On June 16-17, 2013, Uttarakhand was devastated by flash floods and landslides. The state economy, majorly dependent on the tourism sector, collapsed and thousands of people perished, and lakhs lost their employment. In Rudraprayag district, the usually calm Mandakini came crashing down from the hills and destroyed everything in its path.
In Uttarakhand, the vulnerability of the landscape is regularly reflected in the form of extreme climatic events. In the past few years, especially in 2010, 2012 and 2013, the state has seen an increase in natural disasters. The excessive rainfall event in 2013 was the most disastrous, the floods in the Mandakini and Alaknanda rivers are considered the most devastating in India’s history of natural catastrophes.
Cartosat-1 Image showing the pre-flood situation Cartosat-2A image showing the post-flood situation. PC: National Remote Sensing Centre, Indian Space Research Organisation
The Mandakini valley has a persistent account of landslides that usually get triggered during the monsoon or extreme rainfall. A massive landslide in 1998 around Madhyamaheshwar and the Kaliganga sub-watersheds had devastated the Okhimath region. Other major calamitous events, like the Lwara landslide in Basukedararea, the Byung-Phata landslide, and those in Temriya and Chandrapuri shook the valley similarly.
The landslide zones in the valley were rapidly triggered during the 2013 flash floods and caused large-scale destruction of lives, livelihoods and infrastructure.
Ravaged by human actions. Photo: Reuters
A discrete report by the National Remote Sensing Centre, ISRO positions that in the initial assessment, a total of 745 landslides have been recognised along the riverine valleys Mandakini, Mandani, Kali and Madhyamaheshwar. The principal towns included in this area are Kedarnath Nagar Panchayat, Gaurikund, SonPrayag, Guptkashi, Okhimath, Mansuna and Phata. The region is seismically and ecologically susceptible and fragile, and even minor disturbances bring about changes that rapidly assume catastrophic proportions.
Many factors contribute to landslides, including geology, gravity, weather, groundwater, and human actions. Experts are of the opinion that while interfering with the Himalayan slopes, one needs to be extra cautious as these are the slopes which have developed through geomorphic processes and, therefore, are precariously balanced, making them more susceptible to disaster.
Though landslides often occur where there are steep slopes, they can also strike low-relief areas where activities such as surface excavations for infrastructure development take place.
Never-ending shame. Photo: Reuters
A combination of factors, such as degraded vegetation and forest cover, change of moderate slopes into near vertical slopes during construction of highways, widening of roads and illegal building construction overlooking the geography of the region and without keeping in view the suitable engineering measures made the slopes susceptible to the onslaught of heavy rainfall in the region.
The disastrous event of June 2013 has severely disturbed the entire region. A considerable amount of boulders were deposited on the northern and northwest of the Kedarnath temple brought a variation in the course of the Mandakini and Saraswati rivers. Now the Mandakini river flows close to the Kedarnath temple in the southeast direction, while the Saraswati flows in its old course on the eastern side of the temple. These rivers may be more dangerous to Kedarnath town during the monsoon period.
After conducting an in-depth survey of the region in 2013, the scientists of Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) had strongly recommended a complete ban on the new construction near the Kedarnath temple and advised that the whole Kedarnath settlement be shifted two-three kilometre downstream.
The image shows the reconstruction in the Kedarnath shrine region. PC: Bhuvan; Indian Geo-Platform of ISRO
The State Disaster Management Department formed a technical committee which consists experts from relevant fields, had raised up serious enquiries over the reconstruction work undertaken at Kedarnath town and recommended that the newly deposited glaciofluvial material in the form of boulders and debris should not be disturbed for at least a few years.
In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kedarnath and laid the foundation stone for five construction projects. Sources said that the state government officials were told to develop Kedarnath into a “smart pilgrimage centre”. The infrastructure upgrade, the construction of 52-foot wide approach road laid with tiles and the recently built ghat on the convergence of rivers Mandakini and Saraswati are all part of the ambitious projects.
According to experts, this ghat has restricted the flow of Mandakini and increased the river’s velocity which could lead to catastrophic damage to life and property — for instance if the flash floods such as those witnessed in 2013 are to occur in the region.
So far, most of the studies published on the June 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand have analysed that along with climatic conditions, human-made factors have aggravated the disaster. Experts further add that huge infrastructure growth, environmental degradation and glacial meltdown along with torrential rain were responsible for the massive destruction.
It seems our governments are not ready to learn from past mistakes as they have time and again ignored the advice and concerns of experts and rushed for reconstruction by giving way to the agencies that have no expertise in urban planning and construction.
As the vagaries of climate change have become more than evident and the frequency and intensity of natural hazards steadily increased in the last few years, it is high time the Centre thought of a proper “Land Use Plan” for the entire Himalayan belt keeping in mind the region’s ecology and geography.
The line between natural and human-made disasters is fast blurring. At a time socioeconomic development in the country is taking place at a fast, feverish pace, there is no reliable authority to deal with all aspects surrounding disaster prevention holistically.
While our ecosystems and environment have changed, our way of looking at disasters hasn’t.