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Uttarakhand disaster: Absence of an ‘early warning system’ cost many lives

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

New Delhi: The Uttarakhand flash flood on Sunday demolished and destroyed everything and being that came in its way. As several rescue agencies, on the third day of the disaster, are still trying to find survivors, authorities are assessing the events and where they lacked to prevent the magnitude of this calamity, which has so far killed 31 people.

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As a part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off in Joshimath, in Chamoli district, and hurled downstream on the Dhauli Ganga, towards the Tapovan hydroelectric power project, some people idling in the mountains above first spotted the huge column of debris approaching with loud rumble and clamour and alerted workers at the site below with shouts and whistles.

Manish Kumar, a survivor of this glacier burst, ran uphill on hearing the loud  rumble and saved his life. While talking about the horrific incident he said that a proper alarm system could have saved many more lives. “If there had been cameras or sensors installed a few kilometres upstream, and the alarms had gone off even five or 10 minutes earlier, many more lives could have been saved. But that was not to be,” he said.

The flood was so disasterous that it completely washed away the Rishi Ganga power project, a few kilometres upstream.

Furthermore, the Tapovan power project which has already witnessed three major episodes of flooding in the making for 15 years, still doesn’t have a functional early-warning system that could have alerted its workers to an impending flood.

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The Chamoli tragedy could have been avoided if the government hadn’t been so negligent and had taken simple safety measures.

Environmental activist and water expert Himanshu Thakkar told media that “in Raini village, when the first visual was seen, there should have been a system to immediately warn people downstream. That could have saved lives in Tapovan and other places.”

Thakkar also gave her opinion that cameras can be installed on some streams in vulnerable areas. “But this is part of disaster management information. [And] as this incident has illustrated, we are faltering in the first step of disaster management – in getting the information and then using that information.”

Thakkar, who is also a coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), acknowledged that “physically monitoring this entire area is not possible.” However, “satellite monitoring is possible and radars can also help minimise loss.”

He even expressed his surprise on the fact that despite possessing remarkable satellite capabilities, the country still hasn’t been able to use such imagery effectively for advance warning.

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“In this case, even after 48 hours of the tragedy, the images are not coming from our agencies but from global players like Planet Labs, the US, etc.,” Thakkar said. “And this is not the first time that there has been such a lack of information flow from Indian agencies. In the past, too, when there has been such an incident in a remote area and there were floods and damage to downstream infrastructure, Indian satellite data hardly ever helped.”

As the region faces a higher risk of flash floods than the rest of the country, the idea of installing Doppler radars in Uttarakhand showed up long back. “They were to be installed much before the June 2013 devastation,” according to Thakkar. “Even then the issue was discussed, since the financial allocation for these radars had already been made.” adding that “the first of them was finally installed only in 2020”, he said.

These devices are expected to be able to warn of the possibility of a cloud burst, heavy snow or other such sudden events a few hours in advance.

According to an analysis by SANDRP,  in 2019 there had been 23 cloud-burst events in the state during the monsoon season alone – rendering the absence of an early-warning instrument more conspicuous.

Thakkar also said, “In this tragedy, snowfall had a huge impact,” Thakkar said. “There was heavy snow in the region on February 4 and 5, and that along with the melting and possible landslide contributed to the tragedy.”

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