Online Editions

FLASH FLOODS UTTARAKHAND, INDIA FEBRUARY 2021 – AVOIDABLE CATASTROPHE

ABSTRACT

The research paper focus on the flash floods disaster of Uttarakhand, which took place in February 2021. It delineates the events as they unfolded in gist and critically analyze the disaster from the angle of disaster management cycle phases, viz prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction.  The gaps identified in each of the phases have been arrived at after interviewing and consultations with experts and affected people of the area. The recommendations/suggestions given at the end would help the decision makers, regulators and implementors to manage such disasters in a more professional manner, to save lives and protect avoidable infrastructural losses. We cannot avoid disasters from happening but surely through committed and organized efforts, such tragedies can be averted, and sustained development can take place.

Keywords: ecological vulnerability, disaster plagued humanity, lacunae in preparedness, nature’s wrath, colossal losses

INTRODUCTION

The flash flood tragedy in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is latest outcome of our hubris in disregarding the nature of Himalayas. On 7th February ,2021 a wedge of glacier-covered rock of ice more than 500m wide and 180m thick1 debris from Raunthi and Mrigthuni glacial peak in Nanda Devi Region broke off and descended into Rishi Ganga and Dhauliganga valleys in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India, causing devastation on a widespread scale. Importantly it destroyed completely two hydroelectric power projects and partially three other hydroelectric power plants, as the avalanche caused overflow of Alaknanda river system, consisting of Alaknanda river, Dhauli Ganga and Rishi Ganga tributaries of Ganga.

Figure 1: A devastating debris flow occurred on Sunday 7th February in Chamoli District, Uttarakhand

METHODOLOGY-

Primary data was obtained by interviewing the involved decision makers, regulators and select affected people. Secondary data was procured from reports and interviews, published documents, news items and research publications. Several inputs were obtained from government departments, NGOs and academic institutions.

AIM

The aim of this research paper is to bring out the gaps existing in managing such natural disasters and recommend actions to be taken at various levels for managing them in a more systematic and professional manner.

Figure 2: a description   of   series of events which triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand

BASIC DATA OF THE DISASTER

TYPE:   Flash Floods, Natural Disaster.

DATE:  07 February 2021, around 10:30 AM.

CAUSE:  Ice and Rock Avalanche from Raunthi and Mrigthuni glacial peak Nandadevi

CASUALTIES: About 72 deaths were confirmed (including workers trapped in Tapovan tunnels)

PEOPLE AFFECTED:  More than 550 people.

MISSING: 168, believed killed2

ANIMALS: More than 150 goats perished.

PROPERTIES DAMAGED:  Most houses in the affected area were damaged. A few houses that remained undamaged were filled with slush up to 20 feet. 

PROJECTS AFFECTED                          

  • Five Projects were affected:  
    1. BRO

2. Tapovan, PR 1 each.

  3. Two PWD, hydropower project  

        owned by NTPC with around.

        176 laborers working on

        project was also impacted.

  • Bridge in Tapovan area which connected 13 villages was washed away in avalanche. The fate of NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan Vishnu gad hydel project hangs in balance as India’s largest power company suffered losses in crores.3
  • Dhauliganga dam at confluence of Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga Rivers was washed away by floodwaters.
  • Among places most severely hit by flash floods were Joshi math, Rini, Nandadevi.
            Figure 3 -The damage of Dhauliganga hydropower project at Raini village and aftermath

CAUSES OF UTTARAKHAND FLOODS  

Plethora of combinations could be plausible core reasons of Uttarakhand flash floods tragedy.  Some major reasons are given in succeeding paragraphs: –

GLACIAL LAKE OUTBURSTS FLOOD (GLOF)

Researchers have pointed to this as the grimmest reason for the Uttarakhand tragedy. A GLOF is a sudden release of water from a lake that has formed in glacier.

Figure 4: The mountain ecosystem is disrupted by variations in climate change owing to their altitude, slope and orientation to sun. As earth heats up mountain glaciers melt at unprecedented rate. There is displacement of water in glacial lake when large portion of adjacent glacier collapses into it.

GEOLOGICAL CAUSE-LANDSLIDES

The term landslide includes all varieties of mass movements downhill slopes. Wadia institute of Himalayan Geology and DRDO had found that in the peak of Raunthi Glacier there was a heavy solid hanging piece of ice that broke off due to some natural cause and rolled down into the Rishi Ganga Valley along a 37 degrees slope, led to breaching and catastrophic tragedy.

UNDERGROUND LAKE

Another theory espoused by the Indian Institute of Science; Bengaluru who developed a new tool-Himalayan glacier thickness mapper says that hydrostatic forces led to trigger of flash floods.

CONSTRUCTION ACTIVITIES-

Himalayas are young, fragile and unstable mountains with narrow valleys and irregular terrain, yet many hydrological electric projects are being constructed ruthlessly on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, to earn revenue by selling the electricity outside the State, creating echoes and consequently landslides in the area.

