Dam Disaster · Uttarakhand

Force Multipliers in Uttarakhand disaster

Given below if the text of the presentation made by SANDRP coordinator on Day 1 at the FICCI-NIDM (NIDM: National Institute of Disaster Management; FICCI: Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) 3-day training program on Feb 18-20, 2021 on “Resilient Infrastructure in Hilly Areas: Avalanche, GLOF & Debris Flow” in the context of the Chamoli Disaster of Feb 7, 2021.

Video of Day 1 of the training program:

Day 2:

Day 3:

Key factors in Uttarakhand disasters Several factors play a role in Uttarakhand disasters.

  • Inherent vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand
    • Climate Change
    • Inappropriate infrastructure developments: absence of informed or democratic decision making
    • Violations in implementation: No monitoring, compliance, consequences
    • Absence of Monitoring of the vulnerable areas
    • Lack of alert, active disaster management mechanism
    • Absence of capacity or mechanisms to learn from past disasters
    • No accountability
    • Role of Judiciary, Media, independent institutions

Inherent vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand

  • Young Himalayan Mountains, still growing
  • High seismic activity
  • Landslide prone
  • Avalanche prone
  • GLOF
  • Flash floods & regular floods
  • Para-glacier zones
  • Para glacier influence area
  • Combination of vulnerabilities

Climate Change

  • Himalayas are experiencing much higher increase in temperatures compared to the global averages. This warming is increasing the inherence vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand due to the changes it is bringing including:
    • Glaciers here are melting at rate faster than global averages
    • Changes in precipitation patterns, increasing frequency of high intensity rainfall events, including cloud bursts
    • Reducing snowfall, increasing rainfall
    • Increasing incidents of forest fires

Inappropriate infrastructure developments: absence of informed or democratic decision making

  • Lack of credible project specific and cumulative environment and social impact assessments
  • No disaster impact assessment: How the project will change the inherence vulnerabilities of the area and coping mechanisms
  • Lack of carrying capacity studies
  • No independent appraisal
  • No genuine public consultation process
  • Absence of confidence inspiring monitoring and compliance
  • No consequences for violations
  • Tendency to cut corners, see environmental process as unnecessary obstacles
  • All of the above is applicable to hydropower projects, roads, railways, buildings, mining, etc

Violations in implementation: No monitoring, compliance, consequences

  • DMMC said in 2012 that no explosives should be used anywhere in Uttarakhand for any development activity. But almost every dam, tunnel, road, mining activity uses explosives.
  • Muck dumping straight into rivers by almost every road, hydro project or post disaster repair work.
  • Absence of proper appraisal leads to regular encounter with “geological surprises”
  • Disaster management plan on paper at best.

Lack of alert, active disaster management mechanism

  • Absence of alert, active disaster management mechanism has been regular feature of almost all Uttarakhand disasters including in 2013.
  • The first step is mapping and identification of vulnerable areas, regular monitoring using all available, possible sources of information
  • Next step is the system that uses this information promptly to take appropriate actions, alerts all the affected areas and front line agencies, personnel in such areas
  • This can help minimise the damages and casualties
  • We may be good at rescue (thanks to NDRF, SDRF, ITBP, armed forces among others) but very poor in minimising the extent of damage in any disaster

An example from Chamoli Disaster:

  • A senior NTPC official claimed: “We had a complete system of emergency measures. But water came with such volume and speed that reaction time was nil”.
  • However, Mangshri Devi showed a different reality. She, being in a village at higher elevation, saw the flood coming down the river and immediately called her son working on the Tapovan Vishnugad Dam site. Her son Vipul at first ignored her call, saying mountains do not collapse, but upon her repeated calls asking him to get out of the river, he did and also alerted his colleagues, which lea to saving some 25 people.
  • What Mangshri Devi did was exactly what the disaster management department of Uttarkhand, NTPC and developer of Rishiganga hydro project needed to do, but all of them were absent in action.

