government has been unable to find land for the same. It’s curious how the same government is able to acquire land for building dams and for multi-national companies despite protests from local people.
This is in stark contrast to what happened in 1893 when technology and communications were way behind what it is today. A landslide brought down huge boulders in the Birhi Ganga River in Chamoli district. One huge boulder got stuck at the mouth of the Birhi valley and caused some of the rivers to start filling it up. A lake, now called Gohna taal, was formed and its level went up day by day. The administration then set up a telegram office in the nearby village and every day, the level of the pond would be measured and wired to the main cities of Haridwar and Dehradun. In 1894, when the level of the lake was high enough to breach the rocks stuck at its mouth, information was wired down accordingly, a red alret was sounded and villages along the Birhi and Alaknanda were evacuated in time.
It’s unfortunate that more than 120 years later, our disaster preparedness is much worse. When the IMD warned of heavy rainfall, no action was taken to alert the villagers and pilgrims. In a state that aspires to be "power-surplus", there was no electricity or even diesel to keep the mobile towers on in the event of a calamity.
The TV showed many buildings collapse into the river. These were mostly hotels and guest houses built right on the edge of the river, since that is the only near-flat area in the hills. Landslides in the hills during the monsoon are not a new phenomenon. In fact, this exact behaviour has led to the formation and destruction of mountain or glacial lakes, leading to floods. Over the years, the hill people have not messed with the riverbed. During floods, the water just flowed down the slopes. It was only due to blockages in the form of buildings and a more conspicuous barrier like the hydro-electric projects that the current took with it whatever came in its way along with boulders and soil from the mountains. Soil, which otherwise sustained the hill people's terrace farms, is now debris with dead bodies under it.
Thick forests were replaced by construction sites as pilgrimages turned to tourism. In addition, the government’s dream to make Uttarakhand a power-surplus state began to take shape as well. Residents of Kujjan village in Uttarkashi, near the dam site of the now stalled Loharinag Pala project are a confused lot. Their livelihood, which was totally dependent on farms and forests, has vanished as the hillside was bared for making a tunnel inside the mountain. No compensatory afforestation was done wherever trees were cut down to make way for hydropower projects. The soil tightly held by trees earlier was now free to flow with the river, causing destruction not just in terms of the death toll at present but also in terms of the farmers’, who will never get their top soil back.
"Unlike plains, it takes 2-3 generations for one terrace to come up in the hills for farming. All that is gone now. Not just that, water sources of these villages and livestock, a big source of sustenance in Uttarakhand, have also been lost. Right now, the focus is just on pilgrims and not on the locals, for whom it will take years for life to come back to normal," said Anupam Mishra of Gandhi Peace Foundation.
That deforestation is a cause of floods is proven by the fact that Mussorie in the same state, which limestone mining rendered bare in the 80s, suffered very little damage as the eco-task force of the Army worked hard to bring back the greenery.
There are about 680 hydropower projects in the state in various stages of construction. These have trapped the Ganga, Yamuna and their various tributaries (see map). Even as one or two dams have been submerged, the structure of most of these has not been affected by the flood as their construction is earthquake and flood proof. But this very construction has rendered the mountains around them weak. Maneri Bhali-I, a project upstream of Uttarkashi town, was built in the 70s. In the Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991, most houses in Maneri village were washed off, specifically those near the dam. In an interview with an old carpenter in 2008, it was revealed that the houses in the village had developed cracks during dam construction due to blasting by dynamite. As soon as the calamity happened, everything was washed off.
The situation is similar in Srinagar town on the Alaknanda bank, where the Srinagar dam was coming up. Bhatwari village, near the now-stalled Loharinag Pala dam site, suffered a landslide last year also and has not been rehabilitated yet. Blasting for roads or tunnels for "run of the river" projects have rendered the young mountain system of Himalayas weak and unstable.
In August 2012, Uttarkashi district saw a similar tragedy that left 29 dead. In September the same year, 69 people were killed in a landslide in Okhimath in Rudraprayag district. Rudraprayag has faced monsoon-related major disasters 7 times in the last 34 years. In their report of these tragedies, the state disaster management and mitigation committee said “use of explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructure developmental works introduces instability in the rocks and therefore use of explosives should necessarily be banned." But warnings, like landslides, are not new to this area. Neither is political apathy.
In stark contrast to this disaster involving tourists, smaller ones like when a rock below a primary school gave away in Uttarkashi's Sunagar village rendering the school unusable for a long time didn’t even make the news.
After widespread protests by people in the region, the central government asked the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun to conduct an assessment of the cumulative impacts of hydro-electric projects on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins. The report submitted by the institute in 2012 said that 24 out of the 70 projects in Upper Ganga should be shelved due to their high impact on ecology. The report said that these projects together affect nearly 10,000 hectares of land in this small state, with more than 3,600 hectares of forests going under submergence.
Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, however, is unfazed. In an interview after the disaster, he said that by 2016, he would achieve his goal of making Uttarakhand a power-surplus state.
The muck dumped by under-construction projects in the rivers was another reason for the river level to rise up. Srinagar town is covered in 10-feet of silt now, thanks to the debris dumped in the river that has now settled in the town. 70 houses and a building of the Service Selection Board, besides markets, silk farms and a ration godown were choc-a-bloc with silt when the dam authorities released water without prior warning. All this while, residents had been complaining about muck-dumping. The Supreme Court was also cognizant of the matter. "Had it not been for the silt-load, the town would have resurfaced when the water receded but now, everything is destroyed," a resident of Srinagar told a newspaper.
