It is about 10 days since Uttarakhand was hit by torrential rains and cloudburst of a scale not seen in the state in over 50 years, which, along with accompanying floods and landslides, have caused untold devastation in the state.Thousands of locals and out-of-state pilgrims on the famous char dham yatra routes (to the 4 holy sites of the Kedarnath and Badrinath temples, and the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and temples) have died, many villages have been totally destroyed, many towns have suffered horrendous damage, and several roads and bridges have been swept away. The material damage and the toll on people has been so heavy, and the civil administration has been so unprepared, disorganized and overwhelmed, that a week into this disaster even the essential rescue work is still incomplete, while relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction have not even begun to be envisaged.
A more detailed assessment of the disaster management undertaken will no doubt be done by authorities at both State and Central levels later, both so as to identify problem areas and so as to put in place adequate strategies, capabilities and institutional mechanisms to be able to cope better with the next calamity. Hopefully, the considered opinions of experts, academics, social organizations, panchayat representatives and others would also be taken on board.
Yet even at this stage, even while the tragedy unfolds, some things are quite evident and need to be understood and borne in mind. In the midst of relief operations or while dealing with the numerous detailed aspects of reconstruction and rehabilitation, or even while writing up post-disaster reports recommending follow-up actions, some basic even causal issues are often forgotten or ignored. Before getting lost in the minutiae of logistical issues, detailed disaster management plans, procurement and placement of equipment, manpower training and so on, all of which are undoubtedly important and necessary, it is crucial that we also step back and look at the larger picture, at underlying factors and issues, so that long-term preventive, precautionary and preparatory measures are taken alongside those to deal with disasters after they have occurred.
This is critical because, while the disaster itself was precipitated by the sudden and unprecedented downpour, the calamity cannot, indeed should not, be considered a purely “natural disaster.” Even if one cannot take the disaster as a fully man-made one, human activity has contributed greatly to the consequences of the torrential rains and the trail of destruction wrought. The pattern of development in the Garhwal hills, the poor planning and worse implementation with respect to settlements, infrastructure and tourism, the nexus between political, bureaucratic and commercial interests leading to numerous sins of commission and omission, all these have contributed to and enlarged the scope of this disaster. And even the main causal factor behind this calamity, the extraordinarily heavy rainfall, can be at least partially attributed to societally-induced climate change that has resulted in erratic monsoons and increased incidence of extreme weather events worldwide.
Climate variability and extreme weather events
Extreme weather events are one of the many well-recognized outcomes of climate change. The increased occurrence of cyclones, tornadoes, heat waves, excess rainfall and flooding in recent years has been well documented. But how do we know that these are taking place because of human-induced climate change, rather than to the usual variability in weather? After all, it rains more in some years than others, there are floods in some years and droughts in others.
Scientists are now much more confident than a few years ago about the linkage with climate change. First, the increase in these incidents is well above the standard statistical variation seen over the last many decades. Second, the severity of these events too is much greater. Just as the decade 2000-2010 saw nine out of the ten hottest years in this century, so too in the past several years unprecedented quantities of rainfall have been recorded over very short periods in many instances all over the world. Much more frequent Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have occurred in the Atlantic and the Pacific in each of the past few years, massive snowstorms and blizzards have hit North America and Europe in the winter of 2011, unprecedented heat waves and drought have hit the US, France and Spain. In 2012, Beijing in northern China saw as much rainfall as is usual in southern coastal provinces, and 170mm of rain fell in Beijing just a 17-hour period with some pockets recording over 520mm, breaking all known records by a huge margin. In Australia, record rainfall described by officials as of “biblical proportions” led to floods covering an area more than France and Germany together. And who can forget the torrential rains in Maharashtra in 2005 when Mumbai received a record 666mm of rain in a 24-hour period with some city areas recording 944mm!
