Uttarakhand Deluge: How human actions and neglect converted a natural phenomenon into a massive disaster

Floods in Uttarakhand Courtesy: Times of India

Analysing a natural disaster is a complex task. Many a times, a natural disaster and its human impacts are a result of multiple things occurring together. At the same time, disasters like the one being faced by Uttarakhand currently highlight the stark anthropogenic reasons which contribute towards causing the disaster as well as increasing its impacts manyfold.

SANDRP has been trying to analyse the situation, and looking at number of causes which precipitated in the current tragedy. These include the absence of early warning system, absence of responsible and active disaster management of monitoring system. While the calamity is natural in the sense that the region did receive extreme heavy rainfall and cloud burst, the root causes which increased the human tragedy include unchecked and unplanned infrastructure development along the rivers and development of  hundreds of hydel projects in the fragile zone without proper checks and balances, transparent studies and decision-making processes.

A brief update on SANDRPs work on this issue as well a compilation of the numerous ways in which hydel projects in Uttarakhand are flouting norms of sustainability, transparency, participation or safety and what has been the response to this from the highest quarters: Prime Minister, Minster and Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the state administration.

The first thing that strikes you when you analyse this disaster is that there was no specific and timely warning of impending disaster from the IMD or any other body (their claim to the contrary not withstanding). In fact we do not have a system in place to forecast cloud burst events, when technology is available to achieve that at approximate cost of Rs 15 crores, as informed to me by formed Director General of IMD, Dr S K Srivastava.

Secondly, even after the event of rainfall started and occurred, till date, six days after the event started on 15th, there is no account of how much rainfall occurred at what specific locations, and what was done to alert the populations that were at risk. This is again a failure of IMD and local administration. In fact it transpired that Kedarnath, one of the most affected area, has no raingauge, says Indian Express.

This shows how agencies like IMD, CWC, NDMA and SDMA have failed to put in place basic systems of warning, forecasting, monitoring and information dissemination that can greatly reduce disaster potential of any area.

In April 2013, a CAG report said that Uttarakhand state disaster management authority, which was formed in Oct 2007, has never met till date. Nor has it mandatory “rules, regulations, polices or guidelines”, first step for the authority to have functional existence. (for elaborate excellent information on this CAG report, see: http://www.indiatogether.org/2013/jun/gov-disaster.htm, for CAG report, see: http://saiindia.gov.in/english/home/Our_Products/Audit_Report/Government_Wise/union_audit/recent_reports/union_performance/2013/Civil/Report_5/Report_5.html)

See: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Uttarakhand-disaster-plan-doesnt-exist-CAG-warned-in-April/articleshow/20690268.cms

RAINFALL EVENTS OF JUNE 15-18 IN UTTARAKHAND

From all accounts it is clear that areas around all four Pilgrimage centres (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath) and the fifth one of Hemkunt Sahib have faced some serious floods this season. In addition, areas of Pithoragarh (Goriganga basin) and Himachal Pradesh (Kinnaur district, mainly Kashang area, a tributary of Sutlej) basin also faced floods during the same period. The rainfall event that lead to these floods started on June 15 and went on till June 16-17.  It seems strange to see such vast area facing simultaneous high intensity rainfall. IMD officials tried to explain this (http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Westerlies-collided-with-monsoon-to-rain-death/Article1-1081810.aspx) as collision of western disturbance with the upcoming monsoon clouds. It is also true, as Anupam Mishra ji explained to me that the catchments of all these basins in their uppermost ranges are not too far from each other. Incidentally, Tibetan area is also not very far from these region, it would be interesting to know if that area also faced cloud burst events in this period.

In an interview with Rediff Editor Sheela Bhatt, NDMA Vice Chair M Shashidhar Reddy accepted that there are no rain-gauges at Kedarnath and Badri nath and hence we may never know how much rainfall feel at those sites and we will never have full scientific explanation of what happened on June 16-17.

The best we have is weekly district wise rainfall in Uttarakhand districts for the week June 13-19, from India Meteorological Department:

DISTRICTWISE RAINFALL DISTRIBUTION

13.06.2013 TO 19.06.2013

DISTRICT (NAME) 

ACTUAL (mm)

NORMAL (mm)

    % DEP

CAT.