CLIMATE CHANGE

The study published in Science Advances Journal in June 2019 shows that glaciers in the region have been losing more vertical photo of ICE since 2000.Anjal Prakash5 of Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also backed climate change theory, calling global warming situation an irreversible phenomenon.6

EARTHQUAKE PRONE AREA

The vast geographical irregular terrain, sloping morphology, down slides and numerous construction projects and related activities make this area more vulnerable to natural disasters, like earthquake and landslides.

PREPAREDNESS MEASURES                     

Preparedness as per United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR,2009), now UNDRR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction)2 is,” knowledge, capabilities and actions of Governments, Organizations, Community Groups and Individuals, to effectively anticipate, respond to and recover from, impacts of likely imminent or current hazard events or conditions.

The brunt of the disaster was maximum felt by the people working in hydroelectric power projects area.

  1. The event took place around 10:30 AM and flash flood waters reached Tapovan project area in   about   half hour. So, if an early warning system were in place and activated in time, precious lives could have been saved at in good numbers.
  2. All rescue teams whether NDRF or SDRF or ITBP were ill equipped to rescue the people trapped in the tunnels. 7
  3. Chandigarh based DRDO team (Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE)and WADIA Institute of Himalayan Studies, Dehradun which monitors glaciers could have been consulted for   better   preparedness.
  4. The civilian contractors working at the hydroelectric power projects did not have the rescue equipment to save their workers.

RESPONSE MEASURES

There was no time to act fast in the response said, Sanjay Singh Rana, a resident of Raini village, Uttarakhand8  The total response  during the February 2021 tragedy was as follows:  –

  1. Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP): 425 personnel.
  2. State Disaster Response Force (SDRF):  70 persons.
  3. Indian Army: 129 members, consisting of four columns of Infantry and one engineer task force. Besides 2 Cheetah helicopters for casualty evacuation and 36 aviation helicopters for relief work were deployed. A Control Room was also set up to coordinate the relief efforts. “We are trying to break open the tunnel”, said Ashok Kumar, State police Chief, to Reuters news agency. 9
  • NDRF: 5 teams. One team from Dehradun was dispatched and four teams from Ghaziabad were flown in IAF aircrafts.
  • State Health Department :2 medical teams, 6 ambulances. Field hospitals were ready to receive casualties.
  • Heavy Machinery:  Dozers, excavators, JCB and special machines to drill, belonging to BRO and private companies working on Hydroelectric Projects.
  • Indian Air Force-Hercules aircraft and AN32 transport aircraft were used to airlift10 NDRF teams from Indian Air Force: Three IAF Mi 17 helicopters were positioned at Jolly Grant .
  • Indian Navy: Navy divers were rushed to measure depth of glacial lake formed upstream of Tapovan in Uttarakhand.
  • Scientists. Six scientists from Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) along with their specialized equipment’s were tasked to reconnoiter the glacial area in an Advance Light Helicopter (ALH).11

RECOVERY MEASURES

Hi-tech recovery efforts like drones, radars, remote cameras were sourced from DRDO (defense research and developmental organization) and CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) with qualified research geologist, glaciologist from SASE (Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment) for surveillance and reconnaissance of Uttarakhand floods under Union Ministry of Home Affairs. Tunnels near projects where people were stuck in sludge were located with victim locating cameras and VSAT (very small aperture terminal), but unfortunately not all could be rescued due to lack of required machinery/equipment.

LACUNAE IN DISASTER MANAGEMENT AND RECOMMENDATIONS

PUBLIC AWARENESS

The research data collected from a track on disasters reveals that mitigation and preparedness measures, like capacity building and conduct of mock drills was confined to schools and colleges and at the hydroelectric project sites and rarely at community levels, it was either altogether missing or only lip service was being undertaken at other places.

TOURISM INTAKE-

We very well know that Uttarakhand State’s economy depends largely on its tourism, The number of tourists or pilgrims entering the hilly area, which is so prone to natural calamities, needs to be regulated and controlled at the entry points to the State, especially during the Char Dham Yatra time.

HYDROPOWER PROJECTS CONSTRUCTION

Human activities that intersect with mountain ecosystem, can accentuate risk in Himalayan valleys where Hydropower plants are proliferating  in garb of development13 . Based on the Expert Committee report, the Central Government had put a ban on construction of new Hydro-electric power projects in the area.14

NON-COMPLIANCE OF INCIDENCE RESPONSE SYSTEM

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued National Guidelines on Incident Response System (IRS) in July 2010, to be followed during response phase of a disaster, for the optimum utilization of resources was neglected which resulted in lack of coordination and non-optimum utilization of resources. 

ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Conventional ways of providing relief measures tend to get delayed due to lack of complete knowledge about extent of devastation in real time. The flash floods in Uttarakhand were a situation where there is urgent need of GEOSPATIAL DATABASE to be built up so that disaster search and rescue team for remedial measures to be taken to save lives and damage to infrastructure.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLANS FOR PLACES OF WORSHIP

Uttarakhand has several religious places which are visited by tourists from all over India, during Char Dham Yatra. As per DM Act 2005, each religious place needs to formulate a Contingency and Response Plan for perceived disasters.  Mitigation and Response teams must be equipped and trained for their roles.

