Could Uttarakhand Glacier Disaster Have Been Prevented?

“What is clear from this & earlier such incidents is that our monitoring of vulnerable areas is highly inadequate.”

5 min read
Indian Army rescue mission to save those trapped in the longer tunnel. Image from Chamoli, Uttarakhand.

Uttarakhand, unfortunately, is no stranger to disaster. But yet another massive tragedy struck the Himalayan state on 7 February 2021, the least expected on a cold winter Sunday morning; at least ten people have so far been confirmed dead, and about 170 are missing — besides, several dams, roads, houses, bridges and other infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged.

There is however, a tragedy within that tragedy. Almost a day after the tragedy started unfolding around 10 AM, forget the question of getting prior warning for disaster prevention or minimisation efforts, there is still no clarity on where exactly the disaster originated, when exactly it originated, what factors led to that, and what was the magnitude at the place of origin.

The Uttarakhand government agencies are talking about ‘glacier bursts’, the NTPC (developer of the damaged 520 MW under-construction Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project) is talking about an ‘avalanche’, and still others are talking about the ‘bursting of water pockets in the glaciers’, ‘cloud burst’, etc — with neither clarity nor details about any of these hypotheses.

Monitoring Of Vulnerable, Disaster-Prone Zones Is Abysmal

To effectively tackle any disaster, getting credible, specific, timely information is the first essential step, and we are faltering time and again in that first step. Once you have that information, you still need a workable disaster management plan and a mechanism that ensures that such a plan can be implemented.

But what is clear from this and earlier such incidents is that our monitoring of known vulnerable areas is highly inadequate.

The likely scenario, built from available information from various reliable sources is that the catchment area of the Rishiganga river in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand around the Nandadevi Biosphere reserve, received substantial snowfall (the monitoring and dissemination of snowfall is a major grey spot in or meteorology apparatus) last week.

On Sunday morning (and possibly a day earlier too) there was an avalanche leading to the sliding down of a huge snow mass into a glacial lake or water pocket in the glacier, leading to the breaking off of that water body. What flowed downstream then was that mass of water and snow along with huge amount of debris that is known to be part of glaciers and the para-glacier areas.

Talks Of ‘Preparedness’: An Exaggeration

We, including our governments, possibly first came to know about it only when Reni village, the birthplace of the Chipko movement of the 1970s, was hit by the front of this flowing storm down the Rishiganga river. It led to the washing away of several houses and people in Reni village, some of the people being those grazing their animals close to the river.

The first obstacle in the way of the storm was a barrage on the river which collapsed in a few seconds. The next obstacle was the 13.2 MW existing Rishiganga hydropower project, which was also devoured by the storm in a matter of seconds. The Rishiganga then entered the Dhauliganga river. Further downstream was the dam of the under-construction of Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project of NTPC, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The storm did not take too long to flow over and destroy that too. In the process, the water and debris also entered the under-construction tunnels of the project, where a large number of workers were trapped.

The storm flowing in Dhauliganga river further downstream entered the Alakananda river at Vishnuprayag. Here at Joshimath, the Central Water Commission Flood forecasting (that was blank and silent till SANDRP tweeted about its silence) tells us, that by 11 AM, the water level had reached a massive 3.11 m above the previous Highest Flood Level achieved during the 2013 floods.

There is the under-construction 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti dam here funded by the World Bank; there are some reports that suggest that this THDC project and another existing 400 MW Vishnuprayag project may also be damaged. The stormy river stabilised further downstream as it entered a relatively flat terrain.

The ‘preparedness’ along the Ganga till Varanasi etc — talked about by the authorities — was clearly far-fetched.

Impact Of Human Intervention In Vulnerable Ecologies

It should be noted here that this is not an entirely natural disaster. On breaching of each of the obstacles that the storm faced along its way, the storm flowed downstream with greater power, gathering a greater amount of debris. A number of human activities thus added to the disaster impact.

The maximum damage and casualties are in this region from Reni village along the Rishiganga to Dhauliganga to Alaknanda till a few kilometres downstream of the Joshimath. The hydropower projects listed above and the en route villages are likely to have experienced the maximum casualties. The Uttarakhand Chief Minister also talked about the under-construction railway and roads in this area, where too workers could have been trapped or flooded.

While Uttarakhand has seen such events in the past too, there is no doubt that this disaster bears the stamp of climate change, with regard to the origin of the storm. But the amount of damage this storm wreaked and the casualties along the way has the clear signature of the impact of human intervention in the region.

Big hydropower projects, massive roads, railway lines and encroachments of the river banks and beds are all an invitation for bigger disasters. These interventions are known to happen without either a credible impact assessment or preparedness or disaster management plans.

Exemplary Rescue Ops, But Non-Existent Disaster Management Mechanism

There is no confidence-inspiring assessment of the disaster-potential of the area and how our interventions are increasing that disaster-potential. On the contrary, the projects indulge in all kind of violations including use of dynamites and dumping of millions of cubic meters of muck in the river.

The big hydropower projects were never ecologically viable or socially acceptable in this region. Now they are not even economically viable with cheaper sources of electricity available. And yet, with massive expenditure of public money and resources, these disaster-accelerating interventions keep being pushed through.

Our rescue operations have been exemplary, as could again be seen in this event.

However, this episode also exposes our practically non-existent disaster management mechanisms (which go far beyond the post-disaster rescue) and our inability to learn lessons from the past.

So, for example, the worst disaster that Uttarakhand faced was in June 2013; but even today there is no report that tells us what actually happened in that disaster, what factors played a role, what lessons we can learn and how we can translate them into practice. What it means is that we have no system of learning lessons from such disasters. And that possibly is our bigger disaster in this disaster, like the tragedy described earlier, within this tragedy.

(Himanshu Thakkar is an expert with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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