ALMORA

208.7

26.3

694%

E

BAGESHWAR

391.2

26.3

1387%

E

CHAMOLI

316.9

22.6

1302%

E

CHAMPAWAT

351.0

33.5

948%

E

DEHRADUN

565.4

36.8

1436%

E

GARHWAL PAURI

149.7

15.8

847%

E

GARHWAL TEHRI

327.7

22.0

1390%

E

HARDWAR

298.8

21.6

1283%

E

NAINITAL

506.5

38.8

1205%

E

PITHORAGARH

246.9

73.0

238%

E

RUDRAPRAYAG

366.3

53.9

580%

E

UDHAM SINGH NAGAR

157.7

40.2

292%

E

UTTARKASHI

375.6

25.8

1356%

E

Events of June 16-17 at Kedar Nath Based on Media information, it seems Kedarnath shrine saw two massive flood events, one starting around 8.15 pm on June 16 and second at 6.55 am on June 17. The flood witnessed at the shrine (located at 3584 m above msl) originated from catchment that includes two mountain peaks: Kedarnath and Kedarnath Dome (6831 m elevation). Following torrential rains possibly triggered by cloude burst, huge boulders broke away from Kedar Dome and ruptured the downstream charbari lake reservoir, about 6 km upstream from the temple along the Mandakini river. This description seems to suggest that this was also an event of GLOF (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood), though no one seems to have used that term so far.

Another instance of GLOF in this Uttarakhand flood disaster could have happened at Hemkunt Sahib pilgrim centre (elevation 4632 m), where report suggest, the level of water in the lake surrounding the shrine suddenly “increased as glacier from the uphill came down.” http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/no-damage-to-hemkunt-sahib-gurdwara-trust-113062200532_1.html

However, from all accounts, the massive rainfall and cloud burst events were happening at multiple places, including in Bhagirathi basin, Assiganga basin, Mandakini Basin, Badrinath region, other places in Alaknanda region, among others. The high rainfall started sometime on June 15 and went on till at least June 18. When I talked with Prof Bharat Jhunjhunwala staying at Devprayag along the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, he said that the peak of the floods happened on the morning of June 17 (The Hindu reported this happened at 3 am on 17th), though massive flood event there in Alaknanda started the previous evening. He also mentioned that the massive amount of muck deposited on the Alaknanda riverbed by the under construction 330 MW GVK Srinagar Alaknanda Hydropower Prooject (the project has had no credible environmental impact assessment) accentuated the flood disaster in the downstream area. The Hindu reported (http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/no-warning-of-dam-water-release/article4844604.ece) that sudden release of water from the dam along with the illegally dumped muck in the river bed lead to disaster in downstream Srinagar town.

A Sphere India report said that in Rudraprayag (this is likely to be one of the Mandakini hydropower projects, either Phata Byuang or Singoli Bhatwari), “The local are saying the muck of the dam was deposited along the river which has diverted the course of water.” (http://www.sphereindia.org.in/Download/Sitrep-3%20Flood%20Incident%20in%20Uttarakhand.pdf)

It is interesting to note that if these accounts are correct, the peak of flood event at Devprayag and Kedarnath (separated by about 150 km) happened on the morning of June 17, which possibly indicates that there were multiple could burst or very high intensity rainfall events in Alaknanda valley alone.

However, I had already received a detailed report from Uttarkashi Apda Prabanthan Jan Manch with photos of unfolding disaster on the evening of June 16, 2013, so the high rainfall event and beginning of flood  disaster at Uttarkashi began much earlier. The news channels were already showing live footage of the event unfolding in downstream Rishikesh and Haridwar on June 17, again indicating that the flood event in the upstream mountains must have started at least two days earlier.

Unfortunately we still do not have an accurate account of this whole episode from any of the official agency. When Vice Chairman of National Disaster Management Authority M Shashidhar Reddy was asked about this by me on NDTV INDIA badi khabar programme on June 21 evening (see: http://khabar.ndtv.com/video/show/badi-khabar/280131), he accepted we still do not have that account six days after the event. This shows the poor monitoring situation from all concerned.

UTTARAKHAND AND GLOFS The mention of GLOFs in the context of current Uttarakhand floods above should trigger other thoughts. In fact not many observers are mentioning GLOFs in current context. However, Climate scientists including ICIMOD has been mentioning increasing risks of GLOFs all across Himalayas.

