Uttarakhand fails to deliver early warning system 8 years after it was promised

The decision to install an early warning system comes nearly 8 years after the Union environment ministry had said in an affidavit that Uttarakhand urgently needed a flood forecasting network. An expert panel appointed in 2013 had observed that lack of disaster preparedness was a dangerous lacuna.
By Jayashree Nandi, Joshimath
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2021 01:27 AM IST
Warning systems failed both at Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. The India Meteorological Department doesn't yet have any weather monitoring stations in the higher reaches of the mountains.(PTI)

Bharat Singh, a resident of Raini village was out with some more villagers on the hill behind his village on February 7 morning when they noticed a cloud of dust and ice heading for their village flowing through Rishi Ganga river with fierce speed.

“I told myself it’s the glacier. The glacier is heading for us. We called company people (Rishi Ganga hydropower project 13.2 MW) frantically to warn them. They thought it was a joke. Then we realised Rishi Ganga project’s alarm system failed and in no time everything was engulfed,” said Singh.

Warning systems failed both at Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. A senior national thermal power corporation (NTPC) official at the disaster site said: “We had a system of dependence. We had an understanding that whenever water levels rise in Rishi Ganga project barrage, they communicate it to us and we inform projects downstream. But this time there was no time to respond. The volume of debris and ice was so massive alarm systems couldn’t trigger. It has now been decided that a government backed early warning system will be installed for projects here to monitor glaciers.”

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“Some authorities are saying they knew a lake had formed on the glacier then why wasn't it shared with us? People are dying here and there is no warning? This winter was very warm and there was no snowfall here,” said Radha Devi of Raini village.

The decision to install an early warning system comes nearly 8 years after the Union environment ministry had said in an affidavit that Uttarakhand urgently needed a flood forecasting network. An expert body appointed by SC in 2013 had observed that lack of disaster preparedness was a dangerous lacuna.

Read more: Not just climate change, Chamoli disaster was human-induced

An affidavit by MoEFCC dated December 17, 2015 said the EB headed by Ravi Chopra, director of Dehradun-based People's Science Institute had observed “very poor performance and a dangerous lacuna in terms of the disaster preparedness of existing as well as under construction hydro-electric projects. According to EB, the operation of barrages during extreme events leaves a lot of ambiguity as to when the gates should be fully lifted. Without any real time flood forecasting network or an automated weather station upstream and the possibility of massive landslides, blocking of the barrages is a hazard in June when the snow melt component is very high,” underlining that to mitigate the threat a real time flood forecasting network or automated weather stations are required. The probability of errant monsoon behaviour is only likely to increase with global warming, the affidavit had said.

HT sent a query to MoEFCC on Monday as to why an early warning system hadn't been put in place in all these years. MoEFCC officials haven't replied to the query yet.

Read more: 'No new lake, it's part of bigger one that caused Chamoli disaster': Experts

India Meteorological Department doesn't yet have any weather monitoring stations in the higher reaches. “We don't monitor glaciers and avalanche warnings are normally issued by Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment of DRDO. We are trying to strengthen our network but as of today we don't have monitoring stations above 3500 metres,” said Anand Sharma, additional director general, IMD.

“Early flood warning is definitely possible and should be implemented immediately. We need continuous monitoring of water levels, velocity and volumes in high valleys also. Indian Himalayas have 10,000 glaciers. Over 1000 are in Uttarakhand so it's not possible to monitor them individually. But we need remote sensing information and identification of hazardous ones where may be large lakes have formed. Avalanches also need continuous monitoring,” said DP Dobhal, retired geologist at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun.

“There can be a system of alarm triggering during high rainfall or high snowfall particularly in landslide prone zones just like the Tsunami warning system that exists,” said DS Pai.

Read more: Visit Uttarakhand without fear: State govt to tourists after Chamoli disaster

Locals say alarm systems in hydropower projects have often failed. For some the Feb 7 disaster brings fears of the 2013 flash flood experience.

“It was peak of the Chardham yatra in June. Water levels started rising in the Alaknanda at around 6 pm. I was at home. My house is half km away from Alaknanda bank. There was no alarm whatsoever from the dam. By 5 am next morning the river had engulfed a part of our house. We later realised water levels had gone up because all the muck and debris that had been dumped on the riverbed by the hydropower project. Around 86 homes had been inundated by Alaknanda. We live in fear every day,” recollected Chandramohan Bhatt, Srinagar Bandh Apda Sangharsh Samiti head.

In a letter to SC dated February 13, Ravi Chopra has written that implementing the EB's recommendation of a flood warning system could have saved hundreds of lives at Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad projects.

Read more: Wadia institute scientists visit Chamoli disaster site, explain what caused it

The EB report submitted in April 2014 had highlighted the potential threat of paraglacial zones (above 2500 metres), valleys north of the Main Central Thrust (MCT), and emphasized them as disaster-prone areas. The EB recommended that hydropower projects not be built in these valleys.

“I have never heard of any alarm systems in dams or hydropower projects triggering. I don't think these projects have a system for early evacuation in the event of a disaster like we saw on February 7. We believe this is a case of criminal negligence. Despite several disasters killing thousands of lives, the state has failed to provide basic warning and disaster preparedness infrastructure,” said Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangathan which works on environmental issues.

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