Uttarakhand Disaster-Uncertain Future Awaits

Jul 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Disaster and Emergency, Disasters and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Environment, Flood, Government Policies, Information and Communication, International Agencies, Land, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Opinion, Research, Resilience, Vulnerability, Water, Weather

In last few days the Climate Himalaya’s team has been visiting the affected areas, meeting the people, understanding the situation and knowing that how the affected are going to cope in future. We have also been interacting with officials and researchers, to understand the causes and plans for future.

A Warning 18 Years Ago

Kedarnath region, that was majorly hit by the flash flood in Uttarakhand, was once highlighted by a widely read newspaper in 1994. In the year 1994 based on the reports of the scientists from Wadia Institute for Himalayan Glaciology, a well-known Indian scientific institution working on Himalayan glaciology, it was said that 6 Km. long Chorabari glacier that exists 2 Km. away from Kedarnath, is huge threat to this township and low lying areas. Published on 2 August 2004 as frontline news, it stated that the glacial mass of Chorabari is highly unstable, and due to impact of global warming in the region, a number of lakes have emerged around this glacier.  Since, the lakes were forming on the top of the glaciers, so, there are high possibilities of GLOF-Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in future, report said. This report was based on a  study done by a number of scientists, those were working on the Himalayan glaciers around Kedarnath.

Studies on various glaciers in the Himalayan region including in Kedarnath region have clearly underlined the need of GLOF related risk reduction and mitigation measure by understanding the details of such events. There were recommendations by scientists and researchers about detailed understanding of the hazards and  monitoring, observing, knowledge networking and putting early warning systems in place on priority basis, to reduce the impacts of GLOF linked disasters.

Eye Witness Account

The eyewitnesses of the event at Kedarnath say that this year starting from early May 2013, the overall weather in this town was too hot (~22-24°C), which they never experienced earlier. They say that on 16th evening around 10pm there was an event of flood that washed away  part of Kedarnath and flood water entered in the town. Local people and tourist in Kedarnath were awake whole night, while many went to sleep early on 17th morning. But, around 7.30 am on 17th, when people were busy in their normal routine, a huge flash flood strike again and washed away Kedarnath, Ramwara, Gaurikund and Sonprayag townships, while it damaged huge infrastructure and road networks in low-lying townships like Agastyamuni, Rudraprayag, Srinagar Rishikesh and Haridwar.

Anuj, a 41 year local, who was injured during the flood and could come back by walking for 3 days says “ When I saw people running, I also ran away from Kedarnath city, I lost my cloths during that run, and could just survive with two pieces of my cloths, and took shelter at a cave upside Kedarnath….! I then waited for two days, could not get food, shelter, even water was muddy…! I was like becoming mad to recall the event…, and due to hunger! I, with one of my friends, just decided to walk down…! On my way to Guptakashi, on 3rd day…I saw people dying due to hunger and many due to injury…, many of them were dead in groups…I can say they were over 400 in numbers on Vaskitaal-Fata treck…!”

Gandhi Sarovar outburst caused extensive damage in Kedarnath region, say scientists at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology
On June 17, after a night of incessant downpour, around 6.15 a.m., Faram Bahadur Bhandari, 38, and his colleague Dhandir Singh, 26, came out of their tents perched high near the Chorabari glacier at 3,820 metres, to check the raingauge at their research station. Staff
members of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Dehradun, which is an autonomous research institute of the Central government’s Department of Science and Technology, both were trained observers of the region.

On June 16, Faram had tried to call his mentor and senior scientist Dr D P Dobhal at WIHG and warn him of the  deluge in the Kedarnath region but the phones were not working. Coming  out of their tents that morning, the two staffers heard a deafening
explosion and saw the water “jumping down” in a cascade of debris and mud from the Chorabari Lake on the side of the glacier into the valley.

They thought of running down and warning the hapless residents of the  temple town. But it was all over in a flash, says Dr Dobhal. Within a few minutes mountainous debris had washed down taking with it everything in its stride. The water flow was about 20 to 25 metres away from Faram and Singh but they quickly made their way up the steep rocky mass on  the other side of the lake and saved their lives. Their tents, equipment, phones, cameras were washed away and all that’s left probably, speculates Dr Dobhal, is the tower of the Automatic Weather Station. The two men spent a night on the rocks trying to find a way back and made it to Kedarnath the next day. They were evacuated only by June 22.

Dr Dobhal, who has been surveying the area since 2003, says Gandhi Sarovar or Chorabari Lake which is located at 3,900 metres is a permanent water body on the side of the Chorabari glacier and has been in existence even in maps of the area from 1962. The glacier is about two km upstream from the Kedarnath temple.

The lake is surrounded by hard rock on one side and a lateral moraine on the other. “During my observation of this lake in the last 10 years, I  wondered what would happen if the lake filled up. I always kept a close eye on the lake and I never found the level rising much. My team which was there from May 18 to June 5, had got a photo of the water level in May which was not more than 1 to 1.5 metres, covered with fresh snow,” he told The Hindu over the phone.

This event can be termed as a Lake Outburst Flood, says Dr Dobhal, but not a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), a menace in the Himalayan region. He says the lake is fed by snow and not by the waters of the Chorabari glacier which has receded over the years. While the catastrophic events do resemble the destruction caused by GLOFs, Dr Dobhal says the lake was full to the brim and burst its moraine barrier since there was no natural drainage. That outburst is what caused the most damage on June17 and the tons of sediment and water wreaked havoc down the valley. The over 300 mm of rain recorded on June 15 and 16 accelerated the snow melt into the lake. The rain was too early and too heavy causing this extreme event.

“We didn’t anticipate Chorabari Tal would fill up like this and burst. Now we will have to identify the water bodies in the region, map them and keep a constant watch,” he says. The lake is about 20-22 metres deep and at no point in the past was there a threat of overflow. Belatedly, it will have to be kept under watch from now on.

The Situation Now

While we interacted people in the region, many lost their nearer-dearer and many still in search of their owns. Those survived are from over thousands of villages in Kedarnath valley, Pindar and Alaknanda valley. There are women those are widowed with surviving small and young children, there are survivor without a penny in hand to purchase single meal. There are villages in valleys like Gundar, Jal, Chaumasi, Sunprayag, Rampur, Fata, where road networks are completely cut off, and people are not getting basic amenities.

The relief supplies are being provided by many individuals, institutions and voluntary organizations, are reaching to some, but, in those areas where road networks are not available the supply is a big challenge.

Ajay, a 26 year eyewitness says that, “I heard a loud sound and people crying and whistling to run, and I ran for my life…! A I reached at a height, just looked back, the flood water and debris that hardly remained for 4-5 minutes, washed everything…, I lost my house, my relative and my livelihood…, everything gone…”.

People those were dependent on the livelihood related to tourism and pilgrimage in Kedarnath region are now concerned about their future, as news are coming that it won’t be possible to restore a functional system for at least 1-2 years in the valley. Another issue is related to infrastructure and houses people lost. Women, those lost their sole bread earners, are concerned about their children’s future. Without a livelihood support system in place, the survival of people in the region poses a big question!

Mountains are not Livable

Many studies and reports have already stated that Kedarnath valley is highly unstable for any new construction, and to live here needs cautious planning. The Kedarnath city, that was devastated by glacial lakes formed in Chorabari glacier, now has remains of just few meters of land mass, and during flood river Mandakini has changed its course towards the township. The change in the course of the river Mandakini has also aggravated the situation in terms of high sensitivity for land and glacial mass movements.

The existing Chorabari glacier, that has impact of warming weather conditions, is placed like a bomb just 2 Km. away from the Kedarnath city.

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