This blog (http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2013/06/27/new-high-resolution-images-of-kedarnath-the-cause-of-the-debris-flow-disaster-is-now-clear/) provides satellite images from Indian Space Research Organisation to explain the occurrence of GLOF in the current disaster at disaster and its consequences in the downstream Rambara area. Its Author Dave Petley, dean of research and global engagement, Wilson Professor of Hazard and Risk at DurhamUniversity in the United Kingdom, tries to explain the events around Kedarnath in an interview to Rediff editor Sheela Bhatt: http://www.rediff.com/news/interview/india-should-prepare-for-a-large-earthquake-in-uttarakhand/20130702.htm?sc_cid=emailshare&invitekey=ae3f4cec4fbfe5ba6bb3ee0fa5698550&err_accptd=1

Similar images are also available on Down to Earth article (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/floods-uttarakhand-explained) and NRSC website (http://www.nrsc.gov.in/).

Anupam Mishra ji in fact mentioned in NDTV INDIA discussion (http://khabar.ndtv.com/video/show/hum-log/280415) mentioned is 1977 article (see in Hindi: http://mansampark.in/2013/06/22/uk/) where he describes the 1970 floods and also the 1893 glacial dam burst, flood due to bursting of which was monitored and local people alerted by the then British government in collaboration with local people.

Chorbari Glacier The Chorabari glacier that played a role in current floods in Kedarnath lies between latitudes 30°44′50″N and 30°45′30″N, and longitudes 79°1′16″E and 79°5′20″E, from an altitude of approximately 6,000 m (20,000 ft) at the slopes of Kedarnath peak, to 3,800 m (12,500 ft). The glacier is around 7 km in length, while the basin area of the glacier is approximately 38 sq km and the glacier ice cover is 5.9 sq km. The glacier slope is around 11 degrees and faces south. The glacier has two snouts. It is hypothesized by R. K. Chaujar that an original single glacier covered the area, which while receding, split into two snouts. One of the snouts is the source of the Mandakini River at 3,865 m (12,680 ft). The other snout, at 3,835 m (12,582 ft), drains into the Chorabari Tal. (http://chimalaya.org/2013/06/19/disaster-in-uttarakhand-india-huge-death-toll/)

DAMAGED HYDRO PROJECTS A large number of hydropower projects are likely to have suffered damage due to the flood disaster in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Some of the projects that have suffered damage include:

  • According to the update from energylineindia.com on June 27, 2013, the 520 MW under construction Tapovan Vishnugad HEP has suffered damaged by rains on June 16, 2013: “While construction of diversion tunnel was completed in April this year, the same was washed away due to heavy rains on June 16. Diversion dyke has washed away and damages have been observed in chormi adit approach road. In August last year, the flash floods had caused serious damages in the coffer dam of the project.”
  • 400 MW Vishnuprayag HEP of JP Associates has suffered serious, but as yet unassessed damage (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/jaiprakash-power-tanks-15–as-plant-shuts-down-in-uttarakhand/1133083/). As per MATU PR (http://matuganga.blogspot.in/), the project has also been cause of damage in Lambagad village, which was also flahsed on front page of TOI on June 25, 2013, though without mentioning the project.
  • 76 MW Phata Byung HEP of Lanco in Mandakini Valley in Uttarakhand
  • 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari HEP of L&T in Mandakini Valley in Uttarakhand NDTV India reported that the water level of the river has gone up due to the silt dumped by dams. This is likely to be due to the Phata Byung and Singholi Bhatwari HEPs.
  • Kali Ganga I, Kali Ganga II and Madhyamaheshwar HEP, all in Mandakini Valley, all of UJVNL, all hit by mudslides (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/uttarakhands-r500-crore-request-to-prevent-landslides-pending-since-2009/1132351/)
  • Assiganga I-IV projects on Assiganga river in Bhagirathi basin in Uttarakhand
  • Small HEP in Goriganga basin in Pithoragarh (name not known)
  • 65 MW Kashang HEP in Sutlej basin in Himachal Pradesh
  • 280 Dhauliganga Project of NHPC in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand (reports said the power house was submerged, but is now working, part of the township was submerged.)

It has been now reported in Business Standard (http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/gvk-l-t-hydel-projects-hit-by-floods-113062300394_1.html) that the 330 MW Srinagar project, a cause for downstream destruction, has itself suffered massive damages on June 17, 2013, with breach of its protective embankment. The report also mentions the damage to the L&T’s Singoli Bhatwari HEP on Mandakini river.

