There is little that can be done to prevent the kind of flash floods that struck Uttarakhand last Sunday. Whether caused by lake bursts, excessive rainfall, or triggered by a landslide and avalanche, like what seems to have happened this time, incidents like these are a result of natural processes that can hardly be stopped.
Technology is available
But their frequency, and the destruction they cause, can be minimised. A relatively low-hanging fruit, but a very effective one, is to set up early warning systems that alert the downstream populations about an impending disaster. This has to be coupled with plans to quickly evacuate local communities to safer regions.
“The technology is available. There are several parameters in the glaciers and lakes that can be monitored, and based on that, a warning system can be developed. Several countries around the world have these. Nepal installed these at least a decade ago. There is no reason why we cannot have a warning system. It will save plenty of human lives,” said Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a glaciologist.
Applied and tested
India has already seen the benefits of an effective early warning system for other natural disasters, most noticeably for cyclones. Every year, potentially thousands of lives are being saved because of accurate cyclone prediction, the availability of shelters, and timely evacuation of people from danger zones. Climate change has increased both the frequency and ferocity of cyclones in the last few years, but the loss of human lives has been reduced significantly.
India also has a working early warning system for tsunami, which offers barely half an hour of lead time. Though there has been no opportunity, thankfully, to test this in a real-life situation, mock drills and simulations have shown that it would be possible to shift the vulnerable populations even in this small time period.
In recent years, early warning systems have been developed for heatwaves and flooding as well, and these too have helped in saving human lives.
Not a sudden phenomenon
Experts say a warning system for flash floods in states like Uttarakhand is far less complicated, and in most instances, an impending disaster can be detected several hours, even days in advance.
“A lake burst, for example, does not happen all of a sudden. There are ample indications that can be monitored. Changes in water level, discharge in the rivers, excessive rainfall in the catchment areas, are all things that can be measured. Regular monitoring can sometimes tell us weeks in advance about the danger, and in many cases, it could even be possible to avert the tragedy. For instance, a lake burst can be prevented in some cases if drainage is constructed that lets out water at regulated levels,” says Anil V Kulkarni, a glaciologist and visiting distinguished scientist at Divecha Centre for Climate Change at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
The survey and monitoring of glaciers are done by the Geological Survey of India (GSI), which is under the Ministry of Mines; scientific research is coordinated by the Department of Science and Technology; climate change studies and impacts are the domain of the Environment Ministry; while rainfall and precipitation are monitored by the India Meteorological Department, which functions under the Earth Sciences Ministry. The Central Water Commission works on the hydrology aspects; avalanches are monitored by an agency that is part of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); while remote sensing is being done by the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), which is a part of ISRO. In addition, state electricity boards and irrigation departments are also stakeholders in the glaciers.
“There has to be one agency that coordinates all the activities and is focused only on glaciers,” said Kulkarni.
Work in progress
A few years ago, the proposal to set up such an agency had almost been approved. A National Centre for Glaciology was proposed to be established, all the details for which had been worked out. Even a site for locating the centre, in the Castle Hill Estate in Mussoorie owned by Survey of India, had been identified. In the final stages, however, the Finance Ministry argued that it would be “prudent” to upgrade and strengthen the facilities at the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology rather than set up a new agency.
A senior government official, who did not wish to be named, said the early warning system could still be set up if the state or the Centre got everyone together. “Somehow, it has not been a priority issue, despite two big disasters now in eight years. It has been a little easier with other warning systems because not many agencies were involved,” he says.
Even the private companies that have set up hydropower projects in the state could be asked to install early warning systems. They have invested hundreds of crores in their projects. An early warning system would cost not more than a few lakhs of rupees. But it would not just help them save their own assets but also the lives of the communities where they are located.