Why Uttarakhand?

After the evacuation of over 100,000, the complete destruction of towns and villages, the terrible deaths of as many as 1,000, and with many of the stranded still missing, I wanted to ask the question; why Uttarakhand? What were the causes of the floods and the ensuing disaster there in June 2013? What arguments had the political and science communities put forward in the wake of the Uttarakhand disaster in the last few weeks?

It’s almost a month since the floods struck the Indian state of Uttarakhand. While the population of India was counting the cost of the disaster, the world’s media have been discussing the causes. In the heat of the moment, accusing fingers were pointed in all directions, and a game of blame was carried out by various politicians and interested parties in India. It was hard to make sense of the true caues of the disaster while emotions were running so high. Before I wrote the article below I decided to wait for better, more objective analysis to come to the fore. Nearly 1 month later the reasons for the flood disater are becoming clearer:

Monsoon Rain
Fundamentally, the cause was rain. Lots of rain. According to Wunderground, between 11th and 17th June, parts of Uttarakhand received more than 50cm of rain and rainfall was over 800% above the normal levels during those few days, although Wikipedia states that during that period, rainfall was 375 percent more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon.

But the region had seen plenty of heavy rainfall in previous years, particularly during the monsoon. The Guardian says:

“Uttarakhand has recorded single-day rainfall in excess of 400mm several times, including 450mm in 1995 and 900mm in 1965. Cloudbursts, floods and rapid swelling of fast-flowing rivers aren’t uncommon.”

If you look at the chart for rainfall in Uttarkashi, 2011 was a particularly bad year. 77 people died in floods in July 2011 in Uttarakhand. But an estimated 1,000 or more died in Uttarakhand floods in 2013. So even if heavy rain was the main factor in the 2013 floods, why was there such a huge difference in scale between 2013 and 2011?

Early Monsoon Meets Ice and Snow
One explanation is that the heavy monsoon rains came earlier than usual. The rains came at least 2 weeks earlier than normal and were especially heavy, which caught people – authorities, tourists, forecasters – by surprise.

Not only that but they were so early there was still snow and ice on the ground in parts of Uttarakhand. In the mountain regions during June the river levels are already high with snow melt. There is also still a good deal of ice and snow on the ground, and once the heavy rainfall had hit, this ice and snow would melt quicker, bringing more flood waters to already high rivers.

So, heavy, early monsoon rains, mixing with snow and ice to bring more potential flood waters means a disaster was already in the making. But there was a further factor that led to the Uttarakhand floods being such a catastrophe; landlisdes.

One such landslide, in the Kedar valley, has led to a theory been suggested by landslide expert Dave Petley, Professor at the Department of Geography at Durham University that gives some indication of the role landslides might have played in making the flooding so much worse.

Professor Petley suggests that a massive landslide occurred upstream in the north-east region of the Kedar valley. Heavy rainfall occurred at the same time, and as explained above, this would melt the ice and snow to bring more flood waters.

The debris of the landslide caused a blockade which caught much of the rainfall and formed a small lake – estimated to be about 1 hectare in size and containing 10 million litres of rain – located in the north-west of the valley. Once the pressure from the water in the makeshift lake broke through the blockade made by the landslide, the debris and water from the lake travelled down the slope, channelled into the glacier, and came down to Kedarnath town causing the carnage we all saw during June 2013.

Landslides appear to be a constant threat in Uttarakhand these days. Even as the flood waters recede and the stranded are taken home, landslides threaten many of those villagers in the remote mountainous regions. For example the villagers of Dhasra and other similar remote areas in the Himalayan foothill fear further landslides. A report from NDTV says:

Last year’s rainfall (2012) loosened rock and soil just above the village. After this year’s heavy downpour, villagers feel there is a landslide waiting to happen. So every night, they trek two kilometres to higher ground.

For the past two years, the villagers said they have noticed the fissures getting bigger on the land above their village. Various appeals to the government to relocate the village have been ignored so far.

So why is Uttarkhand more threatened by landslides than before? Simply put: deforestation. Deforestation, plus the heavy monsoon rainfall of the last few years has resulted in a landscape permanently at risk of landslides. Deforestation is a result of massive development in the last few years in Uttarakhand, including development in construction projects to cater for tourist demands, mining and hydro electric projects.

Huge areas of forest have been cleared for mining, adding to the problems. Statistics from India’s forest department show that between 2000 and 2010, almost 4,000 hectares of forest land was diverted for mining projects and a further 15,072 hectares of forest for roads, irrigation, power transmission and hydro power projects.

Deforestation in Uttarakhand
Image courtesy of Down to Earth

So early, heavy rainfall that combined with melting ice and snow, raced unhindered by forest or natural obstacles, down the mountain and hill sides of Uttarakhand that had, over recent years, been made unstable by deforestation.

Over Development
Mining, including river bed mining, road building, tunnelling and hydro-power projects have also been accused of destroying the eco-balance in Uttarakhand.

Mining companies – in particular river bed mining, where stones and sand are mined for construction – have not adhered to laws and guidelines and their actions have damaged riverbanks, increasing the width of riverbeds and even changing the course of rivers.

