Uttarakhand Disaster's-A man made Tragedy or nature's fury!

Dr VK Bahuguna

February 10, 2021, 04:11:26   

On 7th February the people of the country witnessed a massive flash flood of a devastating fury in Dhauliganga River in the Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. The Dhauliganga is a source streams tributary of the Ganga River and merges with the Alaknanda River at Vishnuprayag at the base of Joshimath. The cause of the flood on initial speculation is attributed to the breakdown of a Glacier in 'Rainee' village around 25 km from the Joshimath. The flash flood according to the initial estimates of Uttarakhand government killed 8 people and around 170 people are missing. It damaged the under construction Tapovan Vishnugad project of the National Thermal Power Corporation's (NTPC) with a planned capacity of 520 MW and Rishi Ganga Power Corporation Ltd's project of 13.2 MW which was commissioned in June 2020. These projects have been almost washed away. Of the 170 missing 148 are those who were working for the Tapovan project and 22 were working for the Rishiganga project. The people working in these projects were trapped in two tunnels. From one tunnel 16 people were rescued by the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP). However, in another tunnel which is 2.5 km long around 30 people are trapped and there is no communication with them and the rescue team was in action till last reporting. The floods damaged five bridges and many houses and several villages were evacuated. The government of Uttarakhand, ITBP and the Disaster Management apparatus of both centre and state swung into action and the downstream towns were timely alerted and further damage of life and property was prevented. The Prime Minister, Home Minister and Uttarakhand Chief Minister took control of the situation and The National Crisis Management Committee met late Sunday evening and took stock of the situation and ruled out the downstream flooding and asserted that there is no threat to power projects in Alaknanda rivers at Srinagar.

The radar based flood monitoring system developed by the Central Water Commission (CWC) with the help of Kritsnam Technologies, founded by a group of graduates from IIT-Kanpur and IIT-Kharagpur; the CWC was able to track real time situation and promptly alerted the officials about the actual situation of water in the rivers in the entire stretch. The manuals developed by the teams of National Disaster Management Institute Delhi were also of help for timely preparation. These advisories alerted the system and further loss of life, property and economy was averted. The government swiftly dispatched medical teams and a 30 bed hospital was kept ready at Joshimath and hospitals in Srinagar, Jolly grant and Dehradun were alerted. Eight NDRF teams were mobilised and deployed, with five tonnes of relief equipment, from Hindon Air Force base of Ghaziabad.

This is how the government has reacted this time to the emergency situation and averted the confusion that normally happens in such situation and showed the effectiveness of emergency response system though its actual effectiveness will depend how it safely bring back the 30 people trapped in the tunnel. That the glacier broke in the day time also helped quick mobilization of resources but the moot question is why such tragedies are happening time and again in this ecologically fragile area. The things as it stand today in an era of climate change it clearly point to palpable neglect of environment and ecology by both the local people and the lackadaisical attitude of the government which time and again ignores the expert advice. It is a well known fact that the 99 percent of the glaciers are the 'ice sheets' and are located in higher altitudes of Himalayas. These glaciers due to heavy snow,  geological changes underneath on account of gravitational forces, platonic movements and global warming start breaking into pieces and melt down, create lakes and blockages in rivers and become the ultimate cause of flash floods and immense damage to men and material. This has exactly happened in the Dhauliganga River when the glacier broke and whipped away the Rishiganga power project.

When the people, their representatives and the government sit ideal such tragedy cannot be averted. The scientists of Wadia Institute of Himalayan studies conduct details studies on the glaciers and from time to time warn the state and central agencies to take preventive measures. It is stated that eight months ago the Wadia institute had predicted that the glaciers in Chamoli district may break but no alerts were issued. However, the way development planning is undertaken there is hardly any scope for preventive measures. Take the way 54 small and medium hydro projects have been sanctioned in Uttarakhand during the past decades without caring for the fragile ecology it only shows that many more disasters are in the offing.  This writer in 1998 after the flash floods in Rudraprayag led a five member team of Central government and after visit held a meeting with the Divisional Commissioner and other officers in Dehradun and submitted a report to the Agriculture Ministry in which we clearly recommended through revamping in the development strategy. The reasons of the flash floods were attributed in the report to lop sided building and road construction in slopes which results in choking of drainages. The accumulation of waters in sub soil and formation of mini lakes ultimately results in flash floods during rains. The team had then recommended shifting of a few villages in route to kedarnath and the entire region after through assessment of the geology and ironically those 32 villages we earmarked in our report were washed away in 2013 Kedarnath tragedy.

The crux of the matter is to completely review and restructure the developmental planning in the hills of Uttarakhand specially the hydro power project and use science and common sense to decide on such projects. There should not be total ban but a rational decision making after all what was the need in submerging the 'Dhari Devi' temple for just additional 50 Megawatt of power the in Srinagar project which created a big hullaballoo and local agitations. Time to brace up for changes and sooner the Uttarakhand people realize better it will be. 

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