Down to Earth (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/hydropower-projects-suffer-severe-damage) has given some details of damage to some of the hydropower projects, quoting UJVNL sources. It says: 19 small hydropower projects have been completely destroyed, while others have been damaged by the raging waters (see BOX)

Estimated losses from damage to hydropower projects on the Ganga
Project Location Capacity Estimated Loss
Dhauli Ganga Pithoragarh  280 MW Rs 30 crore (project completely submerged)
Kaliganga I Rudraprayag 4 MW Rs 18-19 crore (power house and 4 houses washed away)
Kaliganga II Rudraprayag 6 MW Rs 16 crore (power house and 4 houses washed away)
Sobla Pithoragarh 8 MW Rs 14 crore (completely washed away)
Kanchauti Pithoragarh 2 MW Rs 12 crore (totally washed away)
Chirkila Pithoragarh 1.5 MW Rs 20 crore (part of the project washed away)
Maneri Bhali I&II Uttarkashi 304+90 MW Rs 2 crore + Rs 5 crore (walls collapsed, silt in barrages)

In addition, a large  number of projects had to stop generation temporarily due to high silt content, including Maneri Bhali I and II, Tehri, Tanakpur, Nathpa Jakhri, Karcham Wangtoo, among others.

NO LESSONS LEARNT FROM PAST DISASTERS In fact in August 2012, Uttarkashi district saw similar tragedy that left 29 dead, many more missing and collapse of houses like card board boxes. The Uttarakhand State Diaster Mitigation and Management Centre report of this disaster in Oct 2012 concluded, “It is therefore highly important to strictly regulate developmental initiatives in close vicinity of streams and rivers. Appropriate legislative interventions would be required for formulating a policy in this regard and firm executive action in accordance with letter and spirit of this policy would be required to ensure compliance of the same.”

NOTHING WAS DONE ABOUT THIS RECOMMENDATION.

Similarly in Sept 2012, Okhimath in Rudraprayag  district (one of the epicentres of current tragedy) saw monsoon induced landslides killing 69 people among other damages. That state DMMC report of this tragedy in Oct 2012 made made recommendations to reduce the risks of landslides in landslide prone state, one of them read, “Use of explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructure developmental works introduces instability in the rocks and therefore use of explosives should necessarily be banned.” And “This provision would automatically ban habitation in the close proximity of seasonal streams and rivers. In case people are already residing in such areas provision has to be made for their timely relocation.”

AGAIN NOTHING WAS DONE ABOUT THESE RECOMMENDATIONS.

In fact Rudraprayag has faced monsoon related major disasters SEVEN times in last 34 years, including in 1979, 1986, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2012, each involving death and destruction.

If implemented, these recommendations could have saved many lives. Each of the hydropower project in the state involves MASSIVE blasting of MASSIVE scale, but there is no regulation in place about this even after clear warning from state DMMC.

Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change That the vulnerability of already disaster prone Uttarakhand to such events is increasing is well known.  Secretary of Government of India Ministry of Earth Sciences Shailesh Nayak has now said that  the cloudburst that triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand read like a weather phenomenon brought about by warming. He also narrated how the high intensity rainfall is increasing while low and medium intensity events are decreasing. (See: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Earth-sciences-secretary-blames-Uttarakhand-rains-on-climate-change/articleshow/20709643.cms)

In this context, all developmental activities in such areas will need to factor in this increased vulnerability and how any intervention is going to affect the disaster vulnerability of the region. We have been writing to the Union Environment Ministry and its expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects that the Environmental Impact Assessments of the hydropower and other projects need to include an assessment as to how the projects would affect the adaptation capacity of the local people in changing climate and how climate change would affect performance of such projects. There has been no change in the working of the ministry on this so far, but we hope this disaster will provide a wake up call to change that urgently.

Recommendation of National Himalayan Mission ignored National Mission of Sustainable Himalayas, one of the nine missions under National Action Plan on Climate Change, had made a recommendation for protection of areas around the four pilgrimage sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath by creation of spiritual and ecological buffer zones around pilgrim places in the ecologically-sensitive region. The mission noted that construction of roads should be prohibited beyond at least 10 kms from protected pilgrim sites, which could have reduced the number of casualties. These areas, like national parks and sanctuaries, were to be maintained as special areas, where there would be minimal human interference. These measures could have lessened the extent of damage in these area suffered during current floods. However, the recommendations have been completely ignored and rampant construction were carried out at char dham, as tourist inflow boomed over the years. From 2.15 lakh in 2000, the number of Kedarnath pilgrims increased to 5.75 lakh last year. (http://newindianexpress.com/nation/National-Mission-moots-eco-zones-for-Himalayas/2013/06/26/article1653463.ece)

Geological fault lines ignored Prof KS Valdiya, an honorary professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, said the heavy loss of life and property in the deluge was a result of “criminal oversight” over the decades of the state’s geological features and water channels by various authorities. These features are well-mapped and documented. But engineers and builders choose to overlook them, said Valdiya. The geologist identified four major ways in which constructions flouted scientific norms. First, he said, the seismic fault-lines of this earthquake-prone state were not kept in mind while building roads (and other infrastructure). “These tectonic fault-lines, which are active and see back-and-forth movements, have been cut in many places by roads. More dangerously, roads are built along the fault-lines at many places. As a result, tiny seismic movements in the fault-lines weaken the rocks at the base of the roads, making these stretches susceptible to cave-ins and slides,” Valdiya said.

