Natural Disaster : UTTARAKHAND 2013

By, Twinkle Francis

BRIEFING THROUGH THE BEAUTY OF UTTARAKHAND

  • Uttarakhand formerly Uttaranchal, is a state in the Northern part of India .
  • It is often referred to as the "Land of the gods" due to the many Hindu Temples and pilgrimage centres found throughout the state.
  • Uttarakhand is known for its natural beauty of the Himalayas , the Bhabar and the Terai.
  • The state is divided into two divisions, Garhwal and Kumaon , with a total of 13 districts.
  • The provisional capital of Uttarakhand is Dehradun , the largest city in the region, which is
  • a railhead.
  • The high court of the state is in Nainital .
Uttarakhand beauty

THE DISASTER

July 2013:

The Himalayan regions of India are geologically fragile and highly eco-sensitive, and hence prone to certain types of natural disasters. Among the Himalayan states, Uttarakhand has been notable for a plethora of such disasters in recent decades, including floods and landslides in almost every monsoon season. Hence, except for the heavy toll of pilgrims and tourists and damages to shrines and property, the severity of the floods in June 2013 in Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts may not have attracted overwhelming attention. Indeed, the ravaging floods that occurred simultaneously in Pithoragarh district went almost unnoticed at first, which reinforces the notion that such floods are now considered almost normal in Uttarakhand. It is NOW that we briefly review the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of this disaster.

REASONS FOR THE DISASTER

  • The disaster was multi-faceted.
  • It started with an earthquake, went on with a landslide and ended with a flood.

NATURAL CAUSES: The floods were essentially caused by heavy rainfall
in Uttarakhand in mid-June, with the monsoon having entered the state about a fortnight earlier than usual. We look at the possible natural causes that may have accentuated the floods.


Early monsoon : The early onset of monsoon caught people unawares (hence causing significant damage to life and property.)

  • Extreme rainfall event: High rainfall magnitudes are not very rare in Uttarakhand .


Widespread rains : The rainfall events before and during the above floods occurred widely over the catchments of Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and other rivers, thereby sending high runoff into these rivers.

  • Heavy rains at the start of monsoon: It seems that heavy rains rarely occur in Uttarakhand at the very start of monsoon. Usually, the rains are relatively light and scattered at first, before increasing in magnitude and spread after 2 or 3 weeks. At present, the monsoons entered the State with a bang, which may have been a factor that intensified the floods. This is because rains cause landslides due to unstable slopes and loose rocks, which tend to (partially) block the stream paths; and when these blockages get blown away, the dammed up water disgorges with high flood peaks, thereby producing dam-burst like floods.

HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF PLACES WHERE THE DISASTER WAS VERY SEVERE

The places where the disaster seemed to be more severe in Uttarakhand were :

  • Gangotri
  • Kedarnath
  • Badrinath
  • Gaurikand
  • Hemkund
  • Jyotirmath
  • Roopkund
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GANGOTRI

Gangotri is a town and a municipality in Uttarkashi district in the state of Uttarakhand , India. It is a Hindu pilgrim town on the banks of the river Bhagirathi and origin of River Ganges. It is on the Greater Himalayan Range, at a height of 3,100m. The simple shrine of Gangotri temple has special significance for Hindu pilgrims. It's considered to be one of the holiest places in India as it's regarded as the spiritual source of the ever powerful Ganges River. Set amidst rugged mountains and forest, Gangotri attracts almost 300,000 pilgrims a year. the historical significance of this place is that according to Hindu history, Goddess Ganga took the form of a river to absolve the sins of King Bhagiratha's predecessors, following his severe penance of several centuries.

The Disaster

More than 50 million people are affected by natural disasters annually, but despite this the second most populous country in the world suffers from serious lack of disaster preparedness.

One of the four dhams of Uttarakhand, Gangotri is still reeling under the aftermath of last year's devastation in Kedarnath which resulted in huge losses, both to human lives and property.

When clouds burst over the sacred mountains, even gods could not protect them. In the elemental fury of water and falling hills, the dead multiplied on ravaged terrains and the living struggled in vain to reach the far shores of survival. In one of its worst monsoons, gangotri became a watery graveyard for hundreds and a monumental reminder of how nature's rage can be compounded by man's callousness.

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KEDARNATH

Kedarnath is a town located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and has gained importance because of Kedarnath Temple. The most remote of the four Char Dham sites, Kedarnath is located in the Himalayas, about 3,583 m (11,755 ft) above sea level near Chorabari Glacier, the head of river Mandakini, and is flanked by snow-capped peaks. The nearest road head is at Gaurikund, at a distance of 14 k.m.

The town suffered extensive destruction during June 2013 from flash floods caused by torrential rains in Uttarakhand state.

The Disaster

On June 16, 2013 at approximately 7:30 p.m., a landslide occurred near Kedarnath Temple with loud thunder followed by gushing of huge amount of waters from Chorabari Tal or Gandhi Tal down Mandakini River at about 8:30 p.m. which washed away everything in its path. On June 17, 2013 at approximately 6:40 a.m., waters rushed down River Saraswati and from Chorabari Tal or Gandhi Sarovar bringing along with its flow huge amount of silt, rocks and boulders.

