Disaster Relief: Avoid Old Mindset And Jargons

Jul 24th, 2013 | By | Category: Advocacy, Biodiversity, Capacity Development, CHI-News, Disaster and Emergency, Disasters and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Environment, Food, Governance, Government Policies, Information and Communication, International Agencies, Land, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Mitigation, Research, Resilience, River, Vulnerability, Water, Weather

Kedarnath On 17th after flood

Climate Himalaya: In this article it is argued that Disaster Management practice in India need to change the old mindset of disaster relief, to include quick planning and actions, using verifiable space data and avoid delay causing detailed assessments in deciding any government run relief package. We need to be cautions against the current jargons such as ‘green economy’ and ‘climate smart’ development for the vulnerable Himalayas that need sustainable development with tried and tested technologies and not focusing on economy alone. The available state action plan on climate of Uttarakhand’s (SAPCC), is not a holistic and implementable document, that still need a detailed assessment and research prior to any implementable action. For long term relief and rehabilitation action the national and state governments, regional and international agencies need to come quickly on board to take charge of situation.

Too many Reports too Less Understanding

There are many agencies coming with various kinds of premature reports about the kind of disaster Uttarakhand faced recently, however, ground realities are much different than what has been argued in them. Almost, all districts in Uttarakhand are affected due to the disaster that hit 16 and 17th June and impacted over 5000 villages, many thousand deaths and damaged thousands of houses and infrastructure facilities. A number of media agencies are also sensationalizing the issues and giving wrong figures about the state of affair.

Delay in Action

Even after over a month, when many responsible governments (State and National) and international agencies (UN, Bi-lateral and Multi-lateral) are still in indecisive stage, there are organizations who have already rescued thousands of people, provided immediate relief material and also setup their long term rehabilitation camps for the education of children, employments and livelihood opportunities to the locals. There were actions like short term shelters, connecting bridges, food item supplies, energy options, health facilities and long term livelihood opportunities, those have already been chalked out by many actively involved organizations in this region.

From this disaster the first and foremost thing our agencies entrusted the role of emergency and disasters relief, must learn that we need to change our old mindset of disaster relief actions that include quick planning and actions on restoration or rehabilitation actions while using contemporary means and technologies including ICT’s.

facts about UKIn a situation when we already have ready in hand satellite imageries, data set, digital photographs and many such information, we might need not to really wait for preliminary assessment for ‘disaster relief’ and ‘emergency’ situation, to decide upon a package from an international or national agency. In the case of Uttarakhand disasters we had lot of information available that could have been verified easily and relief and rescue operation could have saved thousands of lives. Which didn’t happen and people died due to hunger, fatigue, health problems and mental trauma. Similar was the case with the livestock population in the region.

A updated report (23 July 2013) of NDMA- National Disaster Management Authority of government of India, revels that out of 5526 missing people (which is far-far less than actual figures), 249 bodies have been recovered, while a livestock population of over 10000 also lost during this disaster.

On the day of disaster 17th June, a team of volunteers met with state Disaster Minister, Portfolio Minister and State Disaster Secretary to inform, appraise and suggest them about the severity of problem. The team observed a very casual approach in understanding the situation to initiate quick rescue and relief operation to the stranded people by the government functionaries. Later, it came in to notice that the delay in rescue and relief supply led to manifold deaths.

In a worst scenario many voluntary groups and individuals, through coordinated efforts finally ensured food and medical supplies to the stranded.

The Preparedness Scenario

The situation is that, in highly disaster sensitive regions in mountain state like Uttarakhand there are no early warning systems in place.

When we talk about Indian Himalayan Mountain region, there are regional agencies like ICIMOD, entrusted with the role of knowledge dissemination  to reduce the risks associated with natural hazards, understand the vulnerabilities and develop coping capacities on disaster and early warning systems, through community-based disaster risk reduction and response protocols. However, there seems unpreparedness in the region in context to knowledge sharing, action research and dissemination actions, while the availability of adequate infrastructure and information systems in place are addition.