The second area of rampant neglect, he pointed out, was drainage. “I have never seen road engineers provisioning for draining out all rainwater that can possibly enter the stretch. Where one to two metre bridges are required, they build small culverts. At places where drains have been provided for, these are usually filled with debris.” Buildings have been constructed over old drains and streams, blocking the natural pathways of rainwater, he said. “One of the reasons for the devastation at Kedarnath was that people had constructed houses on the west stream of the Mandakini river that had been dry for decades. When the river returned to its old course following the deluge, these constructions were washed away,” he added.

Valdiya said another type of transgression, similar to the previous one, was construction taking place on river flood ways. A flood way is the area covered by the river at the time of its biggest flooding in the past 100 years. “In places along Alakananda/ Ganga such as Karnaprayag and Rishikesh, constructions have taken place on the lower terraces which are part of the flood way. Sooner or later, water would get to these places,” the expert said.

Lastly, Valdiya said roads have been built over the debris of previous landslides because it’s costlier to build paths higher up on the hills where the rock is firmer. “Sadly, the department geologists are often no more than rubber stamps, okaying everything the engineers say. Independent geologists are never consulted,” he said. “Scientific engineering has very low priority in the state,” he lamented. Unfortunately, the state pays with human lives and huge property losses because authorities do not pay attention to basic scientific principles. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Geologist-explains-why-Uttarakhand-tragedy-was-man-made/articleshow/20780742.cms)

SANDRP’s On-ongoing analysis of the Hydel Power Development in Uttarakhand

Flash Flood of Hydel Projects in Uttarakhand: Uttarakhand is witnessing unprecedented development of Hydel Projects along its rivers: mainly Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and their tributaries as well as Ganga, Gori Ganga, Kali Ganga etc. Though exact estimates are not available, activists like Ravi Chopra have said that there are close to 680 dams in various stages of commissioning, construction, planning in the hill state.

http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/news/680-dams-river-ganga-tributaries

Some maps on the Uttarakhand river basins that contain location and details of the hydropower projects (as in 2011, the maps do not have all the projects, but only those for which we could find details when they were made):

http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Bhagirathi%20150411.jpg

http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Alaknanda%20150411.jpg

http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Mandakini150411.jpg

http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Goriganga150411.jpg

http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Major_Hydro_Projects_in_Yamuna_Basin.pdf

Throughout their lifecycle, from construction, deforestation, blasting, mining, obtaining materials from river bed for construction, muck disposal, debris dumping, damming, altering hydrological cycle to allied activities like colonies, roads, infrastructure deevlopment, Hydel power plants have a profound impact on geology and hydrology of the region.

Untitled
Dams in various stages in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins in Upper Ganga, also affecting prtected areas. Map by SANDRP

In response to this unprecedented development ( most of these are private hydel projects), Central Empowered Committee (appointed by the Supreme Court) referred the Kotlibhel IA, 1B &  II projects back to the Forest Advisory Committee for reconsideration of Forest clearances issued under the Forest Conservation Act (1980). A sub-committee of FAC after visiting the area, recommended that a “thorough study of the carrying capacity of Ganga tributaries has to be undertaken.” MoEF hired The Alternate Hydro Energy Center of IIT Roorkee (AHEC IITR), without undertaking any bidding process.

MOEF commissioned two studies: Assessment of Cumulative Impact of Hydropower Projects in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins which was given to AHEC, IITR &Assessment of Cumulative Impacts of Hydroelectric Projects on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins, Uttarakhand, which was given to Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

The supposed ‘Cumulative Impact Assessment Report’ conducted by IIT Roorkee is so pro dam, biased and unscientific that even the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF (not known for any high standards) found plenty of faults in it.

SANDRPs analysis of the IIT R Report: http://www.sandrp.in/hydropower/Pathetic_Cumulative_Impact_Assessment_of_Ganga_Hydro_projects.pdf

At that time too, organisations like SANDRP, Himal Prakriti and others had raised the issue that this study is not looking at cumulative impacts due to muck disposal, bad management practises, seismicity, etc.