Absence of capacity or mechanisms to learn from past disasters

  • Our system do not seem to have capacity or mechanisms that can help learn from past disasters.
  • A key requirement for this is to institute independent inquiry into every such disaster with a view to understand what lessons can be learnt and how those lessons can be implemented.
  • But we do not have benefit of any such credible independent inquiry into even the June 2013 disaster, the worst in Uttarakhand history.
  • We have a system that seems immune to learning any lessons.

No accountability

  • Such an inquiry mentioned earlier can also fix accountability for the lacunae found by the inquiry. For example some questions it can ask include:
    • Did the Tapovan Vishnugad EIA look into the possibility of such events?
    • Did the Expert Appraisal Committee in its appraisal for the project look into the possibility of such events and proper geological investigations?
    • Did the Central Electricity Authority, while clearing the project, and Geological Survey of India which is consulted by CEA look into if the project has properly appraised the geology and catchment area disaster potential?
    • Did CWC ensured there was proper disaster management plan in the DPR and EIA?
    • Similar questions can also be asked for Rishiganga project, also underlying the need for environment appraisal for such small hydro projects too.

Role of Judiciary, media, independent institutions

  • The Chamoli avalanche disaster also raises many questions about the role of Judiciary:
    • How did the Justice Radhakrishanan order of Aug 13 2013 derailed?
    • Why did the Ravi Chopra Committee recommendations not implemented?
    • The people of Reni had gone to HC against the Rishiganga project, but HC dismissed it after a report from govt officials exonerating the developer.
    • The NEAA rejected the challenge the Env Clearance to the Tapovan Vishnugad project for filing the appeal late!
    • In case of Char Dham highway, SC has been lenient towards NHAI and Ministry for the violations and short cuts
  • Similarly, many questions arise about the role of media, independent institutions and independent experts
  • If we do not show the intent and will to address these issues, we are destined to face more such disasters, possibly with greater frequency and intensity.

More questions about the Chamoli Disaster

  • Who is monitoring snowfall and why are snowfall figures not regularly out in public domain?
  • Who is monitoring para glacier areas?
  • Soon after the June 2013 disaster, there were questions about deployment of Doppler Radars. The first Doppler radar in Uttarakhand was installed only in 2019-20. Why so much delay, when will the remaining ones be installed?
  • Why did the first public, detailed account of the current disaster came from foreign source (Dave Petley blog) and not from an Indian agency?
  • Why did the first satellite images of the disaster area come from foreign sources rather then ISRO or Uttarakhand SRSC?
  • Why were drones and helicopters not deployed promptly to survey the disaster area area and shared the information so collected?
  • Why did the information about the Rishiganga landslide dam came to public domain only after Dr Naresh Rana shared the information after visiting the area? Why did it not come from the official agencies?
  • Why is so much of the disaster related information not automatically out in public domain?

NDMA guidelines on GLOF (the document also covers LLOF: Landslide Lake Outburst Flood)

  • “IHR lies in Seismic Zones IV and V making the region highly prone to earthquakes. This combined with other disturbances such as avalanches and falling boulders is making the glacial lakes vulnerable to breaches, unleashing sudden, potentially disastrous floods in the nearby communities.”
  • “In contrast to other countries, there are no uniform codes for excavation, construction and grading codes in India. Restricting constructions and development in GLOF/LLOF prone areas is a very efficient means to reduce risks at no cost”
  • “There are no widely accepted procedures or regulation in India for land use planning in the GLOF/LLOF prone areas. Such regulations need to be developed…”

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

4 thoughts on “Force Multipliers in Uttarakhand disaster

  1. Please arrange more such webinars. All the discussions are very useful and may even come handy before the next disaster strikes.
    Our government agencies have all the power and tools to take needful care before each calamity still somehow we lag behind. It’s more bcos of lack of will.
    Thanks for the motivation that you all sent each other and us.


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