Had SERVIR Himalaya of ICIMOD worked here in the Indian Himalayan region, many human deaths and huge losses could have been avoided. SERVIR is a regional visualization and monitoring system that integrates earth observation information, such as satellite imagery and forecast models, together with in situ data and other knowledge for improved and timely decision-making. In 2010, USAID, NASA, and ICIMOD joined hands to establish SERVIR-Himalaya.

What Indian Government is taking to HFA (Hyogo Framework for Action 2001-2015) as achievements are; about local institutional capacity building, assessment and monitoring of disaster risk wpost2015_timelineith enhanced early warning systems in place, use of knowledge for innovation to develop resilience, reduced underlying factor and strengthened disaster preparedness for effective response.  In general it is said that India was able to substantially reduce disaster losses  by building the resilience of communities to any kind of disasters. But, the question is, how much have our governments emphasized upon knowledge dissemination and implemented the disaster risk management policies as part of each decision making processes and plans in India?

Transfer! What Not?

The mountain villages, those are completely cutoff from mainland many agencies are now suggesting about cash transfer scheme as part of relief work. Will that really work when our markets don’t have basic items like food and shelter related amenities? The focus of relief and rehabilitation should be, first connecting the villages by any means and supplying basic needs for a while. The voluntary groups working in the region have their own limitations, and for long term relief government, regional and international agencies should come together quickly to work on such aspects.

Many agencies are using  many metaphors like climate smart, clean and green development, we need to be cautious that we are not really hampering the quick relief process on one hand, and not pushing too hard for too big plans in the name of such development in the mountains. What we could not achieve in other less sensitive and accessible regions, we should not strive for those technologies for now in the mountains itself. We must consider that our mountains are somewhat fragile and equally remote in many sense. These new mountains comparatively hold much more natural resources and green values to other areas, the need is for developing them with the idea of sustainability, rather ‘green’ business centres .

Uttarakhand Had Early Warning Communication In 1894!

In 1894 there were incessant rains and cloud burst in Birahi area of the then Garhwal now Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. There was a river known as Birahi Ganga, a tributary of Alaknanda which meets at Birahi and exists even to-day. Due to heavy rain a part of the mountain in Birahi valley was detached which blocked the course of the river and subsequently an artificial lake was formed known as Gohna Tal (lake). This artificial lake, referred to as gravity lake, was formed by landslides or sliding of mountain on the path of a river. The then British Government established a telephone line between the site of the lake, and particularly the towns Chamoli, Srinagar, etc. located downstream.

The connectivity was made to send warning message to the people to evacuate and move to safer places in case the artificial lake breaches. According to my father, this was the first telephone line established in that region, just 10 years after India had first long distance telegraph link from Agra to Kolkata in 1884. The Gohna lake did not breach and it became a tourist place and people from all over India used to enjoy boating in the Gohna lake. However, the same connectivity from lake side to downstream towns continues even today.

In June 1968, a similar lake was formed at Reni on the bank of Rishi-ganga, a tributary of Dhauli river which is also a tributary of the river Alaknanda and its confluence is Vishnu Prayag, close to a well developed town Joshimath situated en route to Badrinath from Rishikesh/Haridwar via Birahi. On 20 July 1970, i.e. nearly after two years this artificial lake on Rishiganga/Dhauli river breached and the river got flooded and the Alaknanda became hostile.

On the same day, there was a heavy rain and cloud burst in the high mountains of Belakuchi and Birahi valley. The area surrounding Belakuchi was washed away and the river Alaknanda got over flooded. The 76-year-oldGohna lake also breached and huge amount of lake water flowed along the Birahi Ganga which meets at Birahi, say 28-30km downstream from Vishnu Prayag. So, both the lakes breached on the same day at different times and both rivers (Alaknanda and Birahi Ganga) were loaded with thousands of cubic meter water from the lakes along with uprooted trees, rock debris, mud, etc.