Parallelly Wildlife Institute of India submitted its report in 2012 which clearly suggested that 24 projects from the 70 projects in Upper Ganga should be shelved due to their high impact on ecology. The report said that these projects are, together, affecting nearly 10,000 hectares of land in this small state, with more than 3,600 hectares of forests going under submergence. There were some limitations to this report too, but it was a huge improvement on the IIT R Report.

SANDRPs analysis of the WII Report:

http://www.infochangeindia.org/water-resources/features/endangered-rivers-and-biodiversity.html

It may be added here that the World Bank and Asian Development Banks are guilty of funding hydropower projects in Uttarakhand without adequate impact assessment in place.

Interministerial Group’s Report on Upper Ganga Projects: Continuing its modus operandi of appointing  a committee when one committee’s decisions are unpalatable, MoEF appointed the Interministerial Group on Upper Ganga Projects, to study reports of IIT R and WII under the chairpersonship of B. K. Chaturvedi. The Committee was overshadowed with bureaucrats with three non governmental members: Rajendra Singh, Dr.  Veerbhadra Mishra (who passed away) and Sunita Narain.

The report is largely biased towards hydro projects in Uttarakhand and does not say a word about WIIs recommendation of dropping 24 projects, without giving any explanations. The IMG report does not go at all into the issues of environmental destruction that such projects would cause and how they will increase the disaster vulnerability of the region, already prone to multiple disasters. IMG report did not even mention that the state is vulnerable to disaster in so many ways and how the projects would influence that.

IMG report also did not mention the increased vulnerability of the region to climate change and how the projects would affect the adaptation capacity and increase the disaster potential. CSE Director General Sunita Narian, member of the IMG, filed what she called “An alternate view” but closer scrutiny reveals that it is not much of an alternate view. It says adoption of three principles would make hydropower development in Ganga basin sound, but does not bother to apply two of the principles to the projects under review. She also does not mention the numerous environmental destruction this projects would cause, how it will impact the disaster potential, nor the increased vulnerability of the region to climate change. She is the member of the Prime Minister’s advisory committee on climate change and in that context, this is most glaring. She was also a member of the High Level Working Group Chaired by Dr Kasturirangan on Western Ghats and she signed on a report that certified all hydro projects as green and renewable. Something that most other countries wont do.

THE IMG REPORT IS NOT EVEN IN PUBLIC DOMAIN, NOR HAS ANY OF THE MEMBERS OF THE IMG DEMANDED THAT IT BE PLACED IN PUBLIC DOMAIN.

SANDRPs critique of the IMG Report: http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/upper-ganga-report-with-pro-hydro-bias-does-not-do-justice-to-its-terms-or-to-ganga-people-or-environment/

Is MoEF truly assessing Hydel Projects in the Upper Ganga?

Despite all these reports, several represenattions from affected population, PILs in National Green Tribunal, submissions from various organisations, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF did not deny granting Environmental Clearance to ANY projects in the Upper Ganga. This was depsite the fact that for projects like 300 MW Alaknanda HEP by GMR, the Forest Advisory Committee had actually rejected Forest Clearance TWICE and WII had also written strongly against the project. Not only did the project get Environmental Clearance, the EAC (Expert Appraisal Committee) haggled with the private proponent (GMR) about eflows release in the river. It did not keep to its mandate or the powers it has been given to deny EC in case the impacts of the projects are severe. SANDRP and partner organisations had also raised this point with the EAC, to no avail.

More on this issue: http://sandrp.in/drp/DRP_Jan_Feb_2012.pdf

When it comes to granting TORs and Environmental Clearance to Hydropower and Irrigation Projects, EACs track record is so exceedingly poor that since its conception six years ago, it has not rejected a SINGLE project for Environmental Clearance. From an Expert Appraisal Committee, its seems to be an Expert APPROVAL Committee.

