We have learnt nothing from 2013 Uttarakhand disaster — Times of India
It has been more than 48 hours, but the villagers of Raini are still reeling from effects of the loud crashing sound that was followed by an almost deafening roar of the river, as it bolstered down the narrow gorge on February 7. From the cluster of glaciers of the Nanda Devi massif, a hefty chunk got detached and was swept down the Rishiganga gorge towards the base of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, and it took less than ten seconds for the flash flood to completely submerge the dam structure of the Rishiganga hydropower project, blasting it into smithereens.
On Monday, two teams, one from Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) and the other from Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun managed to get close to the site, but so far accessing the snout of the glacier to ascertain the exact reason of the accident has been difficult. Freezing temperatures, high altitude, which can cause breathing issues, and almost inaccessible snow-covered locations make it impossible to reach the site. This is also one of the chief reasons why we know so little about our glaciers, even though we have 9,500 of them, which are more than 10 sq km in length, spread across the length of the Indian Himalayas.
Dr LK Sinha, joint director, SASE, refused to hazard a guess as to what exactly took place at 15,000 plus feet altitude, or add more details to what the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat has described as a ‘glacier break’ after visiting the Raini village late Sunday.
So, what do we know?
Dr Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor, Glaciology & Hydrology, IIT Indore, says, it is a rare incident for a glacial burst to take place just like that. “Satellite and Google Earth images do not show a glacial lake near the region, but there’s a possibility that there may have been a water pocket in the region,” he said, adding. “Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event.”
He also rules out a cloud burst, since weather reports in Chamoli district showed sunny days till Sunday with no record of precipitation. There is, however, clear evidence that global warming has also played a significant role. Climate change driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall and warmer winters have led to the melting of a lot of snow, which has seen the temperature of glaciers steadily rise over the years.
Speculations have been rife in the media about the causes of the calamity. With locals putting out disaster videos on social media, many commentators have held glacial lake outburst flow (GLOF) phenomenon as responsible for it.
GLOF, in lay terms, is a sudden overflow of a large reservoir from the snout of a glacier that is held by the rock moraine (a ridge, mound, or irregular mass of unstratified glacial drift, chiefly boulders, gravel, sand, and clay). The moraine dam in a glacier can break due to various reasons — like a cloudburst or, sometimes, a huge volume of debris that rests on the surface of the lake tipping over, causing immense damage downstream.
While no government agency has been able to pinpoint the exact cause of the avalanche and the subsequent flood, Dave Petley, vice-president (Research and Innovation) at the University of Sheffield, late on Sunday night tweeted: “This has now been confirmed to have been caused by a landslide onto the glacier.” Petley went on to detail on his blog what triggered the landslide and how Dr Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary deduced it from the images available at the Planet Labs, a private enterprise that captures Earth images via satellites and provides them to multiple users.
Investigations carried out by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) using satellite images suggest that the flash flood originated from Nanda Ghuti or Trishul region. “Our assessment suggests the event might have started with massive ice avalanches, as suggested by the American Geophysical Union blog. It might have led to snow avalanche/landslide downstream leading to the release of 1.6 million cubic m water stored in the subglacial lakes in the Raunthi glacier. It can also explain the rapid melting of snow and ice accumulated by the series of the avalanches,” Dr Anil Kulkarni, distinguished scientist at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said in a report prepared on Monday.
Blame climate change
For the uninitiated, the Himalayas, popularly known as the ‘Third Pole’, contains the largest reserve of freshwater outside the north and south poles. The meltwater generated from the Himalayan glaciers supplies the rivers and streams of the region, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems of India. These rivers collectively provide about 50 per cent of the country’s total usable surface water resources. But changing climatic conditions have proved to be a bane for this reserve bank of water.
The ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ report published by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Government of India, in 2020, describes how the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau have experienced substantial warming during the 20th century, with climatic conditions particularly pronounced over the Indian Himalayas. “Scientific evidence also shows that most glaciers in the Himalayan region have been subjected to loss in volume and mass under the propensity of rising temperatures due to climate change,” the report states.
Scientists have pointed out that the health of the snow cover over the Himalayas and on the glaciers at high altitude have taken a huge hit as the region experiences increase in temperatures and changes in precipitation. Recent decades have also seen less snowfall during the winters, which is the time when glaciers collect and strengthen their mass. This has not just started affecting the river flow and water resources availability, but early melting of glaciers and increasing instances of lakes being formed at their snout, leading to a rise in natural disasters such as the one that took place in Chamoli on Sunday. Or the one in 2013, when the Kedarnath’s Chorabari glacier lake burst and claimed more than 5,000 lives, causing widespread damage right till Haridwar, over 250 km away.
Surprisingly, the report does not shed much light on GLOF. Dr Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, tell us, “It is too early to know what has caused the avalanche in the Chamoli district; but prima-facie, this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming.”
No check on infra projects
Raini is the same village in Chamoli district from where in 1973 the famous Chipko Andolan started, with local women hugging trees in a bid to prevent them from the felling at the hands of government contractors. Fortunately, a majority of the houses at the Raini village suffered minimal damages on Sunday as they are nestled on the upper regions of the mountain. It was mostly migrant labourers’ camps, unfortunately, swept and demolished by the deluge.
