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Uttarakhand Tragedy: What Does Our Disaster Management Plan Need? 

“To start with, we need planners to start focusing ASAP on how to implement widespread sustainable initiatives.”

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Glacier breaks in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. Image used for representation.
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On Sunday, 7 February, a sudden, exponential rise in water level in Rishiganga River near Reni village, Chamoli district, led to a catastrophic flood downstream. This damaged the 13.2 MW RishiGanga power project, some bridges, Reni village, the 530 MW NTPC Tapovan hydro-power project downstream on the river Dhauliganga, as also the Joshimath-Malari Highway. Eighteen bodies have been recovered at the time of writing this article, while over 150 persons are still missing. Had the river channels been full with snow-melt waters, as in summer, the devastation would have extended further downstream.

Experts are still uncertain as to what actually triggered this rapid rise in water in the Rishiganga River, a tributary of the Dhauliganga. Some reports suggest that a large avalanche near the terminus of Nanda Devi glacier caused a flash-flood in the Rishiganga. Others maintain it was a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).

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How Could Uttarakhand Disaster Have Been Avoided?

A retreating glacier leaves behind ‘proglacial lakes’ in natural depressions, whose waters are usually contained by stones, boulders and sediments. Lakes can also be formed by landslides, blocking glacier meltwater. And if the boundary of the lake breaches on account of diverse reasons (seepage; part of the retreating glacier falling into it; etc), huge amounts of water can get released, which then rush down disastrously.

Formation of such lakes is a common feature in the Himalayas. Since GLOFs pose a considerable risk to downstream communities and infrastructure, there’s need to monitor such lakes, with a GLOF-eventuality being part of the disaster management plan of the district/state. Hence the question: could the tragedy have been avoided? The answer lies in three parts:

  • If the event was a GLOF, then a good monitoring system can ensure the artificial lake is bled-out well in time. The Central Water Commission had signed an MoU with the National Remote Sensing Centre in 2009 for inventorying and monitoring glacial lakes / water bodies in the Himalayan region. However, cloud cover has remained a problem in regular imaging.
  • But once a lake breaches, damage to immovable infrastructure downstream is inevitable.
  • Casualties however could have been avoided. A flash-flood takes time to travel downstream – and a good warning system can lead to timely evacuations. Such a warning system comprises two parts: one, SOPs and protocols for rendering alerts; and a robust method to deliver that alert swiftly to officials, communities, infrastructure, etc, through sirens, phones/SMSs, WhatsApp messages, radio, TV, loudhailers, etc. The videos being streamed online suggest that timely warning was perhaps not made available to all concerned.

While GLOFs are not a recent phenomenon, their incidence has been increasing on account of climate change. A July 2019 study, based on 40 years of satellite data of some 650 glaciers, published in the ‘Science Advances’, details that Himalayan glaciers are melting at twice the earlier rate since 2000. The broader issue therefore is not this particular incident — but the fact that it is simply a case of Mother’s Earth and Nature sending a bill to humans for climate change.

Swift Post-Disaster Response

In India, disaster management is a State responsibility. The Central Government supplements the efforts of the States in five ways:

  • By establishing and sustaining agencies for providing alerts / warnings (in case of hazards that can be predicted), and post-disaster information (in case of transpired hazards). These agencies are connected to National Control Room (MHA), the State EOCs, District EOCs, and Control Rooms in NDRF, CAPF, nodal ministries / departments, CPSUs, HQ Integrated Defence Staff and the MEA
  • By nominating Nodal Central Ministries with disaster-specific responsibilities for National-level coordination of the response and mobilisation of necessary resources in the case of major disasters
  • Maintaining an NDRF
  • Providing aid, funds, resources on required basis
  • Formulating and issuing guidelines and policies; rendering advice and technical assistance; and assisting in capacity-building

Yet, the response at all levels has been swift. This is because the Disaster Management Act 2005 had led to establishment of a three-tiered institutional mechanism.

