Cloudburst in Uttarakhand | Causes and Management

Uttarakhand the abode of gods with its magnificent snow-covered peaks, pristine forests and awe-inspiring rivers is a sacred place in Indian culture. Million of pilgrims and tourists visit the state of Uttarakhand every year, especially during the summer season. Despite all these attractions, the state of Uttarakhand has a highly vulnerable ecosphere. There are sudden cloudburst, flash floods, landslides, avalanches, rockfall, soil creep and mass wasting.

The cloudburst of 16 June 2013 has been termed by the experts as the Himalayan Tsunami. Although the rain falling would have been fairly cold, it would not have frozen as it moved down through the snowpack. The rain released a small quantity of heat that caused snow to melt. The high intensity of rains actually accelerated the process. The heat released was sufficient to raise the heat of the snowpack from a few degrees below zero to the melting point, a substantial change in temperatures in the Himalayan heights. The rain on snow rather than glacial melts aggravated the floods which were caused by a phenomenal 34 cm of precipitation in less than 20 hours.

The pace at which melted snow melted moved affected the volume of rain and ground conditions. As the turbulent rivers of Uttarakhand moved downwards on steep slopes, they carried more weathered material, and the water gained speed and volume, rapidly increasing the levels downstream. It led to flash flood and became an unparalleled disaster in the modern history of the state. In the words of a poet “Tabahi Ka Manzar Dukhon ki Kahani: Pahdon pe Barsa Pahadon ka Pani

This cloudburst resulted in enormous loss of life, property, and infrastructure. With many National Highways damaged, bridges washed away, electricity and phones networks down, hotels and motels destroyed, towns and rural settlements buried and numerous ravaged places marooned. The Uttarakhand cloudburst affected about 48,000 sq km of Bhagirathi, Alaknanda rivers and their tributaries. The worst affected was the Mandakini Basin, in which the Kedarnath -Shrine, Rambara, Gaurikund, and Guptkashi towns were devastated. According to official figures, the number of villages affected by the flash flood was 3978, roads damaged—1636 km, worth INR 500 crore, cost of restoring drinking water network Rs.100 crore; damage to hydropower projects about INR 150-200-crore.

According to the experts of environment, ecology, glaciers and Himalayan geology, the disaster might have been waiting to happen. The illegal construction on the hills, the exponential growth of rickety structures that serve as hotels which are sordidly maintained, the lackadaisical attitude towards warnings of natural catastrophes are largely responsible for the disaster of Mandakini, Bhilangna, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Pindar, and Dhauli Ganga basins.

Apart from the natural disaster on the cloudburst of June 2013, according to experts, is largely a man-made disaster.

Causes of Cloudburst in Uttarakhand

  1. The development and extension of roads and National Highways NH-58-Mana Pass, NH-108-Gangotri-Angar, NH-109-Guptkashi-Kedarnath, etc., have disturbed the ecology and the highly fragile ecosystems of the region.
  2. Under the pressure of rapid growth of population and religious and cultural tourism, there is a tremendous growth of urban settlements, hotels, business-houses, hill resorts, camping sites, Chattis (night-halts) in the hills. Unfortunately, the pilgrimage today has become the ugly face of tourism. The tourism lobby has destroyed the sanctity of the shrines of Deobhumi. Hotels and Dhabas play the latest film music at the top volume. All these developments are damaging and polluting the natural beauty and ecology of the Himalayas. Regulate the limited number of healthy cultural tourists who can walk on foot up to the shrines.
  3. Restrictions like that of biosphere reserves, strict rules should be framed that each shrine will take so many pilgrims in a day and in a year. There should not be any VIP quotas. Hotels and Dharamshalas should not be allowed near the Shriners. The basic principle of religious tourism should be “Have a Darshan and proceed back”
  4. The business of ponies and dandi-rides should be abolished or minimised.
  5. The uncontrolled cultural tourism at religious places like Char Dham-Yatra (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath), and other places like Hemkund Sahib, Rudranath, Hanuman Chatti, Govind Pahuvihar, etc. also need to be regulated.
  6. The Himalayas are unstable that are still in the process of rising. Blasting them to make tunnels, dams, roads and other such projects destabilise the entire mountain range. The earth and rocks become loose, and when there are torrential rains, they come tumbling down with a humongous amount of debris and slush, which destroys everything in their way.
  7. Construction of multistoried buildings, hotels, motels, Sarais, Dharamshalas (inns), rest-houses, factories, picnic spots, tourists and pilgrims camping grounds have damaged the fragile ecosystems of the Himalayas. They should be developed according to the principles of ecology and environment after the Environmental Impact Assessment.
  8. Several major multipurpose projects (Tehri Dam, Koteshwar, Maneri-Bhali Hydel Project, Loharinga-Pala Hydel Project, Srinagar Project, Asi-Ganga Project and Vishnu-Prayag Project) and numerous other big and small dams across the tributaries of the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their reservoirs have disturbed the isostatic – equilibrium in the young folded mountains of the Himalayas. The Supreme Court on 13 August 2013 ordered a fresh environment impact assessment of the 24 major hydro-electric projects on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers. Small dams and projects should be preferred to big and multipurpose projects.
  9. The ambitious target of the decision-makers and planners to convert the State of Uttarakhand into the Urja Pradesh (Energy Province) and the Tourist Capital of India have launched many projects against the principles of ecology and geomorphology.
  10. Indiscriminate deforestation of oak trees for commercial purposes have changed the forest ecosystems of the Himalayas. The oak forests have been replaced by pine trees. But what is profitable to man, may not be profitable to the Himalayas. Pine is not a good substitute for oak trees. We may have little or no control over cloudburst and very heavy rainfall, but we can mitigate the devastation of the Himalayas by foresting it with trees that can hold the mountains together; the trusty old oak. Oak trees help create through natural masonry a fortification of soil against erosion caused even by heavy rainfall.