Uttarakhand’s hydro power projects have also caused destruction of parts of the environment. There are 45 hydro power projects with a total capacity of 3,164 MW in operation in Uttarakhand. Many more projects are being built or have been proposed. Various projects have involved the re-routing of rivers through tunnels cut through the mountain, leaving long stretches of rivers dry and without allowing the rivers time and space to regenerate.

Dam construction involves blasting, excavation, debris dumping, movement of heavy machinery, diversion of forests and rivers. Although there is an argument that dams helped protect some areas from some of the flooding, the fact remains that away from the dams, parts of Uttarakhand’s rivers were already blocked with silt and debris from construction and mining. The normal routes of the flood waters were blocked as a result of development projects.

Tourism certainly played a role in the disaster – there were simply too many people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The numbers of visitors killed or stranded turned the Uttarakhand floods into a catastrophe on a massive scale.

But large scale tourism also places untold pressure on infrastructure, and also has resulted in unfettered development of roads, houses, hotels and shops built up in flood plains and ecologically fragile areas.

Some also argue that such large scale tourism has resulted in huge amounts of waste (chiefly plastic water bottles) clogging up rivers and green open spaces.

Uttarakhand is often called “Land of the Gods” and has some of India’s holiest Hindi shrines. Tourism to the area, mostly in the form of pilgrimages to the many holy sites in the state, has risen dramatically over the last few years. In the last 10 years tourism has grown by over 150%. The visits aren’t evenly spread over the course of the year – nearly all the tourist visits are between spring and autumn. In 2012, for example, 28.4 million tourists visited Uttarakhand between May and November. This more than doubles the population of Uttarakhand which normally has a population of around 14 million.

Such a huge and rapid growth in tourism has led to an increase in tourist accommodation and the building of hotels in particular. Many of these hotels have been illegally built, without the necessary permissions and permits from the planning authorities. And a considerable amount of these illegal hotels have been built along the riversides of the various rivers in the state, including the Ganges, Song, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and the Mandakini. There is state legislation that no building should be built within 200 metres of any river bank. One look at the footage from the recent floods will tell you that this legislation has been totally ignored. After the floods, chief minister Vijay Bahuguna again called for a blanket ban on the construction of residential and commercial complexes on low-lying areas along rivers.

So we have huge amounts of flood waters raging down hill sides packed with over 100,000 tourists because the normal routes for flood waters had been blocked by landslides and man-made debris and the flood plains had been blocked by new construction.

No Disaster Management Plan
What made matters worse for Uttarakhand was the lack of disaster management in the early stages of the floods. This isn’t to take anything away from the rescue teams that eventually evacuated 100,000. Rather to say that warnings and an evacuation plan would have made their jobs a lot easier.

There were warnings of heavy rain. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) had warned of heavy rainfall on June 13th, and upgraded the warning to “extremely heavy rainfall” on June 16th. But it seems that warnings of any imminent disaster beyond rain were not forthcoming.

From Wikipedia:

Warnings by the India Meteorological Department predicting heavy rains were not given wide publicity beforehand, causing thousands of people to be caught unawares, resulting in huge loss of life and property.

Uttarakhand is among five states in India to have a Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC) and a State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA). One of the jobs of the DMMC is to relay information about potential crises throughout the state. However, little (if any) action was taken by the DMMC until 18th June, 2 days after the initial rainfall, by which time all the damage had been done and 100,000 were stranded.

The DMCC and SDMA were set up in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Their aim was to develop thorough crisis management plan that could be carried out in the event of a disaster such as the floods. No such plan was in place in Uttarakhand. In the aftermath of the disaster, it is clear that there was no early warning system in place. Nor were there any effective evacuation plans. But despite Uttarakhand suffering from floods on a regular basis, this lack of planning wasn’t brought to the attention in until the recent floods.

Climate change
It’s impossible to look at the events in Uttarakhand without considering that the Uttarakhand floods were part of the wider picture of climate change.

Bhupendra Nath Goswami, Director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, warns:

“The frequency of extreme rain events is increasing over the Indian continent,”

The New Scientist says:

According to Goswami, a strong updraft was produced in recent weeks as warm moist air from the south encountered cold air from the north. “In such a case, all the moisture precipitates in a short time leading to an extreme rain event.” It’s not clear whether this particular event is linked to climate change, but similar events are likely to happen more frequently. “We must prepare ourselves,” says Goswami.

Wrath of the Gods?
In order to include the full range of theories about the Uttarakhand floods, I should mention the belief of some locals in the region that the floods were the wrath of the Gods. Locals believe that moving Dhari Devi idol from Alaknanda was responsible for the floods. The Dhari Devi idol had stood in the middle of the Alaknanda river for 800 years. It is believed by some that the idol controls the flow of the river.

IBN Live reported:

On June 16, in violation of a High Court order and amidst much protest, Dhari Devi was placed in this new structure on higher ground, as water from the Alaknanda Dam upstream was about to submerge it.

Dhari Devi at Shrinagar
Idol of the Goddess Dhari: according to local lore, changes in appearance during the day from a girl, to a woman, and then to an old lady. CC BY-SA 3.0

Other sources: Down to Earth

Photos of the floods in Uttarakhand

Images of the Uttarakhand floods above are from the FloodList Pinterest pages which can be found here.