This, however, is not the first time cloudburst has caused devastation in a hill state, particularly Uttarakhand. Unabated construction along the rivers, and within the floodplains and hillsides; destruction of forests and exponential increase in tourism and pilgrimage activity that has led to exploitation of natural resources are the talked-about and known factors that precipitate such disasters.
However, it is the absence of sufficient macro-level data clubbed with action/implementation at the ground level are responsible for repeated disasters. Cloudburst-induced floods have been happening since 2013 and there seems to be no mechanism in place to avert such incidences.
Several agencies are tasked with flood forecast, flood management, disaster relief and mitigation action to be taken post-disaster. Clearly, the coordination between the different agencies of the Centre and the state leave much to be done.
The flood forecasting done by India Meteorological Department (IMD) has a separate mountain weather bulletin that gives prior warning based on the Central Water Commission (CWC) data. The flood forecasts are uploaded on the IMD and CWC websites for the public.
These are also sent to the local administration concerned, and then it is the responsibility of the local administration to warn the people likely to be affected due to cloudbursts/floods/landslide, and take precautionary measures, like shifting people to safe areas. But due to lack of sufficient coordination between the forecast agencies and implementation at the local level, weather phenomena escalate to calamity in no time. A former director of flood forecast monitoring at the CWC, V D Roy, had clearly stated that "Most disasters have been a result of communication failure".
The extent of damage caused each year emphasises the fact that much needs to be done to fill this huge gap. The damage – as officially documented by CWC – shows that the area affected by floods rose from 2.29 million hectares (mha) in 1953 to 31.58 mha in 2013. The total damage (all India) caused due to floods, as per CWC, was estimated at Rs 11,095.14 crore during 2013.
In 2015, India initiated a major programme of monitoring every glacier that is ten sq km and above in the Indian Himalayas. Apart from ascertaining the availability of water (melting glaciers feed almost half of the Indian subcontinent) the study will also help in keeping track of glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), a phenomenon that had happened in case of bursting of the Chorabari glacial lake, few hundred metres above the Kedarnath temple in 2013, that wiped out the entire Kedarnath township, except the ancient temple, and killed scores of people.
The Indian Space Research Organisation, which monitors glaciers and also movement of monsoon clouds, puts out in public domain. But problems such as lack of power, lack of mobile/internet connectivity cut access this data, defeating the purpose of the service.
Uttarakhand is among the three states, apart from Rajasthan and Manipur, that has enacted legislations for flood plain zoning. The flood plain, as per the model bill circulated by the Ministry of Water Resources and sent to states, includes water channel, flood channel, and area of nearby lowland susceptible to flood inundation. Similarly, flood zone was defined as the area required to carry the maximum probable floods.
But even when Uttarakhand did its job on paper, poor implementation leads to preventable damage.