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Uttarakhand Disaster: What Caused It?

As rescue operations continue in Uttarakhand, Newsclick discusses with D. Raghunandan, President of All India People's Science Network, the  reasons behind the huge scale of disaster in the Himalayan state. Raghunandan says that the increased number of habitations and multi-story buildings on the river bank were "disasters waiting to happen." Rescue measures are being carried out in big townships to evacuate pilgrims, while villages have been completely neglected. Raghunandan points out that the disaster we are seeing in Uttarakhand is not as much due to extreme weather conditions as it is due to poor civil administration, unplanned infrastructure and the absence of disaster preparedness.

Prabir Purkayastha (PP): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today we have with us D Raghunandan, President of the All India People’s Science Network to discuss the recent events in Uttarakhand which has been a major disaster for the country. A lot of people have been talking of this being an effect of extreme weather event connected to climate change but in immediate aftermath of this, the real issue is the kind of failures that have taken place in two aspects, the kind of environmental development that has taken place there leading to certain, essentially, disasters waiting to happen and the kind of disaster management that has not really occurred except now which seems to have picked up.

So, one part of it is the extreme weather events, correlating to climate change is rather difficult, which we will come back to later. But what really has led to the large disaster that has taken place in Uttarakhand?

D. Raghunandan (DR): I would think that there are two major issues at hand in Uttarakhand which have led to the scale of disaster as we have seen it. One is the number of habitations which have come up at the level of the river or more. If you look maybe 30-40 years ago, with the extent of rainfall that we have seen now, we would have seen cloudbursts; we would have seen roads and mountainsides collapsing in landslips, and therefore affecting settlements on the slopes and as you probably know, settlements in Uttarakhand are not very large, there will be maybe 100 households in a village or maybe even less. Over the years what has happened is there are very large settlements, extensions of towns, townships which have come up on the banks of the major rivers which were earlier uninhabited or inhabited in very small townships. Today they have grown into very large towns and those large towns - how and where permissions were given to build to such an extent, whether at all there has been any permission given; whether how many of these are legal or illegal settlements, nobody knows. The point is they are very adhoc settlements that have come up in a completely haphazard manner and that haS been a disaster waiting to happen.


PP: So a lot of them are close to the river bed, so if there is a flash flood

DR: If there is a flash flood or a flood, then they will immediately get hit and the damage is very severe because the numbers are much large. On top of that, today you have got the yatra route pilgrims, all of whom go through the same major towns because that’s where the roads go through adding to the population in these big towns.


PP: That’s why these the towns have really come up

DR: Exactly, the point is you have built roads and you have built them in a certain way, you have oriented them around the big towns. You have allowed the big towns to become even bigger, thinking that they will attract people. House owners have invested money, property sharks have invested money there and built highrise buildings, what should be called highrise buildings, five storey, six storey buildings on a not particularly stable soil and mountainside. These are disasters waiting to happen.


PP: So this is one part of it. The second part of it which has also been talked about, is that a lot of tunneling, dams etc that have been built, development that has been done, they have left a lot of soil and whatever debris right there and as a result when the flood came it washed down huge amounts of this kind of loose debris, soil debris that was left and that has also contributed to the magnitude of the disaster. How correct is this?

DR: Absolutely, right. In fact, it’s not only the blasting, the road making, various other construction activities which are taking place which leave debris on site, but even worse, they dump the debris also down the slopes into the river. Now, this has made to two things. One is, you have loose debris lying around, which, if water comes there, it washes the debris into the towns, into settlements or on the roads but also this has meant a large amount of silt and debris in the rivers which has raised the floor of the river which means that it is easier for the river to flood, if the river had been deeper it would have taken more water, but with the amount of debris which is in the river, it has raised the level and made overflowing of the banks of the river that much easier. So on both counts, there has been a big disaster prone method of thing, there is no systematic, immediate removal of debris which should be done in all circumstances, was never done and in many cases you will see that debris is generated and the contractor will just roll it down the hillside into the river.


PP: The other part of it, two really larger issues are involved here. One of it is, as you have said, the questions of regulation, environmental rules and so on in an area which is ecologically sensitive and also relatively unstable because the Himalayas are relatively young mountains, unlike the Andes and a lot of other mountains they are young mountains so therefore there has always been this issue of landslips and so on. The other part of it is that you have this huge growth of the pilgrims. Now this was something which was supposed to be a very difficult route once upon a time, as you know, this char dham which is being talked about, these were really places where only a few people could go because it was so difficult to reach. Now you have helicopters, you have buses, you have roads. So the pilgrim numbers have grown astronomically. Does it not need therefore, a proper planning to both handle the kind of pilgrims that are coming in and how they should be housed and where they should be housed what is possible for them and also if there is a disaster how would the disaster management plan handle, with the kind of things we have seen, isolated pilgrims in different places with no food and no shelter. This has really caused a huge number of deaths.