The NDRF, presently comprising 12 battalions (four more under operationalisation), has been, based on a nation-wide hazard vulnerability risk assessment, strategically placed at 40 locations (battalion main — 12; Regional Response Centres — 28) across India. Maintained at a state of constant readiness, the NDRF is able to mobilise quickly.

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Although a major disaster invariably disrupts surface transportability, the Armed Forces, in addition to aid columns, provide that crucial capability to swiftly airlift responders right into the disaster zone. The NDRF is a deputationist force, with three battalions each drawing manpower from the BSF and CRPF, and two each from the CISF, ITBP and SSB. Thus, on account of manpower turnover, each CAPF too has personnel qualified in disaster response. In addition to response, the NDRF also trains the SDRFs, Civil Defence volunteers, etc, as also conducts mock drills with specific response forces in the states and districts.

In line with the three-tier mechanism is the informal categorisation of disasters into:

  • L1 (those which can be managed by a district with its integral resources)
  • L2 (manageable by a State with its resources)
  • L3 (which require Central intervention)

It was glaringly evident, particularly after the NCMC met shortly after the disaster, that Chamoli is a Cat-3 event. And these mechanisms, categorisations and cooperative working relationships are main reasons why the ITBP, NDRF, Armed Forces, SDRF and local responders were able to respond so quickly and competently, work in complimentary unison, and do such a heartening job.

Industrialisation & Climate Change

The story of contemporary climate change begins with the Industrial Age, which commenced around the mid-1700s. The invention of the railway engine and automobile facilitated mobility beyond immediate environs, even as various machines assisted the process of mass exploitation of the Earth’s resources including fossil fuels. As the scale of human enterprise grew, a cyclic process began – growing population, increase in consumption, increased production, larger industrial houses, larger labour pools, increased population and larger consumption. This cycle is evident from the growth of human population. Modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. At 1 AD, the total human population was just 200-300 million. Post-industrialisation, it began to expand exponentially: 1800 AD — about one billion; 1930 — two billion; 1960 — three billion; and now — about 7.7 billion. In sum: it took about 200,000 years for human population to reach one billion — and just over 200 years to reach from 1 billion to 7.7 billion.

Besides, human dietary requirements and preferences have evolved; people are seeking lifestyles with more style, entertainment, luxury and comfort; and increasingly using more resources.

Governments are also seeking greater GDPs. All this is generating a number of direct and second-order effects, which include global warming, climate change, extreme weather events, destruction of habitats, and a reduction in the populations of species as well as their extinction (we are now in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction of non-human species).

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The ‘Ecological Footprint’ — which measures our use of goods and services generated by nature – indicates that we are consuming as if we had 1.6 Earths at our disposal and that out of the nine “Planetary Boundaries” (i.e. safe thresholds for critical Earth system processes that maintain life on this planet), we have already crossed four (including climate change and loss of biosphere integrity). Evidently, there is little realization of how we humans, comprising just 0.01 percent of the total biomass on Earth, are degrading the environment. Separately, the Oct 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has outlined dire warnings on climate change and global warming. It further warns that climate change will impact India severely.

Implications for India

In geopolitical terms, India is deemed an ‘island’ – with seas, mountains and hostile neighbours around it, India therefore has to accommodate its huge population and all their needs within a finite landmass. Rising national aspirations imply greater industrialisation and better infrastructure for increasing per capita GDP. The problem is that industrialisation, infrastructure-building, living spaces and agriculture are all land-use intensive – and competing for land in this finite landmass. Eventually, this is leading to encroachment on jungles, green zones, habitats and biospheres — and their gradual destruction. In turn, this is feeding directly into climate change.

Hence, there is a body of opinion which deems that “environmental sustainability may be the next major challenge as India surges along its projected growth trajectory”.

Although the government is doing a good amount in terms of inducting ‘green’ and renewable technologies, considering our large population and GDP needs, planners need to start focusing immediately and sincerely on the how to implement widespread sustainable initiatives. Till then, expect more Chamoli-like incidents.

(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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