The October 2021 flood disasters in two ends of India, in Kerala and Uttarakhand have a lot common. Both happened after the end of normal dates of South West Monsoon 2021. In both cases it is repeat of earlier such disasters in respective states. In both cases, there were reports by expert reports warning about the disasters. In both cases the rainfall events were broadly along the lines warned by the climate scientists, but in both cases the state was ill prepared to cope with it. In both cases, inappropriate human interventions have worsened the disasters in major ways. And in both cases disaster management seems to be absent from ground. In both cases, more precise forecasts about the rainfall quantum and location would have helped. (Feature Image above is from The Hindustan Times, Oct 23, 2021)
Over 270 people have lost lives in this flood disaster in Kerala, Uttarakhand and contiguous areas of Uttar Pradesh and Nepal during these disasters and the damage is likely to go over Rs 10 000 crores. The disaster is also extending to the Sikkim and neighbouring Sub Himalayan West Bengal areas. The full scale of the disaster is still unfolding as we write this. The disasters have some unprecedented aspects, but that cannot be any justification for the lack of preparedness.
For example the rainfall at a number of locations have crossed all recorded figures including in Mukteshwar (Nainital district), Pantnagar (Udham Singh Nagar District) and Pithoragarh. The river water level has crossed the highest flood levels at large number of places including Pancheshwar, Banbasa barrage, Ghat, Paliakalan (all four sites along Sarda River), Deoprayas, Karanprayag (both along Alaknanda River). In Kerala, the water level crossed the Highest Flood Levels along Manimala river in Kottayam district and along River Kodiyar in neighbouring Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.
Rainfall forecasts Madhavan Rajeevan, former secretary, ministry of earth Sciences says that there were clear forecasts of heavy rains in Uttarakhand and Kerala, but the absence of disaster reaction mechanisms at local levels, advanced landslide prediction systems and some basic ground work of evacuation from the low lying vulnerable areas resulted in loss of lives and properties.
Along with better forecasts, we need better monitoring and reporting of actual rainfall, water levels in rivers and incidents of landslides. It was disturbing, for example to see that IMD’s daily district wise rainfall report showed “NO DATA” for Bageshwar and Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand on Oct 20, 2021, in the midst of Uttarakhand disaster. IMD’s river basin wise reporting of rainfall is also most persistently callous and problematic for years, but IMD seems to be making no amends. IMD needs to understand that reporting the rainfall along the hydrological units like river basins and sub basins is so important.
Sharad Chandra, Director, Flood Forecast Monitoring, Central Water Commission (CWC)[i] in an interview underlined the limitations of both accurate forecasts and real-time rainfall monitoring: “Sufficiently representative areal and temporal distribution of real-time rainfall would be required for a sufficient number of stations from the IMD for flood forecasting by modelling… in case of mathematical model-based flood forecasting, the non-availability of real-time rainfall data for a sufficient number of locations has been a major limitation for an effective forecast of floods in Kerala… Accuracy of rainfall forecast is also one challenge as rainfall and floods have a direct cause and effect relationship. Weather radar-received rainfall data can further improve the performance of flood forecasting models.”
Moreover, more timely and location specific forecasts that would enable the disaster management authorities take necessary advance actions would definitely help. Such emergency action plans would follow only if there is a functional, accountable and participatory disaster management mechanism in place. Such advance actions would include advance water releases from dams, shifting the vulnerable people from landslide prone areas, ensuring sufficient stock and necessary distribution of essential items, among others.
Flood Forecasting In Kerala’s flood disasters of 2018 and 2019, the inappropriate operation of dams played a significant role, as it has happened at many other places including Uttarakhand. But there is no transparent or accountable mechanism in place to either learn lessons from such events or hold accountable those responsible for such wrong operations. Neither Central Water Commission (CWC, India’s official flood forecasting body) nor state water resources departments are legally required to publicly display the rule curves for dams and how the actual dam operation compares with it. By consistently ignoring the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil Panel, the Kerala Politicians have ensured that the state will continue to face disasters.
In fact, CWC’s flood forecasting performance is pretty pathetic and it is doubtful if it can contribute to flood management, also considering lack of independent oversight or accountability. The National Disaster Management Authority did come out with some steps for reservoir operations mentioned in flood management guidelines in January 2008 and urban flood management in September 2010, but those guidelines remain unimplemented and there seems no urgency from anyone to ensure their implementation.
Extreme Rainfall is expected, what are we doing about it? It’s been more than a decade since the climate scientists have been telling us how the rainfall intensities, their timing and locations are changing as has also been clear from our experience over the years. In Uttarakhand, scientists have recorded over 7750 extreme rainfall events since 2015. An extreme rainfall event is recorded when a location receives more than 204 mm of rain in 24 hours. In 2020, this number was 1,632 for the whole year, and 3,706 in 2018. Till July 2021, the state reported 979 extreme rainfall events. The actual number of cloudbursts or extreme rainfall events in Uttarakhand must be much higher but most areas don’t have weather stations to record them.
Himalayas are warming faster than the average warming experienced across the world. Snowlines in Uttarakhand has risen[ii] from 4800 m to 5200 m over the last 50 years as per glaciologist D P Dobhal. Rainfall is increasing at higher altitudes. Similarly Kerala has faced third major flood disaster in just four years. Warming of Arabian sea has led to 52% increase in the frequency of cyclonic storms. So our disaster management plans, mechanisms and governance should have been prepared for this, but we are far from prepared as is clear from these latest disasters.
As part of better disaster governance, we need to identify the vulnerable locations, assess their vulnerabilities and prepare appropriate policies and plans. One of the key steps have to be to ensure that we do not increase the vulnerabilities of these locations by our actions. All development projects and plans that are increasing the vulnerabilities by destruction of ecology and land use change should be reviewed and reversed.
We are increasing Disaster Potential We are in fact doing the opposite. We are continuously increasing the disaster potential of the vulnerable areas in Kerala, Uttarakhand, as well as elsewhere by totally inappropriate interventions in the name of development. So we continue to push disaster enhancing, unviable hydropower projects, we build highways without assessing impacts or looking for less damaging options, continue indiscriminate and unsustainable mining, blasting, deforestation, keep encroaching on the river beds and floodplains, and keep dumping muck and waste into the rivers. All of these are majorly contributing to increasing the disaster potential of the already vulnerable Himalayas, western and eastern ghats.
It should be clear that the climate change induced disasters are taking a heavy toll of society and economy. We may be good at saving people once the disaster sets in, but we are pathetic in being prepared to prevent avoidable disasters. One of the things that can help is if we can learn lessons from past disasters. For that a basic requirement is to institute an independent assessment of each such disaster, that would tell us what all happened during the disaster, and who played what role. Such a credible objective assessment would also tell us what lessons the disaster provides for us. Do we have benefit for such an assessment of say June 2013 Uttarakhand disaster or 2018 Kerala Flood disaster or for that matter any other disaster? If not, how can we even start the process of identifying the lessons we can learn from disaster? Till we change this situation, we are possibly destined to experience the repeat of the worst kind disasters.
Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: An edited version of this was published on Oct 25, 2021 here: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/no-lessons-learnt-from-past-flood-disasters-329093