The scientific reasoning behind why such extreme weather events take place, and why they can be attributed to climate change, has been clear for quite some time. Rain or snow fall, in other words precipitation, takes place because water vapour in the atmosphere condenses upon cooling. With global warming, the quantity of water vapour in the atmosphere increases. Cooling however is less efficient due to excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps heat and allows less heat to escape, so total rainfall may not increase that much. But when it does rain over specific areas, the rainfall is likely to be heavier due to excess accumulated moisture. Similar explanations relating to changing patterns of upper air circulation due to global warming can be offered for the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones and dry-weather events or droughts.
In the Indian monsoons, rainfall data going back to the late 19th century available from Indian Meteorological Department weather stations all over the country show that the monsoons are arriving later and withdrawing later, by roughly two weeks on average. The late arrival and departure of the monsoon rains, combined with the different temperature profile in the changed period, is expected to have a serious impact on agriculture and crop yields.
On the other hand, the monsoons this year have been at least two weeks early. This is quite characteristic of weather conditions under climate change.
Whereas it is known that more extreme weather events will take place, that there will be more days of heavy rainfall, that the monsoons are shifting to a later period, climate change also makes weather events more unpredictable. For disaster preparedness, the key lesson is to take note of these broad trends, and be prepared for the worst in terms of heavy rainfall and resulting floods, more severe storms, heat waves and droughts.
There has been a great deal of comment in the media about the management of rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand, and as discussed earlier, even preliminary discussions about reconstruction and rehabilitation have not taken place. The Armed Forces, along with some paramilitary forces such as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the National Disaster Response Force (NRDF), have performed not just commendably but remarkably in the still on-going rescue operations mainly targeting pilgrims and the occasional airlifting of relief supplies. The military in particular has shown yet again that it stands out among institutions in the country as regards preparedness, capability, performance efficiency and dedication. But the civilian administration in Uttarakhand in particular, and that at the central level as well, has shown itself to be thoroughly incompetent, unresponsive, ill-equipped and unwilling to or incapable of learning the right lessons and institutionalizing requisite changes.
The Disaster Management (DM) apparatus at both Centre and State, with the exception of the paramilitary NRDF comprising battalions from the CRPF, BSF, CISF and ITBP, has itself been an unmitigated disaster.
The first and perhaps most important element of DM is preparedness, which has been self-evidently and woefully lacking. This is obvious from the poor condition of the roads, the lack of earth-moving equipment anywhere in the disaster zone, the total absence of any measures to anticipate the flooding and take precautionary flood control or protection measures near settlements, and the obvious absence of state or local level first responders who have perforce had to be military and paramilitary.
It is not yet clear what role the National Disaster Management Authority has played in the post-disaster scenario, but given the developments of the past ten days, one is left wondering if there was at all any DM Plan for Uttarakhand and what if any steps had been taken to build disaster response and management capabilities in the State. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 had envisaged a paradigm shift from the usual pattern of post-disaster response to a pro-active, integrated disaster management system with emphasis on prevention, steps to minimize impacts and preparedness for dealing with disasters when they occur. This would involve preparation of response and contingency plans, building capacities in the civilian administration including the police, instituting physical measures including acquisition and deployment of equipment and working with local communities to build disaster preparedness in the population as a whole. It is obvious that none of this has been done in Uttarakhand, a state known to be prone to a variety of disasters and which has suffered major calamities in the recent past, for instance the infamous Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991.
The State Disaster Management Authority is virtually non-existent, not having had a single meeting the past several years. And the National Authority, the NDMA, had been without a Head till one was hurriedly appointed several days after the Uttarakhand calamity. What a disaster!
No relief for locals
At the time of writing, reports from the ground by the media, NGOs and social workers all reveal a virtual vacuum of disaster response other than the military and paramilitary. The civil administration is conspicuous by its absence. Pilgrims have herded together by themselves and waited for military helicopters to airlift them, with no local authority to organize orderly rescue prioritizing women, children, the aged or infirm. While rescue efforts have proceeded apace, with close to 100,000 people mostly pilgrims having been evacuated to date, little or no relief operations such as provision of food, temporary shelters, first aid or medical care, clearly not the mandate of the military, have been visible. All the focus has been on pilgrims, which is understandable to some extent since they are outsiders without local shelter, care or support systems.