It was because of the above factors, the havoc that followed cloudburst on 16 June 2013 in Uttarakhand had been in the making for many years. The devastating floods in Uttarakhand have proved that taming natural forces through human intervention is all but a myth. The plans now made should work with nature and not in opposition to it.

Cloudburst Management in Uttarakhand

Cloudburst is a natural disaster that causes great damage to life and property. Some of the steps that can help in reducing the damage to life and property in the affected areas are given below:

  1. Based on scientific data, there should be a delineation of eco-sensitive zones.
  2. The maximum and minimum discharge of water of all the rivers and their tributaries should be ascertained and the people should be made aware of the possible discharge of the rivers. Unfortunately, the state of Uttarakhand has not defined the minimum discharge of water in the major rivers. Such laxity is bound to result in large scale destruction and disasters.
  3. A better and effective system of weather forecasting and dissemination of weather-related informationist imperative to mitigate the cloudburst disaster. For this purpose, Doppler-Radars should be installed by the Meteorological Department of India in the upper reaches of the Himalayan rivers to make advance weather forecasting for events like a cloudburst.
  4. There should be proper site selection and planning of the rural and urban settlements.
  5. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive renewal and relook at construction techniques of roads, houses, factories and other infrastructures.
  6. Blasting whích is done for the construction of dams and roads, weaken the hills and shakes the roots of the trees. Such blasting should be stopped or minimised.
  7. Encroachment of river beds by buildings, and blasting of mountains to build National Highways are making hilly regions more susceptible to disasters. These activities should be done keeping in mind the ecological principles.
  8. There should be strict regulation of religious, cultural and aesthetic tourism. The tourism industry needs to be converted into eco-tourism to avert disasters and catastrophe.
  9. There is an urgent need to establish the Bhagirathi-Alaknanda Development Authority on the pattern of the Damodar Valley Corporation.
  10. Uncontrolled traffic-jams and increased environmental pollution play havoc in the fragile ecosystems of the Himalayas. They should be checked and mitigated.
  11. There should be state-level, and district level Disaster Management and Mitigation Centres to combat the humongous natural calamities, like that of the 16 June 2013.
  12. Human resource required to tackle natural disasters should be strengthened.
  13. There should be no discrimination while providing relief and rehabilitation measures. Calls from influential people and politicians should not be entertained by the persons engaged in the rescue operation.
  14. The post cloudburst operations should include quick action of the rescue of stranded people buried under thick cover of debris to evacuate them to safer places. Immediate medical help should be provided to survivors.
  15. The state government should take strict and effective action against the encroachment around the shrines in the form of make-shift shops, hotels, dhabas and temporary shelters.
  16. The Sant-Samaj (religious community) should work as a pressure group to check the construction of multi-story buildings, hotels, motels, Sarais and Dharamshalas.
  17. People should be educated about the small size of families to reduce the pressure of population on the limited resource base of the mountainous ecosystems.

If these steps are taken together, the consequent damage to life, property, infrastructure, ecology and environment may be reduced substantially.