A huge boulder got stuck behind Baba Kedarnath Temple, protecting it from the ravages of the flood's fury. The flood water gushed on both sides of the temple destroying everything in its path. Thus in the middle of pilgrimage season, torrential rains, cloud bursts and resulting flash floods nearly destroyed the town of Kedarnath.

The town was the worst affected area by the floods. Thousands of people were feared killed and thousands of others (mostly pilgrims) were reported missing or stranded due to landslides around Kedarnath. Although the surrounding area and compound of the Kedarnath temple were destroyed, the temple itself survived.The Uttarakhand Chief Minister said that pilgrimage to Kedarnath would not be possible for next two to five years. The rescue operation resulted in more than 100,000 people being airlifted with the help of the Indian Army, Air force, NDRF and Indo-Tibet border police force.

A helicopter (Mi 17) crashed during this exercise killing all 20 people on board (all of them were soldiers involved in relief and rescue work). The Air Force dropped logs to build pyres for mass cremations of the victims.

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BADRINATH

Badrinath is a holy town and a nagar panchayat in Chamoli district in the state of Uttarakhand, India. It is the most important of the four sites in India's Char Dham pilgrimage and gets its name from the Holy temple of Badrinath.

The Badrinath temple is the main attraction in the town. According to legend Shankara discovered a black stone image of Lord Badrinarayan made of Saligram stone in the Alaknanda River. He originally enshrined it in a cave near the Tapt Kund hot springs.

The Disaster

This is what had happened in Uttarakhand with heavy rains coupled with cloud-bursts and huge quantities of ground-water released from water-saturated aquifers exposed by the thunder-strikes, together making an extremely large volume of water flowing all around in unexpected and unknown areas causing severe flood fury. Thousands of pilgrims visiting badrinath and other holy shrines were washed away or buried in the debris brought in by the floodwaters and in landslides but lakhs got stranded for weeks, nowhere to go, nothing to eat or drink. Unfortunately, rescue operations started late and most operations got concen-trated in the Hemkund area while the largest chunk of pilgrims were at badrinath and its downsides.

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GAURIKAND

Gauri Kund is a Hindu pilgrimage site and base camp for trek to Kedarnath Temple, in Uttaranchal, India. It is situated at an altitude of more than 6000 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas. Gauri Kund is connected with Shiva's wife Parvati, also known as Gauri. In Hindu folklore, Gauri committed to penance involving many ascetic and yogic practices to win over Shiva's affections. Local tradition claims that Gauri Kund is the spot where Gauri lived while carrying out these practices and it was here that Shiva finally admitted His love for Her. They were married at Triyugi Narayan, which is located nearby. There are hot springs in Gaurikund and they are converted to bathing places.

The Disaster


The report states, "Antecedent rainfall saturated the area and suddenly exceeds the limit on 16th and 17th June which is one of the reasons for the activation of landslide and flash flood in the region that has caused huge damage to lives and property in gaurikund. "

"Fast water currents wash away Gaurikund and this was stated as the highly hit flood area in uttarkhand since the place was completely washed away leaving no clue other than the few people that saved themselves from being washed away by climbing up hills," states report.

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HEMKUND

Hemkunt is a Sanskrit name derived from Hem ("Snow") and Kund ("bowl"). Dasam Granth says this is the place where Pandu Raja practiced Yoga.

Sri Hemkunt Sahib is situated 4000 mt above sea level on the shore of "Hemkunt lake". The holy pilgrimage of Sikhs, Hemkunt Sahib, is covered with snow capped mountains, giving it a mesmerizing look. The Sapt-Sring, seven hills, have surrounded the holy shrine and the lake. The lake’s rocky shores are covered with snow through most of the year, but when the snows melt, the almost mythical yellow-green flower known as the Brahma Kamal, the `Lotus of the Gods’, blooms amidst the rocks. It’s a place of a rather wild and untamed beauty- and one of Sikkhism’s most important shrines.

The Disaster

“Never was it thought that rains will play havoc,” said Amitoj Singh, a United Sikhs blogger, in his July 8 report from India. “Though this area is famous for landslides… this was phenomenal.

“In a flash hundreds were literally swept away by the flow.”

The Hemkund Sahib route was spared from the monumental loss of life and property, but the situation still is serious.

About 10,000 lives have been lost since mid June from torrential rains and flash flooding of areas near Hemkund Sahib, including Gobind Ghat , where vehicles park and travelers continue up to the gurdwara by a footpath, a New York-based Sikh humanitarian group said.

The upper snow-covered Himalayan territories are very remote and difficult to access. Several religious sites are situated in that region, including Gurdwara Hemkund Sahib, the only Sikh site, which open to the public during the summer months when the weather is more temperate.