But hundreds of villages have been destroyed in the Kedar valley, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Pauri, Chamoli and elsewhere. Hundreds maybe thousands of local inhabitants have lost their lives or been seriously injured, numerous people are still missing, tens of thousands have lost all their property and been rendered homeless. Many thousands of people from various parts of Uttarakhand, who move to the disaster zone during the yatra season looking to earn some additional income or even as their main cash income for the year, have been severely affected. No attention has been paid to any of these local people and their problems, no arrangements have been made for food, medical care or shelter. Even at the time of writing, leading state authorities are declaring their immediate and “sole priority” is rescuing the pilgrims from locations of large concentrations, and that “all other issues will be addressed later.”
One understands of course that in disasters of such magnitude, local administration officials, police and health workers are also among the disaster-affected and it therefore takes time for them to get organized, leave alone activate themselves for first response. But this is precisely where leadership plays a role, be it from ministers or elected representatives or from bureaucrats and the police. Regrettably, none has been forthcoming in Uttarakhand, or for that matter from Delhi.
Pilgrims on the char dham yatra have no doubt had a harrowing time, but at least most of them have been rescued, with the military taking the lead role with respect to their travails. The local inhabitants, the people of Uttarakhand, have unfortunately been completely left to themselves, with nobody to hear their laments or look after their needs. Victims of a calamity largely man-made and certainly compounded by governmental callousness and incompetence.
Disaster waiting to happen
Uttarakhand is not alone in having to suffer from unconscionably poor governance in India. But its people are certainly paying a heavy price for decades of poor or no planning, rotten implementation, corruption, collusion of public authorities with vested interests, and a willingness of certain sections to go along with ad hocism and violations of norms for short-term gains.
Large townships have grown on, or too close to, river banks. For those who have not visited Uttarakhand, visuals on TV and in the print media show densely packed multi-storeyed houses, hotels and other properties almost on the waters edge. Many such buildings have collapsed or lie buried under two storeys of mud. Over the years, property sharks and local officials and politicians have minted money from permitting or encouraging such “development.” Anyone who has visited Uttarakhand recently would have seen the haphazard development or expansion of townships, new restaurants, hotels and tourist facilities, all coming up along river banks, with nobody having a clue as to how and by whom permission was granted.
Then there are the roads. Garhwal has long been known for its poor road infrastructure, even in comparison with the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, a story of neglect and backwardness that questions the logic of a new hill state. Now roads have certainly been built, especially along the yatra routes and linking major towns. But the roads are of poor quality, the road-cutting leaving already the unstable hillsides even more bare and unstable, prone to landslips even during normal rains, and proper measures for stabilization of the slopes are not taken. Blasting and other such techniques are often used unscientifically and without due precautions, damaging not only hill slopes but also nearby habitations. Material from roadworks or other civil works such as in tunnels, dams etc are routinely simply dumped into the rivers flowing beneath, especially by private contractors while authorities are least bothered. This has significantly raised the river bed, making the rivers more prone to flooding even with a little additional or sudden rush of waters.
A controversy has recently arisen, and will undoubtedly be stoked in the coming weeks, about declaring some regions of Uttarakhand as “ecologically sensitive.” The issue is not with the label assigned, but its implications. For instance, whether it means “no construction” or “no development” zones, as with certain forest areas. All concerned would do well to remember that people of the Uttarakhand hills have long suffered due to lack of roads and communication infrastructure, poor access to health facilities and to markets for their produce. Issue is not whether development but what kind of development?
The growing road infrastructure, urban centres and their commercial facilities, and yatra tourism have all grown far beyond the carrying capacity of these fragile mountainous areas of the Shivaliks and Himalayas, or at least have not been planned and executed keeping this carrying capacity in mind. A proposed River Zone Regulation, along the lines of the Coastal Zone Regulations, to regulate construction, commercial and other activities along river banks has been under consideration for long but has never seen the light of day. Can it be taken up for consideration at least now? Can the supposedly sacred rivers and mountains be treated with the respect they require?