Report on EACs performance: http://sandrp.in/env_governance/TOR_and_EC_Clearance_status_all_India_Overview_Feb2013.pdf

Consistent advocacy about impacts of dams on hydrology, communities: Numerous organisations, notably the Matu Jan Sangathan, Ganga Avhan, individuals like Bharat Jhunjhunwala, and even CAG has been raising questions about the impact of unbridled hydel power development in Uttarakhand. Their concerns have gone largely unaddressed till now. In 2009, CAG performed an audit of Hydel Projects in Uttarakhand and concluded that:

  • “Audit scrutiny of project records revealed that no specific measures had been planned/ designed in any project to cope with the risk of flash floods The adverse consequences of such floods are acute as they can not only damage the project structures but can cause loss of live in low-lying down stream areas. Civil construction in projects is required to factor in this natural threat. Also the bigger the project, the greater should be the efficacy of the preventive measures.”
  • “Given the current policy of the State Government of pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately, the potential cumulative effect of multiple run-of-river power projects can turn out to be environmentally damaging.[Paragraph 5.3.2]“
  • “Negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water. The projects seemed oblivious of the gross negligence of environmental concerns”
  • “The plantation activity was highly deficient, as 38 per cent of projects reported hardly any plantation; posing severe hazards both for natural ecology and stabilization of hill slopes”
  • “Audit analysis revealed that, negligence in applying appropriate construction norms and structuring the project without appropriate technical counter measures may expose projects to enhanced seismic vulnerability”

“In conclusion, the above also shows inadequate construction practices being followed by project developers who failed to cater for such eventualities which are common place in the region. Additionally, it also highlights the ineffective monitoring by the GoU and the nodal agency as a result of which the slapdash approach of the project authorities towards project execution has gone on unchecked” http://www.cag.gov.in/html/cag_reports/uttranchal/rep_2009/pa_cont.htm

CAG report on Uttarakhand Hydro power projects in 2011 again repeats many of these warnings, but none of them were heeded.

Some recent comments:

Himanshu Thakkar on Karan Thapar’s Last Word: http://ibnlive.in.com/shows/The-Last-Word.html

Himanshu_KaranThapar

Himanshu Thakkar on The Last Word

“In a state like Uttarakhand, which is prone to disasters like cloud bursts, flash floods, land slides, the indiscriminate building of hundreds of hydropower projects in this state, each project entailing dam, tunnels that need to be blasted through, the roads, townships and deforestation, the disaster and damage potential goes up multi fold, particularly when there are no credible environment of social impact assessments at project or basin leve, nor any carrying capacity study, nor any credible compliance mechanisms. Even the wrong operation of projects can add to the disaster potential.” http://ibnlive.in.com/news/uttarakhand-needs-proper-weather-forecast-mechanism-himanshu-thakkar/400084-3-243.html

“The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) says too many hydropower projects, underground tunnels, roads, encroachments of riverbeds by buildings coupled with deforestation could have worsened the impact of the flash floods.

“We do not have credible environmental-impact assessment of infrastructure projects on these highly ecologically sensitive areas,” says Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP. “Neither is there any credible mechanism to assure compliance with environmental regulations. These are places where there is a heavy tourist influx. The collapse of buildings like a set of playing cards shows these were encroachments on the riverbed and floodplains.”

Thakkar says there have been seven similar flood-related disasters in Rudraprayag in the last 34 years. “The administration should have learnt,” he says. “This is not the first time such a disaster has hit us. Both Uttarkashi and the Chamoli-Rudraprayag-Kedarnath area faced monsoon disasters last year, killing several people. There are a few hundred hydropower projects, for instance, in the various tributaries of the Ganga here. These may all be legal projects approved by the environment and forests ministry but have a serious bearing on the flow of the river.”http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Unchecked-infrastructure-projects-made-it-worse-in-Uttarakhand/articleshow/20673047.cms

In conclusion:

Managing disasters after they occur is at a huge human, ecological and economic cost. Predicting and controlling disasters transparently and swiftly is a crucial factor.It is clear that numerous organisations, groups, individuals, even government institutions had raised the issue of impacts of cascade hydel dams on Upper Ganga on Hydrology, Ecology and Communities in this fragile region. Most of the suggestions have been ignored.

Even gazette notification of 135 kms of Bhagirathi as an Eco sensitive Zone came in pretty late from the MoEF and is being opposed by the Uttarakhand Government.

The responsibility of the current calamity does not rest alone with Uttarakhand Government or Disaster Management unit. It lies squarely also with the MoWR, Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Prime Minister, who is the chairperson of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Incidentally, the MoEF has been sitting on Draft River Regulation Zone Notification for more than 3 years now. The RRZ Notification could have helped in controlling infrastructure development like hotels and homes along the river.

At the cost of hundreds of lives, the current disaster is a bitter lesson for us. It is not a time to engage in a blame game of whether or not this is a man made disaster. The contributing reasons like Dams, tunnelling, blasting, mining are well known; History of projects on Assiganga and Dhauliganga is well know and so is the topographical, seismological, geological fargility of the region. It is now a time to act and actually implement recommendations given by so many committees and organisations since past many years.