LIVELIHOOD RESTORATION

 DM Plan must pre plan restoration of livelihood in a time bound manner. Roads should be constructed at higher heights along slopes and not next to the rivers, where they get flooded and washed away during flash and normal rising of water in the rivers.  Similarly, no sewerage drains should merge into the Ganga River and its tributaries.

CONSTANT MONITORING OF GLACIERS AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM

 Glaciers are important indicators of climate change. They provide visible evidence of changes in temperature and precipitation. Besides monitoring, early warning system serves as excellent prognostic tool for informing the people working downstream, to take timely action to evacuate.  

BEHAVIOUR OF FISHES Fishes has biological system {lateral line organ} organ by which it can detect movement and pressure changes in water miles upstream.  Color of water which is normally green also becomes silver during flash floods/floods.

RESPONSE FORCES

State should raise full-fledged battalion strength State Disaster Response Force,   Central Govt should also raise and place one NDRF Battalion and place it at Dehradun/Haridwar/Jolly grant Airfield.

CONCLUSIONS The study concludes that origin of this disaster was set many years ago by way   of plundering of the environment. There are many lessons to be learned from this repeat disaster and the most important of them is to acknowledge a change is needed for cultural shift towards preservation and safety.  The disaster management plans will not yield results if it remains only on paper without adequate involvement of all stakeholders including active participation of public Government should lead from front with adequate preparedness and availability of resources. Our biggest failure would be as the dust settles most of us including the government returns to our comfort zone leaving things to fate.

REFERENCES:

  1. “Chamoli disaster: ‘It hit the valley floor like 15 atomic bombs'”. BBC. 13 June 2021. Retrieved 1 July 2021.
  2. ^ “Uttarakhand flood wreaks death, damage”. The Indian Express. 8 February 2021. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  3. ^ “Uttarakhand news live: Glacier bursts in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district”. The Times of India. Retrieved 7 February 2021.
  4. ^ Sandhya Ramesh (8 February 2021). “Uttarakhand disaster likely caused by landslide, not glacial outburst, satellite images reveal”. The Print. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  5. Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, PhD Environmental science. unisdr.org–www.unisdr.org
  1. ^ Biswas, Soutik (11 February 2021), ‘Hanging’ glacier broke off to trigger India flood, retrieved 16 February 2021, Climate change, he said, is the “main factor” for rapid temperature changes leading to freezing and thawing of ice, and glacial fractures over time.
  2. ^ “Uttarakhand glacier burst: Death toll rises to 72”. The Times of India. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  3. ^ Akanksha Sharma, Vedika Sud and Swati Gupta. “More than 150 missing and 14 dead as burst glacier triggers flash floods in India”. CNN. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  4. ^ “Uttarakhand: Eleven dead after India glacier bursts dam”. BBC News. 8 February 2021. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  5. a b “Factcheck: Did climate change contribute to India’s catastrophic ‘glacial flood’?”. Carbon Brief. 9 February 2021. Retrieved 26 March 2021.
  6. ^ “Rishi Ganga hydro project, Tapovan dam washed away by glacier burst in Uttarakhand”. Times Now. 8 February 2021. Retrieved 8 February2021.
  1. a b Shugar, D. H.; Jacque Mart, M.; Shean, D. Bhushan, S.; Upadhyay, K.; Sattar, A.; Schwan hart, W.;  M.; Emmer, A. (10 June 2021).

 “A massive rock and ice avalanche caused the 2021 disaster at Chamoli, Indian Himalaya”. Science. doi:10.1126/science. abh4455ISSN 0036-8075PMID 34112725.

  1. a b Mashal, Mujeeb; Kumar, Harry (8 February 2021), “Before Himalayan Flood, India Ignored Warnings of Development Risks: Long before a deadly flood hit two hydroelectric dams, scientists warned repeatedly that such projects were dangerous in a fragile region made more so by global warming.”, New York Times, retrieved 16 February 2021, “But the government has gone ahead and chosen to build them,” he (Dr. Chopra) said. Both hydroelectric projects hit by Sunday’s flood — one obliterated and the other badly damaged — were built in that zone, he said.

AUTHORS AND AFFILIATIONS

  • Dr. Angela Khanna, BDS, Gold Medalist (Medicine)
    MBA Student (Disaster Management), Center for Disaster Management Studies
    Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Dwarka, New Delhi
    Email Id: [email protected]
  • Brig (Dr.) BK Khanna, SM, VSM** (Retd)
    CEO UNDRR ARISE INDIA,
    Former Founder Senior Advisor & Senior Specialist,
    National Disaster Management Authority, Govt of India
    Email Id: [email protected]
  • Prof Amarjeet Kaur
    Director, Center for Disaster Management Studies
    Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Dwarka, New Delhi
    Email Id: [email protected] , [email protected]

Share your thoughts