Chronicles of a Himalayan tragedy foretold

The dead will never tell. But for their beloved most of those lives lost last month in India’s Uttarakhand state in what is now called a Himalayan tsunami could have been saved. Only, the authorities should have been a little less callous in ignoring tell-tale warnings.

Indications are that the death toll in the flash floods and landslides triggered by heavy rains which lashed the Himalayas from June 17 is likely to cross 5,000.

As on July 2, the number of dead was estimated at 1,300, but sources say few of the 3,000 still missing after two weeks of rescue operations might survive the merciless weather in the Himalayan heights.

Of course there was no way to foresee the unseasonal rains and cludbursts that hit the state from June 17 to 20. But the authorities could have saved a several hundred lives, had they listened to the weathermen ahead of the rains that struck the hills of Kedearnath, the home of one of the most holy shrines of the Hindus.

A June 15 advisory stated that “heavy to very heavy rains” were expected and indicated the danger of landslides. The department experts asked the authorities to postpone the pilgrimage and move those in the hills to safer places.

After long stretches of roads were washed away in flash floods, about 100,000 pilgrims, tourists and local people were stranded in the heights. Nearly 5,000 villages were cut off from access to rescue workers.

It appears that the administrators failed to react with enough seriousness to a met department warning of heavy rains and likely landslides and flash floods in the unstable hills.

Apparently, the scale of the disaster was worsened by a long-term neglect of warnings by geological and environmental experts about unfettered mining and construction activities that accelerated deforestation in the area. The Himalayan hills have long been identified as landslide prone by India’s own National Disaster Management Agency.

Met department records show it warned days ahead of the the rains that began on June 17 about the possibility of heavy unseasonal rains. It suggested the state authorities delay the pilgrimage to the Kedarnath shrine, which is one among a group of four Himalayan shrines usually visited by Hindu pilgrims during the same pilgrimage.

A June 15 advisory stated that “heavy to very heavy rains” were expected and indicated the danger of landslides. The department experts asked the authorities to postpone the pilgrimage and move those in the hills to safer places.

“From June 14, we started giving the heavy rainfall warning… For 15th we issued warning for very heavy showers,” said Andand Sharma, the director of the Uttarakhand Met department. “And on June 16, we said heavy to very heavy rainfall and specifically highlighted the regions,” Sharma told a television channel.

It is not only the met department that had warned against the possible dangers lurking in the Himalayan heights. Geologists had long been warning against uncontrolled mining and construction activities on the unstable hills of the Kedearnath area. They had also been against building more dams on the hills that could accelerate deforestation. The state and federal governments had consistently ignored the warnings.

Many of the people who might have survived the initial flash floods could have still perished later as the hills continued to receive heavy rains triggering more landslides. It took about 12 days to bring the last of the survivors from the treacherous mountains as rescue operations by the army and the air force were hampered by heavy rains, strong winds and thick fog. The rescuers admitted to leaving hundreds of unidentified, rotting bodies on river banks banks. The government had to conduct mass funerals of the bodies.

The authorities are said to have taken the met department suggestions more as a “routine advisory” and “not a warning”.

Yashpal Arya, the Uttarakhand state disaster management minister, admitted that the met department had issued an alert. But he claimed there was little that could have been done considering the extent of the natural calamity as hundreds of thousands of people were scattered in the region.

“We had prior information. But there was no indication of a crisis of this magnitude,” the minister said.

It is not only the met department that had warned against the possible dangers lurking in the Himalayan heights. Geologists had long been warning against uncontrolled mining and construction activities on the unstable hills of the Kedearnath area. They had also been against building more dams on the hills that could accelerate deforestation. The state and federal governments had consistently ignored the warnings.

Almost 100 buildings were washed away by the raging waters of the tributaries of the Ganges in Kedarnath alone. Among them 40 were hotels built close to the river, some allegedly jutting the river bed on concrete pillars without regard for the zoning norms.

A series of dams constructed on the Himalayas disregarding its fragile ecological balance possibly increased the damage from the floods, Medha Patkar, an activist against big dams, told a television channel.

Scientists Jack D. Ives and Bruno Messerli sounded a warning about the dangers of unplanned development and deforestation in the Himalayan mountains in their book, ‘The Himalayan Dilemma’, published in 2011 by the United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

The Himalayas, according to scientists, is one of the youngest mountains on the face of the earth. Geologists say the Himalayas rose when the tectonic plate of the Indian subcontinent drifted through the Indian Ocean and rammed the Asian landmass. The plate is still pushing into the continental landmass, causing the Himalayas to keep on rising.

India has been building dams and promoting construction activities in this seismically vulnerable area in the hope of putting economic development on steroids. But its impact on the ecology of the Himalayas has been disastrous. Still the government has been funding construction on the ecologically fragile areas based on allegedly cooked up environment evaluation reports.

Scientists Jack D. Ives and Bruno Messerli sounded a warning about the dangers of unplanned development and deforestation in the Himalayan mountains in their book, ‘The Himalayan Dilemma’, published in 2011 by the United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

Despite the Uttarakhand disaster, there is unlikely to be a rethink on India’s developmental priorities. Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, told a television channel that the dams were what kept the devastation from flooding down. The remark is considered by many as showing politicians’ disregard for established scientific wisdom.

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