Ecostani | From Amarnath to Noney, IMD has a credibility challenge

Jul 12, 2022 12:26 PM IST

In the case of Amarnath Yatra and Noney landslides, the tragedy was waiting to happen, as nature has provided enough signals, which the authorities ignored.

Monsoon has always been difficult to predict and the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has faltered in the past. This year, the IMD declared onset of monsoon over Kerala, Mumbai and Delhi despite the rainfall not meeting its own criteria. Its rainfall predictions have gone haywire in different parts of the country with the premier weather office failing to predict heavy rains, flash floods and cloud bursts on time.

Rescue operations underway after a massive landslide hit the Tupul railway construction camp in Noney district of Manipur. (PTI) PREMIUM
Rescue operations underway after a massive landslide hit the Tupul railway construction camp in Noney district of Manipur. (PTI)

Inadequate advance forecast of heavy rains have resulted in death of 16 persons and 40 more missing (feared dead as on July 9) during the Amarnath Yatra on July 8, 50 people in a massive landslide in Manipur Noney district on June 29, and six people in different landslides in Himachal Pradesh in first week of June. Three persons were killed in a landslide Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district. In Uttarakand’s revered Char Dham Yatra, close to dozen pilgrims have died due to rain-related incidents in the state since June 1.

In all, 782 persons have died because of monsoon related events in the country with one-third deaths because of landslides till July 8, a Home Ministry report said.

Although 187 persons died in Assam during monsoon, 182 deaths in Himachal Pradesh is alarming as deaths were widespread across the state, thereby not becoming a national news headline. The report said 1,32,000 homes were damaged of which 1,21,000 were in Assam, with floods having ravaged half of the state since June 15, affecting close to four million people.

About 53,000 animals have also died.

Many of these deaths, especially in Amarnath, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Uttarakhand could have been avoided had the IMD predicted the heavy rainfall in advance helping the local administration to evacuate the people in advance to safer locations. In case of Manipur, where at least 55 people, according to media reports, got buried during the landslide in a radius of one square kilometer, the local administration admitted that they had no clue of heavy rainfall in such a short span.

In the case of Amarnath Yatra and Noney landslide, the tragedy was waiting to happen, as nature has provided enough signals, which the authorities ignored.

The Amarnath tragedy

More than 25 tents for people, three meal (langar) rooms and part of the base camp got washed away, according to Home Ministry report cited above. From the pictures available and according to the experts, the tents were placed on the meadow created by drying of the riverbed. Just 31 mm rainfall in two hours between 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm was enough for the streams to flow in its traditional course and wash away the tents.

“These small streams get flooded when there is heavy rain during monsoon. They (Amarnath Yatra administration) should have avoided placing tents there,” said a Kashmir university based climatologist, requesting anonymity in the absence of authorisation to speak to media without approval. He added that the tents were placed at the location which had flooded in August 2021.

According to IMD, the heavy rainfall happened just 200 meters above the Amarnath Cave, the place where heavy rain was also reported earlier this year. “It was a highly localised cloud only over the holy cave. Such rain happened earlier this year as well. It was not a flash flood,” said Sonam Lotus, who heads the Regional Meteorological Centre at Srinagar that looks after the UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

Officials said there was no advance warning from the IMD of the heavy rain and first warning of the heavy rainfall came only at 5.30 pm when the over-swelling river with boulders started pelting the tents. IMD had issued a yellow alert (keep a watch) and the Saturday afternoon warning at 4.07 p.m. mentioned partial clouds. Fortunately, it was not the heaviest flash rain in the region which has witnessed in the past more 100 mm of rain in two hours, which is a cloudburst, as per IMD definition.

In August 2021, several places in Jammu and Kashmir, including Amarnath Yatra route, received more than 100 mm of rain within couple of hours. That year the yatra was suspended due to Covid-19. Authorities rescued close to 15,000 pilgrims.

The Noney tragedy

In Manipur’s Noney district, the landslide started around 11:30 pm on June 29 on the hill slope above the under construction railway station. Close to 78 people including 42 personnel from Territorial Army were there and they woke up hearing sounds of rock falling. By the time they started running, it was too late.

They were not evacuated from the site despite the district receiving 1,700 mm of rain on June 29. The debris just engulfed them. Locals said that there was no landslide management at the construction site by railways, which could have alerted them about the landslide possibility.

Till now, 50 bodies have been found. Experts had warned that constructing a 111 km railway line connecting Jiribam to the state capital, Imphal, could be an ecological disaster. Jiten Yumnam, secretary of Centre for Research and Advocacy Manipur, told HT that construction of railway works commenced even before the forest clearance from the union ministry of environment and forest.

As in August, 2018, the union environment ministry told Rajya Sabha that most landslides in Manipur were “anthropogenically” induced due to modification of hill slopes. Of the 170 landslides recorded, only 30 were of the natural slopes.

“Despite the knowledge many parts of Manipur have soft red earth and sedimentary rock formation, the railway construction engineers were not heeding the dangers of vertical cutting of the hillsides”, said the environmentalist Salam Rajesh.

There is enough evidence on ground that human lives could have been saved in Amarnath and Noney had there been a more specific rainfall forecast. In the times of climate crisis, where extreme and very extreme rainfall events are on the rise, pin-pointed forecasts can save human lives. Weather data should be part of pilgrimage planning and infrastructure development, especially in the hilly regions.

In the years to come, with the government developing better roads to pilgrim places in Himachal and Uttarakhand, the pilgrims expected to visit these places is expected to rise manifold. And most of these pilgrimages coincide with the monsoon season, which in recent two decades has become more ferocious. IMD can help in better pilgrim and people management by improving its localised forecasts. It should also not let its credibility down by alternating parameters on monsoon.

The views expressed are personal

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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