Where did we fail?
Proper risk mitigation and preventive measures have to deployed in hilly states to avoid disasters
With the news of the mega-disaster in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, the memories of June 2013 disaster came alive. The state suffered the worst disaster in its living memory during the month. Also known as the 'Himalayan Tsunami', the catastrophe resulted in huge loss of lives and widespread devastation across the state. Official records say more than 4,000 people were killed or found missing and large-scale damages were caused to infrastructure — including roads, houses, schools, hospitals, agriculture, forest and environment etc.
The catastrophe left behind many lessons to learn from. These were scientifically and systematically collected, compiled and collated by various agencies — including the expert teams from National Institute of Disaster Management, and Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India — under the leadership of the author. The team physically visited the affected areas and interacted with communities and various other stakeholders including response forces, state and district level administration, and panchayat and civil society organisation representatives. The main outcomes of this extensive study were compiled in the form of a report 'Uttarakhand Disaster- 2013'. It is important to note that the Disaster Management Department officials of Uttarakhand Government were also involved in developing the report. The main recommendations were categorised under five major heads — response and preparedness; risk prevention and mitigation; reconstruction and recovery; mainstreaming disaster management in development planning; and capacity building. The report was shared with the state Government and finalised after its consent.
While having a close look at the disaster response operations following the February 7 disaster and comparing it with the 2013 response, it becomes clear that there is a paradigm shift in the disaster response system and its implementation. The communication, preparedness, time management, and above all, the coordination among various players, especially the response teams is highly appreciable and needs a big applause. When I have a look at the NIDM report recommendations, it gives a big relief that whether they are related to early warning, communication, response time, preparedness, availability of resources, training of community and response of force persons — most of the recommendations made in the report are being given due consideration and are fulfilled by the state Government.
But while appreciating the response and preparedness efforts at all stages, one issue that hurts the most is that not much is done in the direction of risk mitigation, prevention and mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in development planning. These strategic issues, to some extent, are ignored by the concerned agencies. The investigations and research about the causes behind the recent disaster are still going on and it may take some time to conclude. Yet, based on the reports being made available from different sources, it becomes very clear that the hydropower projects played a devastating role in turning the hazard into a disaster. During the 2013 disaster also, various scientific studies revealed that one of the main causes of large-scale devastation during that catastrophe had been unplanned development, mainly related to hydropower projects in this ecologically sensitive and fragile mountain zone. I remember very well, and it is also on record in the NIDM report that the honourable Supreme Court of India took cognisance of the Civil Appeal No. 6736 of 2013 in context of the disaster and observed that "development of new hydropower projects in the region will have extensive implications on ecology and environment of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins". The honourable Supreme Court also directed the then Ministry of Environment and Forest to constitute an expert body and make a detailed study as to whether the hydropower projects — existing and under construction — have contributed to the environmental degradation. If so, to what extent and whether it has contributed to the 2013 Uttarakhand tragedy?
Two major recommendations related to the establishment of hydropower projects in the region made by NIDM report are — having Disaster Impact Assessment (DIA) Clearance and requirement of a mandatory effective muck disposal plan. Negligence of muck disposal by the hydropower projects and also by the road construction agencies played a very negative role in increased vulnerability of the region to natural hazards. During the 2013 tragedy, the muck dumped by the Srinagar hydropower project was washed away by the powerful water currents and spread in residential and office areas – burying houses and office buildings under 10-15 feet deep mud. It has resulted in large-scale devastation. This time also the muck generated by the hydropower projects created havoc by entering into the dam tunnels and entrapping several precious lives.
To conclude, this is the high time that the Government and other concerned agencies need to review and deeply analyse the lessons learnt from earlier mega-disasters in the region and give fresh thought about establishing such projects in sensitive areas and instead explore developing alternative options like solar, wind and bio-energy projects. In case it is unavoidable, then modify rules and regulations related to granting permission for establishing hydropower projects in the region. Government should make strict rules about incorporating Disaster Impact Assessment (DIA) and mandatory muck disposal plan. An expert committee, under the leadership of some well-known senior experts, needs to be formed to have a check on irregularities by project administration. The project appraisal report needs to very clearly include the assessment of real risks generated due to the power projects and also state the actions the project team has taken to mitigate the same. The DIA needs to include the clear response strategy and planning, including the Standard Operating Procedure in case of disasters. This is the high time that the policymakers learn the lessons from the past and understand the significance of the preventive and risk mitigation measures while carrying out development. It should ensure sustainable development and overall progress of the hill states of the country.
The writer is working as an International Disaster Risk Reduction Expert with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, regional office in Egypt. Views expressed are personal