Abstract: While Uttarakhand is vulnerable to disasters, climate change is increasing these vulnerabilities. Major human interventions like hydropower projects and highways implemented without an informed or democratic decision-making process act as force multipliers during such disasters. The violations of legal and other prudent norms in their implementation further increase the damages. The absence of necessary monitoring, early warning systems and the overall disaster management system add another layer of damages during the disasters. The lack of the ability to learn lessons from disasters and lack of any accountability ensures the perpetuation of the situation.
Uttarakhand is no stranger to disasters. But, the flood disaster that Chamoli district experienced on the morning of 7 February 2021 was unusual in many respects besides it being winter when the disaster happened. A massive brown flood with a huge plume of dust was seen first upstream of Reni village, following a loud bang that people heard. Reni, ironically, is the birthplace of the famous Chipko movement of the 1970s. The flood was seen suddenly travelling down the Rishiganga river at a menacing speed of up to 30 metres per second, destroying everything in its way. It was carrying a lot of debris, including stones and boulders. It destroyed a barrage and the existing 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydropower project, several houses along the banks of the river, blew away several people and grazing animals on the riverbed, before its confluence with the Dhauliganga river.
Along the Dhauliganga, the flood destroyed a bridge and then the barrage of the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project (HEP) funded by the Asian Development Bank that was under construction since 2005, while also entering into the tunnels of the project. It was in this area that the maximum human lives were lost. Further downstream, it destroyed another bridge (a total of five bridges were destroyed).
Along the Alaknanda, the flood waves also entered the existing 400 MW Vishnuprayag hydropower project through its tail race tunnel,[LD1] [HT2] and damaged the 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti HEP of THDC India Limited that was under construction, before the river entered a relatively broader, flatter terrain downstream of Helang, thus slowly losing steam. However, the extent of flooding can be gauged from the fact that even at Joshimath, along the Alaknanda river, the water level reached a massive 3.11 metres higher than the highest flood level (HFL) ever reached at that location, which was in June 2013.
The first information of the unfolding disaster came from almost instantaneous videos on social media. In fact, even Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat told media that he got first information about the disaster from social media. In a way, that says a lot about the disaster management in Uttarakhand. Besides the as yet unquantified economic damage running into over ₹2,000 crore (the damage to just the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP is estimated at over ₹1,500 crore), at least 72 people are confirmed dead, and over 135 still missing. The Uttarakhand government has started the process to declare them as presumed dead.
The disaster is still not fully over as the Rishiganga river remains blocked by a 60 m high earthen dam at the Rishiganga–Ronthi Gad confluence. It is created by the debris brought down by the Rishiganga tributary Ronthi Gad, from the rockfall-avalanche location, about 12 km upstream from the Rishiganga–Ronthi Gad confluence. A small stream started flowing downstream from the landslide dam on 12 February, and its width was increased by the disaster management team. It is noteworthy that the first information about the existence of this landslide dam came from a non-government source, when Naresh Rana, a geologist from Uttarakhand, shared a video of his visit to the area on 11 February 2021. The official agencies, we learn, already knew about its existence since 8 or 9 February, but did not make the information public.
How the Disaster Began
The first somewhat detailed account in the public domain of what may have possibly happened leading to this disaster came from Dave Petley (2021), a landslide expert Geologist from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom on 8 February 2021.
Petley said the detailed account was a result of inputs from a combination of world experts and citizen scientists and some fascinating satellite imagery from Planet Labs. His conclusion was that it was a landslide disaster and explained how it may have started a few months ago, culminating in falling of rocks and snow from a height of 5,600 m to about 3,800 m, a fall of 1,800 m.