Uttarakhand chief minister stresses that the state needs hydropower to make it "power-surplus". Where is the power going to come from? Records prove that the 2000 MW capacity Tehri dam does not produce more than 400 MW, thanks to excess silt in the Bhagirathi. When silt enters the turbine, it can spoil its parts, thereby rendering it useless. Maneri Bhali-II, which was commissioned in 2007, was shut down in the monsoon of 2008, again due to excess silt. It is mainly during the monsoon that hydropower projects can be utilized to the maximum due to better flow in the rivers but the silt-laden rivers of the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda have different plans. After the flash flood, production has been stopped totally in big dams like Tehri and also Nathpa Jakhri and Karcham Wangtoo in Himachal Pradesh. The silt that once made the Indo-Gangetic plains fertile, is now a nuisance trapped in dams.
Most villages in Uttarakhand are located in difficult terrains where there is no power supply even if they are near a dam site. Harshil, a small village before Gangotri, has a Public Works Department guest house that requires VIPs to use candles for lighting. The existing projects in Uttarakhand supply power outside the state, so what can be expected out of the new ones? "We want to develop a region according to us, because we need power, not according to the place itself," says Anupam Mishra.
Impact on dams
The impact of this mayhem on the many dams on these rivers is yet to be assessed. SANDRP estimates that the following dams in Uttarakhand have suffered damage:
280 Dhauliganga Project of NHPC in Pithoragarh district
76 MW Phata Byung HEP of L&T in Mandakini Valley
99 MW Singoli Bhatwari HEP of L&T in Mandakini Valley
Kali Ganga I of UJVNL in Mandakini Valley
Kali Ganga II of UJVNL in Mandakini Valley
Madhyamaheshwar HEP,of UJVNL in Mandakini Valley
Assiganga I-IV projects on Assiganga river in Bhagirathi basin
There are also reports that the 65 MW Kashang HEP in Sutlej basin in Himachal Pradesh is damaged (source: sandrp)
The Dhauliganga project was submerged by the floods while other projects were stalled due to high silt levels (sources: Economic Times, Livemint). However, the damage caused by the dam is not limited to its own environs. Releases from the dam have allegedly caused flooding in the Mahakali in Dharchula, Nepal displacing about 2,500 people (sources: 1, 2). On June 16th, the Alaknanada and Bhagirathi rivers had a combined flow of around 13,000 cumecs (cubic metres per second) at Haridwar. The Tehri reservoir recorded a rise of 25 meters within 48 hours of rainfall on June 16th and 17th (source: Economic Times).
Dams in the Himalayan region have caused damage and been on the receiving end of the damage during the monsoons since the beginning of this spate of dam construction in the last decade. They have also been the focus of several community protests and the damage caused by them is well-documented. Despite this, the National Hydro-electric Power Corporation feels justified in demanding that the Ministry of Power pressurise the Ministry of Environment and Forests to retract their refusal to give forest clearance for two new dams. This is not only a mockery of the process, but also an insult to the decision-making powers of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Equally mortifying and completely inexcusable in a man of science is Dr. Rajendra Dobhal's statement to the press 'the hydel projects between Gangotri and Uttarkashi that were stalled at the instance of so-called environmentalists should be completed immediately to prevent flash floods. The dams would also help produce electricity' (source: The Hindu).
What can be done?
The situation in Uttarakhand is a shocking tale of bad governance. It is true that the state is located in the midst of young and unstable mountains. It is also true that the area is subject to intense rainfall but neither of these characteristics can be termed a calamity. The regular tragedies around the monsoon occur not because of the land, but because no attention is paid to the characteristics of the land.
Implement zoning regulations in landslide-prone areas – for example, rampant construction of structures in vulnerable areas, along the banks of rivers etc should be prohibited.
Regulate the influx of tourists into vulnerable areas, especially during monsoons.
Develop and implement a disaster warning mechanism for the state to notify authorities at block and Panchayat levels as soon as information about adverse weather conditions is available.
Develop and implement a disaster management plan for the state identifying responsible authorities, evacuation plans, rescue measures etc.
Halt all construction of dams till a science-based, non-biased study that looks at the cumulative impact of a series of dams on a river can be carried out.
Protect the slopes near rivers and dams by initiating soil and water conservation activities along with afforestation.
A recap of how it all began
The present tragedy was triggered by a stretch of heavy rain. This rainfall began on the 15th of June and continued without a break for three days (with some variation across the region). The rainfall was an unprecedented 847% of normal for the week of 13th -19th June 2013. This manifested itself as cloudbursts in several locations including probably the Bhagirathi basin, Assiganga basin, Mandakini Basin, and the Kedarnath region - which are now devastated by floods. There are indications that there were several simultaneous bursts of intense rainfall throughout the area.
The intense and relentless rainfall was more than the rivers and the landscape could contain. The Alaknanda was flooded since the 16th, with the peak occuring on the 17th of June. Uttarkashi was impacted from the 16th. Nainital experienced rainfall since the morning of the 15th, and several landslides by the next day. People in Rishikesh reported flooding, but stable conditions. There was very little information from locals in Uttarkashi and Munsyari blocks. Their phones were not working, which may mean that the area was without electricity.
Even as of today (June 27), nearly two weeks after this nightmare began, the situation is tumultous. Political parties, victim's families, rescue workers, military personnel and many others are in the thick of action but without a resolution. Mass cremation is the talk of the hour as is the helicopter crash carrying pilgrims and rescue personnel. How this will end remains to be seen.
Will God prevail or will Governance? My mind, ironically, thinks of the phrase 'God only knows' but I'll hold that thought.