Dam Disaster · Uttarakhand

Himalayan Disasters: Early Warning Systems must, but much more needed

Guest Article by Prof S P Sati

The suggestion of a robust early warning system always echoes as and when there is a disaster in the Himalaya. Hence, the murmuring of having a state of art early warning system after the February 7th 2021 Rishi Ganga disaster is nothing new.

Several concerned scientists of the country are considering of instituting a new centre using the state of art remote sensing techniques. The centre would be dedicated to the early warning forecasting in the Himalayan region. This is heard practically after every disaster since last two decades.

Having said that we obviously need a more proactive approach with judicious use of satellite remote sensing techniques in Himalayan region for protecting the people and their meagre resources. However, establishing a new centre would do little good as there are multiple institutes already which have the mandate of employing remote sensing or network of real time monitoring to reduce the impact of natural hazards.

Existing institutes For example, Uttarakhand, has a centre (Uttarakhand Space Application Centre) with a good repository of information about landslides, glaciers, glacier lakes etc. Almost every year a comprehensive report on the state of glacier lakes and potential hazards is published by institutes like ICIMOD (The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development).

What is lacking is the percolation of this scientific knowledge into the policy and planning and subsequent monitoring of the solutions suggested or the state of the red flagged regions. This would be similar to the mandate of SASE (Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment) which routinely provide update on avalanche threat to various agencies.

The similar rigor is required with weekly update on other geohazard threats posed by various geomorphic features, particularly the one associated with the paraglacial zone (GLOF: Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, LLOF: Landslide Lake Outburst Flood; forest fire, landslide, lateral river bank erosion etc.). More so, early warning or prediction may not be possible for every valley slope in the Himalaya given the vulnerability and unpredictable response to the current warming trends. Judicious allocation of the resources needs to be done. For that the gynomorphically (e.g. paraglacial zones) and geologically (e.g. active fault/ pre-existing fissures) vulnerable zones need to identified where these systems can be established to give update on weekly if not daily basis.

However, it must be understood that even when the early warning systems are established, often the response time to such hazards is very less- for example, it would have been 16 minutes to Rishi Ganga flood if the warning was at all issued in time. Diverting already existing resources to make another consortium for early warning system, may do little good. Instead the focus should be on scaling up the Himalayan state remote sensing institutes so that they have access to daily data on snow, ice, glacier lakes, and landslides prone areas. Also, the mandate of weekly update and warning should be more rigorous.

Shooting the messenger Often individual scientists are criticized for merely publishing the scientific papers on disasters, instead making a difference on ground. This may turn out to be counter-productive as by employing resources within their reach they are able to make these efforts to understand the causes of disasters and provide methodology to combat such events in future.

A positive way would be to assert for a system where scientists are guiding the policy and planning with their critical scientific inputs. Currently, the decisions are dominated by the bureaucrats who even with their best intentions cannot understand the ground realities like an expert with decades of scientific experience.

For example, the (Ravi Chopra) committee of experts formed under the direction of the honorable Supreme Court after the June 2013 disaster[i] highlighted the fragility of Himalayan valleys that are vacated by the glaciers towards extreme weather events. The committee on the direction of the court also assessed the impact of the hydropower project in aggravating the June 2013 Kedarnath disaster and red-flagged many hydro-power projects.

It was clearly suggested that no hydropower should be constructed above 2000 m elevation because the area is not sediment limited but transport limited hence any extreme event can lead to catastrophic mobilization of the sediments. And if obstructed by barrages, the flood furry is going to be amplified many folds.

Another important peer reviewed scientific paper (Sundriyal et al., 2015[ii]) established with the help of geochemical finger printing the force multiplying effect of hydropower at Srinagar. Both these documents, clearly mentioned against any intervention in the paraglacial zones for hydropower activity. The projects, both at Reni and Tapovan (which are now destroyed in Rishi Ganga Tragedy of 7th February 2021[iii]) were recommended against. It is a pity that recommendations of the apex court appointed committee and a researched study were not implemented on ground and people had to pay the price with their lives.

Autonomy of Academic Institutes To ensure scientific opinions are not biased or suppressed under the administrative/ political authority, autonomy of the academic institutes need to be protected. By compromising the autonomy of the academic or research institutions, unfortunately scientists of all the Government Institutions remain silent- latest example being both June 2013 and recent 7th Feb 2021 disasters, where no scientific voice was heard highlighting the force amplification of by the obstruction caused due to the hydropower projects.

Most of the scientific publications on 7th Feb 2021 Rishi Grange flood (as are funded by govt. agencies) refrained from mentioning so in the scientific papers. Despite the fact that this natural event was converted into disaster by above mentioned two hydro projects. Unfortunately, where it comes to question the scientific merit of certain government sponsored projects pertaining to the environment, barring a few, majority speaks what the system wants, probably because it is more beneficial, even if it means compromising their scientific findings.

Yes, certainly our duty as a scientists and citizen is compromised here. The onus lies on the prominent voices to vouch and assert for systems which promote honesty. By engaging scientists with scientific credibility in the policy and planning as well as holding any such decision accountable would be a way to implement the scientific findings many of which have been there since many decades.

Early Warning Systems by themselves will be of limited utility Another important aspect of early warnings are the disaster management plans, evacuation plans, pre-determined teams responsible for these, demarcation of safe places and also holding regular drills to reduce the response time. Do we see any of this happening on ground? Do we have any robust plan in place dealing with all the issues? I am afraid not.

Therefore, it would be more appropriate revise the mandate of the existing remote sensing centres which have the expertise, resources and sensitivity towards the Himalayan ecosystem. Simultaneously, there is need to ensure their independence as well as accountability. Equally important is that there should be a mechanism to promptly disseminate the warning at block, panchayat and local levels so that the life and property of the innocent people of living in the diversified, and ecologically fragile Himalayan terrain as also the lives of the workers can be saved.

Let this be my humble request to all the eminent scientists who perhaps have the privilege to be heard, to raise our voices and put pressure on government so that decisions are taken by the scientific experts in planning the infrastructure along with revising the mandate of the current remote sensing centres with early warning divisions having a system to disseminate the same.

Prof S.P.Sati (spsatihnbgu@gmail.com)

(Head, Department of Basic and Social  Sciences, College of Forestry, (Veer Chandra Singh Garhwali Uttarakhand University of Horticulture and Forestry, Bharsar), Ranichauri Campus, Tehri Garhwal 249 199)


[i] https://sandrp.in/2014/04/29/report-of-expert-committee-on-uttarakhand-flood-disaster-role-of-heps-welcome-recommendations/

[ii] Sept 2015, “Terrain response to the extreme rainfall event of June 2013: Evidence from the Alaknanda and Mandakini River Valleys, Garhwal Himalaya, India” by Y.P. Sundriyal, Anil D. Shukla, Naresh Rana, R. Jayangondaperumal, Pradeep Srivastava, L.S. Chamyal, S.P. Sati and Navin Juyal, Episodes, Vol. 38, No. 3. pp 179-187

[iii] https://sandrp.in/2021/02/28/rishiganga-hep-a-foretold-disaster-for-river-people-and-chipko-legacy/

One thought on “Himalayan Disasters: Early Warning Systems must, but much more needed

  1. An early monitoring and warning system should be dedicated to save human lives. But what if they don’t have the will? The proof lies in the barge accident of ONGC that had warning of the hurricane but still asked to stay afloat with 195 people on board, most of them are now dead or missing. When our remote sensing satellites become tools to catch more votes, we are not dedicated enough for the people.


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