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah told the Rajya Sabha at around 1 pm on 9 February 2021 that it was a snow avalanche disaster (PIB 2021). He said:
On 07.02.2021 at about 1000 hours an avalanche has occurred in the upper catchment of Rishiganga River, a tributary of Alaknanda River in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand, which led to sudden rise in the water level of Rishiganga River. Due to flash flood on account of rising of water levels in the river Rishiganga, a functional Rishiganga small hydro project of 13.2 MW was washed away. The flash flood also affected the under construction 520 MW NTPC Hydro Power Project downstream at Tapovan on the river Dhauli Ganga. …
It is observed from the satellite data (Planet Lab) of 7th February, 2021 in catchment of Rishi Ganga river at the terminus of the glacier at an altitude of 5600 m a landslide triggered a snow avalanche covering approximately 14 sq.km area and causing a flash flood in the downstream of Rishi Ganga River.
Note that India’s Home Minister is also referring to Planet Labs imagery.
However, there is still some controversy as to whether a glacier was involved in the disaster. The Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) scientists say a breach in a temporary water body formed due to a hanging glacier crashing down after a huge rockslide resulted in the flash-flood in Chamoli district (Santoshi 2021). However, Petley says there is no involvement of a glacier. There is no mention of a glacier in the home minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha too. Similarly, there is no evidence to support the contention that there was a temporary water body formed at the site of the avalanche as suggested by the WIHG scientists.
What is worrying is that till Petley’s report came out on the evening of 8 February, there was nothing from Indian agencies in the public domain about how the disaster began. The only thing we had were contradictory statements from different agencies from Uttarakhand, from the NTPC Limited (developer of the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP that was under construction), and central agencies suggesting that a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) or glacier breach or avalanche or cloud burst, among others, caused the disaster. Similarly, while satellite imageries from Planet Labs were available in media and on the internet, there was nothing in the public domain from the Indian Space Research Organisation or Uttarakhand Remote Sensing Centre till 10February 2021.
Key aspects of disaster management in this context include monitoring, early warning, and actions during and post the disaster. The actions during the disaster include getting the information about the unfolding disaster as soon as possible and alerting those at risk soon in terms of time and in terms of location, downstream. This requires not only accurate information in time, but also a mechanism that ensures that the information reaches those at risk. In this regard, 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” (Nandi 2021).
May be the NTPC officials should be told that Mangshri Devi had enough time to call her son repeatedly that not only saved her son’s life, but lives of two dozen more people. In one of the most remarkable stories from the Chamoli avalanche disaster it was reported that Vipul Kairuni of Dhaak village in Tapovan, working at the now destroyed Tapovan Vishnugad HEP, was saved thanks to frantic calls by his mother Mangshri Devi as she and Vipul’s wife saw from their village home, situated at a height from the river, that a massive flood was approaching the dam site. It was thanks to frantic, repeated calls by Mangshri Devi that not only Vipul, but at least two dozen more people could run to safety via a ladder and save their lives (Azad 2021). She did exactly what the disaster management department of Uttarakhand and NTPC should have been doing.
In fact, speaking in the inaugural session of the NIDM-FICCI Training Program on “Resilient Infrastructure in Hilly Areas: Avalanche, GLOF & Debris Flow” on 18 February 2021, Director of WIHG Kalachand Sain said that there was sufficient time for the NTPC to evacuate all the people at risk at the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP (FICCI 2021).
The Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority seems completely absent from the scene either in terms of pre-disaster monitoring or in taking steps to save lives during the disaster. In fact, there should have been an early warning system in place that could have saved many more lives. But, it does not exist. Either in the Rishiganga or Dhauliganga basin, or anywhere else in Uttarakhand. The NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad Project has faced so many disasters already since 2008, but is only now talking about putting in place an early warning system (SANDRP 2021). Should not the NTPC and power ministry top brass as well as the Uttarakhand disaster management department be held accountable for this?