DR: I’ll come to the disaster management part of it a little later, but the first part of the question that you have raised, I honestly believe that a large part of the new infrastructure, the roads that have been built have been quite recent phenomenon in Uttarakhand and in this part of Uttarakhand in particular, if you compare it with the Kumaon region or if you compare it with the Himachal region, you will find that the infrastructure in the Gharwal region of Uttarakhand is very poor and a lot of it is recent and much of it is half-made. So when roads have been built, there have been rough cuts into the mountainside, which as you very rightly said, is very unstable hill slopes. So proper reinforcement is not done. So even the infrastructure is not particularly great and with the large pilgrim rush that you are talking about, those who have gone on the char dham yatra even now will testify to large stretches of the route which are very difficult to traverse, which are very unstable and even low rainfall, much less than what we have witnessed in the downpour now has led to landslips, roads being blocked, hours taken for buses to go. So, if at all you want to plan, it is clearly under capacity infrastructure for the kind of pilgrimage that you expect or you can look at it the other way - you are carrying more pilgrims than you have infrastructure for. In either case, there is an undercapacity and the quality of the infrastructure you have built is also nothing like what is required either in terms of roads or in terms of accommodation or in terms of what can be done. I have seen many large towns in this region where water is piped up from 4000ft below, piped water coming down from the river to feed entire township, I mean this kind of infrastructure planning is not going to result in nothing except instability, unplanned growth, over populated or under capacity.


PP: So this one part of it, that the capacity of the system to handle the size of pilgrims that are coming now in terms of numbers just wasn’t enough.

DR: The capacity is not even sufficient to support the population that you have got there in terms of the townships leave, alone the new floating population that will flood the place.


PP: And that’s a very large number, because if you see the number of pilgrims, thats a large number than local population. The second part of it, the disaster management, it is known that this region is prone to both earthquakes and to flash floods if there is a cloudburst of any magnitude. So, therefore it demands that you have a disaster management plan in place particularly if you’re talking about crores of pilgrims who are now coming into this char dham yatras and other places. So what is the disaster management that the government of India has in place?

DR: To put it very simply, there is no disaster management taking place. Even worse there is no disaster preparedness. The first thing that any disaster management system looks to do is to make disaster preparedness plans to anticipate what could happen. Then, disaster management is once something has happened, may be it has happened more severely than what you do, then it is a question of how to tackle it. In fact, even under normal circumstances if there is no yatra, when the monsoon takes place, the system in Uttarakhand is unprepared for any kind of flash floods, landslips, landslide, it takes hours, if not days, for any kind of relief or rehabilitation to enter that place. In the face of this flood of pilgrims, the large unplanned habitations that you’ve got there’s absolutely no disaster preparedness that one can envisage, that one can see. Nor is there, as you can see now, any disaster management having been put in place. Today, all that we are witnessing on the television channels is the army and the paramilitary being called on. That means, apart from the army and the para military, there is no civil administration. One doesn’t see the homeguards or the Territorial Army, and one does not see the civil administration. Then if that is the case, then there is no disaster management, if the army has to be called in, that’s an emergency measure.


PP: I can even understand the army being called in, because, honestly, because any large disaster we always had the army being called in. The question is that civil administration is the one which is to take advantage of the army being called in, so assuming that they can deploy resources very quickly which is what the army can do and the air force can do with helicopters and so on, it really needs, by what plan will they act ,where will the food packets be dropped, spatial planning, geography of the region, those are really the issues and you can see this has taken almost seven days before what they can say that we are now really streamlined our disaster management efforts.