The already flooded Alaknanda river with excess water from the so called Reni lake and cloud burst from Bellakuchi reached Birahi, where another flooded river Birahi Ganga with excess water from Gohna Tal could have created havoc if the water flux from both the rivers had reached the confluence point at the same time. But, there was about half an hour difference between the water flux fronts of both rivers meeting at Birahi. So, water from the first lake, i.e. Dhauli could pass which was followed by water from Gohna lake. Due to this time difference, water front did not resonate to create ‘mini-tsunami’; however, flood front followed one after another for about 10 dark hours, causing huge loss to the towns like Alkapuri in Chamoli, Nandprayag and Srinagar.

Had heavy loaded water carrying  Alaknanda from Vishnuprayag and Belakuchi and another Birahi Ganga met at the same time in Birahi, then the tragedy along the Alaknanda valley after Birahi could have been similar to what we saw on 16 and 17 June 2013, particularly in Kedarnath valley. Such events are rare, but are becoming frequent and such events are termed as extreme events1.

The extreme events are the consequences of global and local changes. The change of global environment parameter such as rise in temperature is attributed to rise in CO2concentration in the atmosphere. The man-made changes of local environment such as changing the course of the river for developing a new township or launching new projects and widening the roads are affecting stability of the mountain slopes rendering them prone for more land slides. The extreme events in Uttarakhand are due to global and local disturbances.

There is urgent need to observe man-made changes and its effect on environment by installing a modern warning system to monitor:

  1. movement of cloud and cloud bursts,
  2. stability of mountains to watch potential landslides and
  3. precursors which normally are seen before a major earthquake, etc,

Author: V.P.DIMRI, CSIR–National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad 500 007, India  dimrivp@yahoo.com, Current Science Vol. 105, No. 2, 25 July 2013

The Hydropower And Other Aspects 

A detailed discourse would be required about the development of hydro-power in the mountains and they include mega to small hydro projects. The cause for the disaster in areas like Kedarnath area was a long term process of glacial mass formation and disintegration, and the erratic rainfall from a global climatic phenomena. These aspects need further research and discourse, and for this purpose international and regional agencies need to put their heads together, and come up with facts and figures to establish connections and a future coping mechanism.

There are reports talking about implementing solar and wind power projects in the disaster hit areas like Uttarakhand. In our view, they are not that simple as it seems. Many aspects have already been explored in the region, and yet much more efforts are required to implement such energy option here. Rather talking about ‘environmental’ aspect the focus of most of the agencies is about ‘green economy’. The economy just forms one part of holistic development process, we need to consider all dimensions of development, and that’s about ‘sustainable mountain development’ through appropriate knowledge dissemination, networking and ground actions.

The State Climate Plans

There are reports those talk about the implementation of the recommendations of State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) of Uttarakhand government. We must understand that any action that is not supported by proper studies or research, on kind of climatic variability and vulnerability in the region, it cannot be said a holistic and implementable plan document. And the SAPCC of Uttarakhand, and for that matter  any state climate action plan in India, no such assessment were done at all.

The Way Forward

Developing better livelihood options through various alternative means and focusing upon the development through quality education in the state will help in some way. Following are the actions those need urgent attention in Himalayan region and specifically in Uttarakhand for now:

  1. Detailed hazard zonation for whole Indian Himalayan region, Uttarakhand on priority,
  2. Developing a system that makes availability and accessibility of robust scientific data on various hazard related aspects,
  3. An action oriented disaster network that quickly acts when disaster strikes, on rescue and rehabilitation aspects,
  4. Very strategic and well planned capacity building efforts in different regions with the help of local organizations,
  5. Developing and placing long term monitoring and early warning systems in disaster prone areas and otherwise,
  6. Developing regional preparedness and mitigation plans,
  7. Using advanced information communication tools, ensuring last mile connectivity,
  8. Developing private sector towards livelihood and employment generation through small and medium enterprises,
  9. Mandatory provision of insurance coverage for each family living in Highly sensitive Himalayan region, and subsidized it for poor families.


Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>

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