Climate Change is no longer a distant, obscure event, it is in front of us now.

In keeping with all these factors, there is an urgent need to immediately stop the ongoing hydel projects in Uttarakhand, address pending issues raised by communities and groups, undertake transparent and true carrying capacity study of the region, scrap 24 projects mentioned by WII and more, considering geological impacts, monitor commissioned projects closely for compliance, decommission commissioned projects whihc flout environmental norms or have a severe downstream impact, manage 135 kms Ecosenstive zone on bhagirathi, have a similar one for Alaknanda and near all river origins in Uttarakhand.

When faced with a human toll that is feared to be close to a thousand, hydel power does not seem so bright or clean, green and sustainable like it is touted. It is not something for which India can risk the lives and well-being of its population or environment.

Himanshu Thakkar, Parineeta Dandekar

Useful Links:

1. For an account of Floods in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, see: http://www.himalprakriti.org/?q=content/brief-report-spate-along-gori-river-basin-north-eastern-kumaon-uttarakhand-15th-17th-june; images of the Goriganga floods: http://www.himalprakriti.org/?q=content/images-gori-spate-june-2013; Before and after images of 5 Motighat hydropower project: http://www.himalprakriti.org/?q=content/and-after-images-uttarakhand-floods-2013

2. For a photo feature on damage to Vishnuprayag HEP, see: http://matuganga.blogspot.in/

3. For an excellent account of how Uttarakhand is a model of disaster, see: http://tehelka.com/uttarakhand-a-model-of-disaster/

4. Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre: http://dmmc.uk.gov.in/

5. National Disaster Management Authority: http://ndma.gov.in/ndma/index.htm

6. National Institute of Disaster Management: http://nidm.gov.in/default.asp

7. India Meteorological Department: http://imd.gov.in/

8. Flood forecasting site of Central Water Commission: http://www.india-water.com/ffs/index.htm

9. Sphere India website, coordinating disaster management from non govt agencies: http://www.sphereindia.org.in/

10. People Science Institute: http://peoplesscienceinstitute.org/Appeal-UD…html

11. Action Aid: http://www.actionaid.org/india

17 Comments on “Uttarakhand Deluge: How human actions and neglect converted a natural phenomenon into a massive disaster

  1. I sincerely thank you for the detailed analysis on this. A very detailed analysis on how human callousness cost thousands of innocent lives. While development is important and inevitable, when will we learn to protect the sanctity of the mother nature our ecosystem and stop playing with it? I do not think Polavaram is going to be anything different. Here in this case it is the tribes of Odisha, AP and Bhadrachalam Ram Temple. Did you get a chance to look into the Polavaram dam AP case?

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    • Thanks, Srinivas, Yes, we have been looking at Polavaram Dam too. The project continues to remain mired in interstate disputes and court cases. It does not have valid clearances. Hopefully it wont start.

      Like this

  2. Pingback: Uttarakhand Deluge: How human actions and neglect converted a natural phenomenon into a massive disaster | Intercultural Resources

  3. This is a very serious chargesheet, so to say. Seven (and now eight) disasters haave struck beginning from 1998. Our governments have lost all moral rights to rule. They are working for big lobbies that care for nothing except their profit. You may well set up a people’s enquiry on the basis of this chargesheet as was done by Mahatma Gandhi after Jalianwalla Bagh massacre and earlier in Champaran.

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  4. thanks. very comprehensive. The havoc in the Uttrakhand hills was inevitable. Scientists, local people and environmentalists have been shouting on top of their voices for a Himalayan policy for development. But these voices were trampled in the cacophony of unscientific construction all around projected as development . And now the fragile construction of hills itself gave away in a rebuttal to the assault of many decades. Despite the rich medicinal and vegetation base, a model of cottage industry has eluded the rural India especially the hill as well as tribal economy for years. On top of that social safety nets, which should have more strengthened in these states, are more callous and failing. The road of development which is based on only the unscientific construction industry be it in the name of energy, roads or tourism leads to doom as shown by Uttrakhand floods. This is the time to take a pause and plan for the scientific and pro poo development in the hills.

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  12. GRT WORK….. I request all media pls read this articles & make program .

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  13. why assistance provided by the govt and remedial measures taken by the humanitarian agencies are not mentioned?

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    • Thanks, Alia,

      It is good idea to make a poster on this issue. I do not have immediate idea, but if you decide to do one, I can provide comments if required, pl send it to my email at: ht.sandrp@gmail.com

      Like this

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