There is no doubt that our disaster rescue efforts are one of the best, thanks to National and State Disaster Response Forces and other paramilitary groups. But there is clearly a lot more we can do in terms of planning, decision-making, monitoring, and pre-disaster and during disaster efforts. The rescue efforts at the Tapovan project suffered crucial delays due to non-availability of accurate tunnel maps from the project authorities as per several reports[LD3] [HT4] . (Upadhyay 2021)
One expected that the authorities would have used drones and helicopters and also satellite images to immediately assess the ground situation in the Rishiganga catchment from where the flood originated and also better understand the causes. Reliable sources tell us that some of this was used, but strangely a lot of the information so gathered has not been shared in the public domain. It is worrying that the official agencies seem to be treating even disaster-related information as a state secret.
Here, one should also mention that the flood forecasting department of the Central Water Commission (CWC) was completely absent during the disaster. It was only at 6 pm on 7 February 2021 that the first information about the flood was posted by the department, by which time the disaster had already passed.
The Chamoli disaster also brings attention to dam safety issues, which are important not only for completed dams, but also dams under construction, for not only structural safety but also operational safety. A United Nations University report made public in January 2021 on this issue also highlights the safety of dams in India and need for decommissioning unsafe, old dams (Perera et al 2021). Unfortunately, in India, dam safety is not even backed by any law and the dam safety bill remains pending before Parliament for almost two decades (SANDRP 2019). The bill also suffers from a lot of legal lacunae. For example, it does not have much to say about the safety of under construction dams, a relevant question in the context of the Chamoli disaster.
NDMA’s Guidelines for GLOFs
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines for management of GLOFs from October 2020 say that risk reduction has to begin with identifying and mapping such lakes, taking structural measures to prevent their sudden breach, and establishing mechanisms to save lives and property in times of a breach (NDMA 2020).
A message from the Prime Minister that was included in the NDMA guidelines says: “The hazards associated with glacial formations in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) require an integrated strategy to minimize disaster risks … to efficiently deal with glacial hazards and strengthen our preparedness and resilience.” The message from the union home minister talked about higher possibilities of GLOFs in the Indian Himalayas, and early warning and minimisation of disaster risks. The preface from the NDMA chairperson and members states that despite massive losses in the Parechu disaster in Himachal Pradesh in 2005 and Kedarnath in June 2013, “disaster risk management related to GLOFs has not been mainstreamed into development policies and programmes.”
The NDMA has recommended use of Synthetic-Aperture Radar imagery to automatically detect changes in water bodies, including new lake formations. It has said methods and protocols could also be developed to allow remote monitoring of lake bodies from space. The preface to the NDMA guidelines on GLOF (the document also covers LLOF—landslide lake outburst flood) says: “The disappearance of mountain glaciers, expansion of large glacial lakes and the formation of new glacial lakes are amongst the most recognizable impacts of global warming in this environment. 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,” the NDMA (2020: 30) guidelines say. The guidelines emphasise the importance of land use planning: “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” (NDMA 2020: 30). In the Himalayan region, there are at least three reported instances (two in Nepal and one in China) of implementation of sensor- and monitoring-based technical systems for GLOF early warning. “Besides classical alarming infrastructure consisting of acoustic alarms by sirens, modern communication technology using cell and smart phones can complement or even replace traditional alarming infrastructure,” the NDMA (2020: 30) has said. The guidelines also call for dissemination of accurate information (Tiwary 2021).
The most striking aspect of these recommendations of the NDMA guidelines is that the recommended steps are all absent when we review the Chamoli avalanche disaster. So, when will these guidelines be implemented? Key recommendations of the NDMA’s 2008 guidelines for reservoir operations remain unimplemented even today.
Violations and Non-compliance
The development projects, including hydropower projects, Char Dham Highway, railway lines, or mining, without adequate appraisals, credible project-specific or cumulative impact assessments, carrying capacity studies, disaster potential assessment studies, or genuine public consultation processes in vulnerable areas of Uttarakhand act as force multipliers during disasters, as we have seen in 2013 and again now. Climate change is worsening the vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand. The adverse impacts of the ill-informed project decisions further increase when projects violate norms during implementation in the absence of credible monitoring and compliance achieving mechanisms.
