By B.G. Verghese
The memory of the Uttarakhand flood disaster is beginning to fade. But before it becomes just a blur the right lessons must be learnt and false or panic conclusions not be drawn. It was truly a natural disaster aggravated by manmade factors.
The coincidence of two atmospheric events focussed around the Kedarnath region caused a huge cloudburst bringing down over 330 mm of rainin a narrow Bhagirathi catchment. This, with preceding snowfall, caused the glacial lake west of the Kedarnath shrine to burst and the adjacent ChorabariLake (or Gandhi Sagar) to its east, to overflow causing a huge cascade of water and moraine to thunder down in a flood of immense intensity that swept everything before it. The structures flanking the gorge at the river’s edge and floodplain undercut the saturated banks with an erosive fury that brought buildings and roads crashing down, a drama witnessed by millions on television screens.This was the prime location of the disaster though adjacent valleys were not spared similar punishment.
No dams or run-of-river hydro projects, complete or under construction, no industry or mine, nor reservoir induced seismicity was responsible. Deforestation played little or no role, nor substitution of pine for oak as the disaster-formation area above Kedarnathwas mainly beyond the tree line. And were it not for the Tehri dam, which had a large flood cushion early in the monsoon season, the lower Bhagirathi and Ganga below DevPrayag would have been devastated. So much for the myths. The bar on sand mining may however have contributed to clogging the flood path of the river in critical patches causing huge moraine boulders to chisel and hollow the hill side.
The manmade factors include unsustainable growth around ever-increasing religious tourism to the fragile char dhams. For example, the number of pilgrims visiting Kedarnath, rose to some 12,000 a day against a carrying capacity of perhaps a tenth that figure. According to one estimate, the numbers visiting the char dhamsrose to 1.3 million in a month. This unregulated surge has been commercially fostered over the years by reckless yatri promoters resulting in unplanned urbanisation with multi-level structures wrongly sited, poorly aligned roads, thoughtless road widening, an increasing rush of pony/mule, palki, taxi and bus operators with wholly inadequate supporting services like water supply and sanitation or waste disposal or any hazard or vulnerability mapping, design certification or evacuation plan.
Meteorological observation stationswere few. Asanctioned Doppler radar system (limited though its utility might have been in terms of warning time) was not installed, and the Disaster Management Authority, both at the State and Central levels were caught unprepared and not meshed into the system. The glacial lakes were not seasonally monitored or punctured if necessary and burst and overflowed without warning. The Army and Air Forceconducted the most arduous and heroic search, rescue and supply operations, air dropped food packets, and rendered timely medical aid, relief and rehabilitation.
What is required now is a comprehensive disaster management plan in three phases: pre-disaster, R&R, and post-disaster. The entire region is located in seismic Zones IV and V but the dam structures have been designed to withstand expected levels of shaking and floods with added safety margins. But all other buildings and structure must be similarly designed and retrofitted and roads remodelled and buttressed to prevent toe erosion by swirling rivers and slope failure. Some water projects under construction have dumped spoils and muck into the river. This is bad practice and rivers must be dredged to remove such obstructions and proper dumping sites provided for future disposal of spoils.
There will be a natural tendency to rebuild housing and other structure as before. This must be resisted as far as possible by providing temporary shelters for the forthcoming winter and preparing plans for newly designed urban facilities constructed to a better design for living.
Industries have been licensed at lower altitudes and are generating employment and must be encouraged to create more jobs. The present pattern of farming is unsustainable.Uttrakhand must follow Himachal in switching over to hill farming based on horticulture, vegetable cultivation, floriculture and herbiculture, with food security ensured from the plains.
Hydro power will provide the means of constructing a series of cold chains and first-stage processing units with ropeways and roads to bring down produce to larger processing hubs and mandis with refrigerated storage andmarket linkages. Religious tourism must be regulated by rationing accommodation and transport capacity, and the yatri season defined to minimise natural hazards. Eco-tourism must be fostered elsewhere in the lovely mountains, with log cabins, treks, white water rafting, angling,bird watching and the like.
The retardation or banning of hydro-projects as a knee jerk reaction would be retrograde. They did not cause the 2013 disaster. Problems of fragmentation of rivers by successive run-of river projects can be avoided and minimum eco-flows of 10 per cent or more mandated. Fish ladders and fish ponds can be ensured and one per cent of the royalty being paid to projects must be devoted to local development. These apart, hydro projects may be required to contribute a certain fraction of their earnings for corporate social responsibility programmes designed and managed with stakeholder participation. Locals mostly want hydro development. It is the outsiders who object.
A study on the Cumulative Impact of Hydro Projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins up to DevPrayag, conducted by the Alternate Hydro Energy Centre, IIT, Roorkee, December 2011, by and large exonerated the current projects, commissioned or under construction, as having had a manifestly negative cumulative impact with regard to hydrology, river ecology, floods, glaciers, seismicity sedimentation, forests, bio-diversity, wild life and fish, religious tourism and livelihoods. Some negative features have been mentioned and corrective steps enumerated.
Trees are lost in land diverted for hydro projects and appurtenant works. In the case of 14 NHPC projects, commissioned or under construction across the Himalaya, 101,781 trees were lost by diversion of 2734 ha of land. But compensatory afforestation has covered 4334 haof degraded or non-forest land and some 930,000 trees planted on them.In the case of the Dhauliganga project, the ratio of trees lost to trees planted was over 1:40, catchment area development bringing additional ecological benefits. Over space and time ecological losses are generally more than compensated by far.
The Roorkee IIT report has been critiqued by the Wild Life Institute of India, 2012 and certain other scholars but much of that criticism has been rebutted by the Institute
A Bhagirathi-Bhilangna Basin Authority was set up a decade ago but remains dormant. A larger Ganga Basin authority up to Hardiwar and a Himalayan Commission have been advocated. These are worthy of consideration. As also climate change cooperation with ICIMOD, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.
Environmental activists and the Courts have over-reacted in barring hydro projects on the Upper Ganga pending studies and reviews. Delay has meant denial or unsustainable cost-escalation in the past and this folly should not be repeated. As it is, normal procedural delays are enormous and highly onerous. Looking back at the Tehri experience, one can say that the critics were mistaken. Not to do something is a decision. And the cost of doing nothing can sometimes be crushing.