Incidentally, about two years ago, the villagers had filed a public interest litigation in the Uttarakhand High Court against the hydropower project. The villagers claimed the government did not carry out due diligence while permitting the project in the fragile ecosphere. The court issued two orders in which it directed the state government to form an inspection team to look into the allegations of environmental mismanagement at the project site and also stayed the blasting at the site. However, the committee later exonerated the project proponents. No one looked further into the matter.
But it is not for the first time that the area is witnessing such a natural disaster. Sadly, it is also not the first time that the government has allowed dam projects in the fragile Himalayan ecology.
The ‘Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric projects during the June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand’ report has extensively documented how the government itself has tweaked rules to accommodate hydropower projects in Uttarakhand. After describing the problems regarding water quality, cascade of dams etc, the report states in great detail about protected areas, especially with regard to Nanda Devi National Park, where it goes on to explain how the government facilitated the unthinkable:
“Many Hydro-electric projects (HEPs) have been sanctioned inside protected areas, two inside the core zone of the Nanda Devi National Park. Two projects have been sanctioned on the Mandakini river inside the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary and another is located just at its boundary. Earlier, four projects on the Gori Ganga were inside the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary. Another six large projects on the Dhauliganga (E) and Kali rivers were also within the Askot Sanctuary. Efforts made by the developers to have large parts of the sanctuary de-notified finally succeeded with the Supreme Court ordering a fresh demarcation of the sanctuary. Now most of the above projects are outside the Sanctuary.”
Hydropower projects are just one of the many infrastructure projects that are running in Uttarakhand with free rein. Drawing attention to the rampant illegal activities in the name of infrastructure development by the government, Mallika Bhanot from Ganga Avahan, an NGO working for the conservation of Ganga, said: “These kinds of events [like the tragedy on Sunday] in the winter months are entirely man-made. While it may not be from the immediate past, it is certainly from the accumulated impact over several years which have had direct and indirect repercussions.”
Over the phone, Dr Anil Kulkarni, distinguished scientist at the Divecha Center for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, told us: “Today we have ample tools to understand not only where such lakes are formed, how much volume of water is stored, how much flash flood it can cause and how, and if it can expand in future. Technology helps us understand all this.”
Kulkarni and his team have even come up with mitigation strategies. While the immediate ones include development of early warning systems and engineering interventions such as lake water siphoning and controlled widening of discharge channel, the long-term ones include identifying locations vulnerable to GLOF using computer simulations, monitoring lake expansion, determining structural strength of the moraine dam, maintaining safe water level in the lake through siphoning, and determining future glacial lake sites using remote sensing techniques.
SA Murugesan, IAS, secretary (in-charge) Disaster Management, Uttarakhand, said the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) under the DRDO and the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) are constantly monitoring the state’s glaciers. SASE even issues such warnings about avalanches. “If there is anything happening, the agencies alert us, but this cannot be predicted. And unless we receive any actionable input, it is difficult to implement in the field,” he said.
What is the way forward?
“There is a need to put in position an Early Warning System [EWS] to be coordinated by the administration in partnership with the scientists. There is also a need for appreciation of scientific understanding, capacity building and awareness creation. Both disaster managers and policy makers should get adequate training. While also looking at training and raising awareness at the local level through community volunteers as part of the citizen science system,” said Dr Akhilesh Gupta, advisor, Department of Science & Technology.
In October 2020, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued guidelines for management of glacial lake outburst flood with an aim to enable ministries or departments of State/UT, central governments and other stakeholders concerned to take concerted action for preparedness, prevention, mitigation, and response to GLOFs. These guidelines also emphasise awareness and capacity building of the relevant stakeholders.
Uttarakhand has been one of the few states in the country where flood zone zonation mapping has been taken up. And the state also has a legislation to govern the floodplains as per this zonation. The state has even prepared ‘Disaster Risk Assessment of Uttarakhand’ under the Uttarakhand Disaster Recovery Project that has various risk assessment maps. It also has a State Disaster Management Plan; a District Disaster Management Action Plan- 2020–21for Chamoli; and Strategic Plan for Risk Reduction for Tourism Risk Hotspots of Joshimath and Badrinath. It also has the online Uttarakhand Risk Database that provides maps, data, and documents that support disaster risk reduction activities and planning throughout the state. But despite that, a disaster like the one on Sunday can happen.
To the state’s defense, Murugesan said, the incident took place at a remote place where there was no monitoring done by any agency; even though the glacier break could happen anytime.
The need of the hour today is to be prepared all the time and for that long-term monitoring and analysis is one of the ways. For instance, in their study published by Water in January 2020, Kulkarni and Ashim Sattar of IIT, Roorkee, have suggested how to breach the GLOF for reducing the impact downstream. Such adaptation measures and mitigation measures have been known and yet, every now and then, the policy makers come up with projects without any regard.
“Nothing has been learnt from the June 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand,” said Akash Vashishtha, lawyer and environmentalist. “Even five years after the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016 notification under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, its provisions are not implemented. The Centre has not even shown any interest in notifying the River Regulation Zone (RRZ), the draft for which is ready and pending.” The ecological sanctity of the rivers is critically compromised, he said.
The writer is an independent journalist