This is particularly true of projects like Rishiganga HEP and the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP. The Expert Committee headed by Ravi Chopra—appointed following the Supreme Court’s 13 August 2013 order by a bench headed by Justice K S Radhakrishnan (Alaknanda Hydro Power Co Ltd v Anuj Joshi & Ors 2013)—had warned in its report of 2014 that the glacier valleys and paraglacial zones occupy areas between 2,000 m and 5,000 m elevations (MoEF 2014). Below 2,000 m elevation are the influence zone of the paraglacial area, where the floods from paraglacial zones flow. This could be seen on 7 February 2021, leading to the destruction of the Rishiganga and Tapovan Vishnugad HEPs, bridges, roads, and houses. The committee has clearly recommended that no hydropower projects should be taken up in such zones. If this recommendation of the Supreme Court–appointed panel had been implemented, the proportions of the Chamoli disaster would have clearly been much lower.
Did the detailed project reports and environment impact assessments of the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP take these risks into account? Did the Expert Appraisal Committee, the MoEF, the Central Electricity Authority, the Central Water Commission and Geological Survey of India (all the agencies involved in sanctioning the project) look at these risks? Will there be an independent inquiry into the disaster that this project faced, including the earlier numerous disasters, including in 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2016? To what extent do the NTPC and the sanctioning bodies need to be held accountable for the lapses?
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see any such independent inquiry either into the Tapovan project, Rishiganga project, or the disaster, or get any answers to these and such other questions. Our system does not have any such provision either to fix accountability or even to learn lessons for the future. In June 2013, Uttarakhand faced its worst ever disaster, but we still do not have any report that comprehensively looks at the disaster to learn lessons for future.
Role of Judiciary
The Chamoli disaster also brings to focus the role of the judiciary in a number of ways. For example, the environment clearance to the Tapovan Vishnugad HEP was challenged before the then existing National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) in 2005–06 for inadequate appraisal, but the NEAA rejected the petition saying it had come too late! The Ravi Chopra Committee report (MoEF 2014) submitted to the Supreme Court recommended no projects in the paraglacial zone, including the paraglacial influence zone, but the recommendation remains unimplemented. In fact, the original order by Justice Radhakrishnan dated 13 August 2013, about the role of hydropower projects in the Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013, got derailed after his retirement.
The people of Reni village had challenged the illegalities by the Rishiganga HEP in the Uttarakhand High Court in 2019, but the high court appointed a committee of two government officials, who reported that there are no violations. The Supreme Court has been seen to be lenient in the Char Dham Highway case, allowing all kinds of illegalities to go unpunished. These are only a few of the instances that show that the judicial bodies need to be much more careful and rigorous in dealing with such crucial environmental matters.
In February 2019, a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, chaired by Nripendra Mishra, the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, decided that no more hydropower projects will be taken up in Uttarakhand in the Bhagirathi–Alaknanda basins. It was also then decided to review all the hydropower projects that were under construction in these basins, which included Tapovan Vishnugad and Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydropower projects. The Chamoli disaster has given the signal to scrap these projects under construction. In fact, there is also a case for reviewing all the existing hydropower projects, looking at the damage to the Rishiganga and Vishnuprayag HEPs in this disaster. As for the Char Dham Highway, the Supreme Court should halt the work on it and ask the project to go back to get environment clearances even for the 5.5 m width road. The Court should also punish those responsible for dumping muck into rivers and such other violations.
There is also a need to set up an inquiry committee of independent persons to look into the Chamoli disaster with a view to identify lacunae, fix accountability, learn lessons for future, and also provide a road map for the changes required. Identification of vulnerable areas and habitats and their monitoring is also required, including installing early warning systems.
Himanshu Thakkar (email@example.com)
NOTE: An edited version of this was published in EPW Vol. 56, Issue 10 dated March 6, 2021 Under the title: “The Force Multipliers of Disasters in Uttarakhand“: https://www.epw.in/journal/2021/10/commentary/force-multipliers-disasters-uttarakhand.html
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