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JYOTIRMATH

Jyotirmath, also known as Joshimath is a city and a municipal board in Chamoli District in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Jyotirmath is the uttaramnaya matha or northern monastery, one of the four cardinal institutions established by Adi Shankara, the others being those at Shringeri , Puri and Dwaraka . Their heads are titled " Shankaracharya ". According to the tradition initiated by Adi Shankara, this matha is in charge of the Atharvaveda . Jyotirmath is close to the pilgrimage town of Badrinath . This place can be a base station for travellers going to Guru Gobind Ghat or the Valley of Flowers National Park . The temple Narasimha, is enshrined Badrinarayan along with a pantheon of deities. The presiding deity Lord Narasimha is believed to have been established by Adi Sankara. It is one of the "Divya Desams", the 108 temples of Vishnu revered by the 12 Tamil poet-saints or Alvars .

The Disaster


Joshimath used to get huge tourist inflow but there is no fool-proof system of tracking tourists that was operational . This makes the estimation of death mere speculation as majority of the people who died in the disaster were tourists. According to Jandesh estimate, nine persons from its intervention area also died during the flood. All of them who died during the disaster were males and were the primary bread winners of their respective families who had gone to collect some kind of herbs in the hills.

Road transport has been seriously affected. As per the rough estimate by Government of Uttarakhand more than 2000 roads which have been affected or badly damaged. The Border Road Organization (BRO) is struggling hard to keep the National Highway No. 58, which connects Joshimath to Deheradun functional but, condition of internal roads is getting worse.

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ROOPKUND

Roopkund (locally known as Mystery Lake) is a high altitude glacial lake in Uttarakhand state of India, lies in the lap of Trishul massif and famous due to hundreds of human skeletons found at the edge of the lake. The location is uninhabited and is located in Himalaya at an altitude of about 5,029 metres (16,499 feet). The lake is surrounded by rock-strewn glaciers and snow clad mountains, making it a good trekking destination.

A shallow lake, having a depth of about 2 metres, Roopkund has attracted attention by having human skeletal remains easily visible at its bottom when snow melts. There are many theories and opinions, from purely spiritual to purely scientific ones, which explain the existence of these skeletons, which date back to 9th century CE. Because of these skeletons, the lake is also sometimes called as Skeleton lake in recent times.

The Disaster

People in other important locations like the Valley of flowers, Roopkund and the Sikh pilgrimage centre Hemkund were stranded for more than three days.

Due to the floods, damaged several houses and structures, killing those who were trapped. The heavy rains resulted in large flashfloods and massive landslides. Entire villages and settlements, had been obliterated, while the market town of Sonprayag suffered heavy damage and loss of lives. Pilgrimage centres in the region, including Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, the hallowed Hindu Chardham (four sites) pilgrimage centers, are visited by thousands of devotees, especially after the month of May onwards. Over a 1000 people were stuck in various regions because of damaged or blocked roads.

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STEPS TAKEN BY THE UTTARAKHAND GOVERNMENT TOWARDS THE DISASTER

New Delhi: Stepping up relief efforts, government on Friday deployed more aircraft to evacuate thousands stranded in rain-ravaged Uttarakhand even as Railways pitched in with free travel to enable those rescued to reach their hometowns.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to step up relief operations in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand. Earlier, the apex court had sought a report from the Centre and the state government and gave them time till Tuesday to update it on the relief and rehabilitation work.

  • As many as 33,152 persons have been moved to safer areas in massive relief and rescue operations launched by the Central and state governments in the last few days to tackle the unprecedented situation caused by flash floods.
  • The Railways along with the Uttarakhand government has also offered to send all stranded passengers free of cost to their respective destinations.
  • The Indian Air Force has deployed its heavylift Mi-26 helicopters to transport fuel and heavy equipment required by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to clear roads closed due to landslide.
  • The Uttarakhand government has submitted its Action Taken Report in the Supreme Court. The report says that clearing of debris from different areas is high on the government's agenda. It says evacuation of all the stranded pilgrims will be completed in next 72 hours if weather conditions permit.

STEPS TAKEN BY THE LOCAL COMMUNITY TOWARDS THE UTTARAKHAND DISASTER

Dams and tunnels will wreck Uttarakhand, green activists have said all along. It's official now.

Blaming hydropower projects for aggravating the impact of the Uttarakhand catastrophe of June 2013 and for environmental degradation of the state, an expert committee of the environment ministry has sought a complete overhaul of the environmental clearance mechanism for proposed projects.

In its report submitted to the Supreme Court on Monday, the 11-member panel strongly suggested the enactment of legislation for protecting small but significant rivers and designating "eco-sensitive zones" for all rivers in the state.

It also sought the immediate notification of a "river regulation zone" by the ministry.

The apex court had on August 13 last year directed the environment ministry to constitute an expert committee to assess the impact of existing and under-construction hydro projects on the Uttarakhand disaster, and the possible impact of 24 proposed projects in the state on the biodiversity of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.

The spotlight has been turned anew on all hydropower projects in mountainous regions.

In view of Uttarakhand's glacial sensitivity, the panel sought to keep terrain above 2,200 metres free from hydropower intervention. Noting extremely low environmental flows (minimum flow of water required in a river to sustain aquatic health and livelihood of local communities) in Uttarakhand's rivers, the panel recommended steps to ensure a minimum of 50 per cent flow in the lean season and 30 per cent during the non-monsoon period.