DR: And even that, let me tell you, the reports I have from our workers in the field is that the focus right now as far as the disaster management is concerned is evacuation of pilgrims which basically means non-residents, how to get them out of this area, that has been the focus, so helicopters have gone in, they have been pulled out, some medicines have been dropped, some food packets have been dropped. But, as you said, the civil administration is supposed to streamline this operation. Now what you have got, for example, is 8000 pilgrims waiting in a spot, the helicopter comes in and moves out 40 at a time, which 40 are to go first? This is something the civil administration should organize, otherwise you have chaos; you’ll have panic there, you’ll have people fighting with one another. Unless there is a civil administration present locally to streamline this operation, the helicopter pilot will not be able to handle this operation. So that’s a big problem. The second thing is that I still feel based on the reports that I’m getting is that the focus being so much on evacuating the pilgrims and those who have come from outside, I think scant attention is being paid to the local inhabitants who have suffered. You see if you look at the big towns like Rudraprayag, or in the main pilgrim centers in Badrinath and particularly in Kedarnath, their attention is there because you also have the big towns where the pilgrim go, but numerous small habitations, villages have been washed away by the rivers and by the landslips. Nobody is paying attention to them, in fact the director of the disaster management agency in Uttarakhand has said that our focus right now is on the big towns and settlements and where the big populations of people are who need to be moved out; the small people, we will think about later. So you can imagine, if already we have witnessed ten days have gone by with all this, imagine the plight of the local inhabitants who are there, who have been in a sense, the perennial victims to this neglect, poor development, lack of development, misplaced development, they are the perennial sufferers and they continue to be suffering now, even when there is a disaster.


PP: The last issue and this is because, it sort of, has been talked about a lot, that this was a very unusual cloudburst, 300 mm of rain has not taken place in the last 150 years. So this is something very very unusual, now of course we will have also related it to climate change because, as you know, that one of the impact of climate change is extreme weather events. Do you think that we can correlate an extreme weather event of this magnitude to climate change, or do you think that what we see is a number of such extreme weather events, and therefore, though cause and effect cannot be established, statistically we see much more of them today than ever before, so therefore it is really a generic conclusion rather than a specific one?

DR: Absolutely right. We know that due to climate change, monsoons are coming in India later than they should, than their scheduled time, by about two weeks or so in different parts of the country, 10 days in some regions and 15 days in some other regions. This has been the general pattern but now in this year, we have actually had the monsoons coming before time. So the issue with climate change is greater unpredictability of the climate. So it’s not always just uni-directional, but unpredictability. The second thing is that we do know about climate change is the extent of heavy rainfall, the number of days of heavy rainfall has been steadily increasing. This is very clear from meteorological data, that we have had the experience of the Bombay rains for example where you had almost the entire year’s quota falling in a matter of two days. We have had similar thing happening in China and in Europe and we will continue to have similar instances happening in India where you will have huge quantities of precipitation, maybe one day, two days will see as much rainfall as it would fall during the entire monsoon or the entire year. This also we know, from climate change, is going to be a trend. So, in fact, to have disaster management structures is to anticipate the scale of disasters that are going to come. If, by disaster you only mean a few extra inches of rainfall, that’s not great planning that you need to do. You need to anticipate the fact that you are going to get these extreme heat conditions and maybe some extreme cold conditions, but definitely extreme weather conditions, extreme high rainfall conditions and untimely rainfall conditions and you need to be prepared for all these. But I will underline once again the fact, disaster management can take place only if there is good disaster preparedness and good disaster preparedness assumes a good infrastructure - physically as well as administratively that you have in place that can respond to the disaster, after it has happened and in the first place, planned habitation and physical infrastructure which would minimize the extent of the disaster.


PP: Coming back to the extreme weather events that are on the increase everywhere, Australia, North America, Europe, of course Asia as you have talked about and they are showing themselves in essentially may be, cyclones, tornados, heavy rainfall, heavy precipitation, heavy snowing, unusual snowfall taking place for instance in West Asia. So you really have a whole mix bag of things that are happening and therefore it does seem to indicate that what the I.P.C.C has been saying that climate change is going to begin before even you see it in terms of temperature increase, even the small temperature increase is going to bring about variability of the weather and that is something that we are beginning to see across the world.

DR: Absolutely, I fully agree with you, variability of the weather; but we also know and the I.P.C.C has cautioned us about this, there are some trends which are already set in. One, for example, is the monsoon dates changing, we also know that the number of hot days will increase, so you will get intensified heat waves and intensified rainfall or snowfall that is also known. So these broad trends are known. At the same time there would be some instances where opposite may happen also; but like in this case like you’ve had a early monsoon this does not deny the general trend.


PP: That is why the variability, rather than one dimensional changes

DR: But the overall trends of some of these are clear, like I said, days with intense rainfall, very few days with very heavy rainfall, high number of heat wave days..


PP: So extreme weather events are already visible even before we can see increased temperature significantly. Both parts of it are there, one is of course, one should not relate extreme weather events to the disaster directly, disaster management and sound ecological planning can address beforehand some of these issues, but nevertheless, in the larger climate change debate, certainly extreme weather events are something we are beginning to see

Thank you very much Raghu.


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