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The water carnage in Uttarakhand: Will we finally do something about it ..




Somehow, it always seems that we are always in the short-term mode. There were massive flood in Mumbai some years back which converted the city into one floating disaster zone and killed a heck of a lot of people, and there were a lot of analysis done about it. The analysis was that the normal water flows of the city had been shut down or turned down, and as a result, there was no way for water to flow out of the city, especially at a time of high tide. Reports after a year essentially stated that nothing much had been done, but since the situation did not happen again to that extent, there was no major follow up and no public action asking for that again. And this is not surprising, since we seem to believe in an attitude that whatever happens is karma, and anyhow, we don’t get into the mode of working diligently on long term solutions.
Currently, we are seeing some huge flooding problems in the north Indian mountain states, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. There has been a huge amount of rainfall in the region, much more than normal, and as a result, the amount of flooding by rivers is much beyond normal. The amount of devastation caused is huge, and the loss in terms of human life and in terms of property is incredibly high, with the true level not being known as of now. Temple towns such as Rudraprayag, Kedarnath, Badrinath, and the whole region around these places have been devastated by the fast moving waters, with the silt being carried by these rivers causing a large amount of destruction. There have been several iconic photos of this destruction, such as the state of Lord Shiva in Rishikesh having water to the neck and eventually being carried away, bridges in Rudraprayag having water levels above the bridge level causing the bridge to go down, the famous site of the Kedarnath temple being devastated by a flash flood, and many hotels and buildings collapsing into fast moving river water as their foundations are swept away. This devastation raises 2 main questions, neither of which I doubt will really be answered and not be easily solved, since they depend on the Government and society to work on a long term solution, and the past experience of the Government shows that it really does not work long term since there are no benefits of the same.
The current devastation result in 2 main queries, and for which there are no answers:
1. Abysmal planning for such devastation. When such a devastation happens, there is a lot of talk from the Government about how the army is brought into action to help, and how the disaster relief agencies are getting into the act, and how weather causes problems, and the Prime Minister takes a survey from many kilometers up in the air to see some water flowing somewhere and calls this an expression of concern. But, when it is known that the monsoon causes problems (although the scope can vary), why are there no dedicated measures already in place. It is all well and fine to say that the army and air force get involved and provide a lot of help, but this is not their main work. They cannot provide the same kind of expert help if there was dedicated disaster relief agencies already working towards a plan. If there was such a plan, it would involve having a set of plans that would come into operation at different levels of disaster, and not see a situation where people have been stranded for days altogether, hoping to get picked up by the military. The civil administration seems to have totally gone for a toss, and people whose loved ones are stuck have no idea, with many of them not even sure whether their relatives are even alive or not. Further, given that there are such a huge number of people stuck on various pilgrimages, was there not even the slightest bit of monsoon forecast that could have determined that there would be such a high level of rainfall and devastation, and maybe stop some of these pilgrims from making their way over to these various temple sites.
2. Why such a high level of devastation took place ? The signs of the river water is fearful, given the high level of silt it contains. This silt increases the volume of the water and makes it a fearful battering weapon, washing away the banks of the river, causing more dangerous items to float in the water such as boulders, rocks and debris from devastation. This acts as a battering ram, washing away the foundations of many hills on the side, which in turns devastated many roads on the hill side. But is this only an act of nature ? From the beginning of school, we have been taught that a hillside or mountain with greenery massively decreases the amount of silt that can get washed away with rain water (even if it is fast moving water) and even breaks up the speed of the water channels, decreasing the silt carried even more. But, if you compare the photos of many of these regions with that of a couple of decades earlier, there will be something disappearing and something appearing. The part that has disappeared is the greenery (okay, not disappeared but reduced massively) and the part that has appeared a lot is construction (hotels, houses, and the like). These have certainly not been built to any plan that would be ecologically sensitive, and a number of them were illegal. Constructing such buildings near the river bank or on slopes not only make the building dangerous but actually causes a lot of overall damage since the very act of constructing such a building without the proper technology makes the place weaker, more susceptible to damage. If you have ever been to Shimla, you can see the number of houses built on hillsides, and how many of those hills do you think are more likely to have landslides ? Replace the trees (which with their roots help to stabilize the soil) and construct buildings whose construction also ends up shaking the whole area, and you have a recipe for disaster.
There are a number of reports on the construction of a number of dams on the fast moving rivers in these regions, with the only opposition coming from environmentalists and local people. Even the Governments in these areas, whether these be the BJP or the Congress have been tremendously excited by the potential of building dams all along these rivers. The act of constructing a dam causes a huge damage to the ecology of such sensitive regions, by the tunnels that are built, the blasting that happens, the deforestation that is done, and it is rare that these projects have done the required reforestation, and the Government does not really enforce these regulations. So, when you have a large amount of water, then you have those situations for which there was no planning (and which the Government would be hoping would not happen).
Now, the basic question is about what will happen next ? I have been reading an interesting magazine called “Down to Earth” that has been describing the discussions regarding the construction of a dam in Arunachal Pradesh, and if what I was reading is correct, then it is a point of despair, where the Government and the construction agencies get their own experts to prove their own point, and you are left wondering whether the Government is indeed concerned about the problems that would happen when problems such as what happened in Uttarakhand happen. I fear not.




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