204 human lives were lost and massive damage was inflicted to 02 hydropower projects at Rini and Tapoban, but the flood of February 7, 2021 in the catchment of Dhauliganga river in Uttarakhand province was neither the biggest, in terms of affected geographical area or human lives lost, nor the most devastating disaster to hit this region.
This disaster however aroused the curiosity of the scientific community across the globe which is reflected in a large number of research papers published on various aspects of this disaster in peer reviewed national and international scientific journals. This can well be attributed to easy availability of high resolution satellite data of the affected area.
Prolonged and suspense laden rescue operations to save the persons trapped in the tunnel of Tapovan – Vishnuprayag hydropower project in the proximity of the dam site at Tapoban together with the speculation of the breach of the lake formed on Rishiganga river and involvement of leading scientific institutions of the nation kept this disaster in the media centerstage for a long time.
Certain peculiarities of this disaster aroused the interest of one and all, and these include:
(i) This flood was not accompanied by heavy rainfall in the catchment area. In fact there was no rainfall around the time of the disaster.
(iii) This flood was not caused by sudden release of water from some reservoir or dam.
(iv) Moreover, this flood took place during the winter season, which is the lean flow period for glacier fed Himalayan rivers.
(v) Flow diversion blocked the course of the main river Rishiganga, little upstream of its confluence with Raunthi Gadhera forming a lake.
(vi) The discharge of the main stream Rishiganga, with catchment area of more than 700 sq km, was thus not involved in this flood.
(vii) This flood was actually caused solely by a small rivulet, Raunthi Gadhera that has catchment area of only around 83 sq km.
(viii) About 6 million cu m water that passed through Marwari gauging station on Alaknanda river on February 7, 2021 in one hour was thus generated in the catchment of Raunthi Gadhera, and this resulted in increased discharge of 1670 cumecs in Alaknanda river at Marwari at 1100 hrs on February 7, 2021 as against normal discharge of around 41 cumecs. Alaknanda river thus crossed both danger level (1383.00 m) and HFL (1385.54 m) of June 28, 2013 at Marwari. Source of all this water is not yet convincingly established.
The uncertain future
The possibility of similar incidences is certainly gaining ground in the region with climate change impacts becoming increasingly evident. The region is therefore likely to face scarcity of capital investment which in turn is to have adverse impact on the pace of growth and socio-economic development of the region.
The situation can well be exacerbated by environmental groups that hold large infrastructure projects in the ecologically sensitive and vulnerable Himalayan region responsible for this, as also other disaster incidences.
All this could have long-term adverse implications on the fate of developmental initiatives in the region.
The way forward
Much has already been written, published, said and debated on the causes, losses and post-disaster response of various agencies associated with this disaster, and therefore taking lead from a research paper published recently in the Journal of Disaster and Emergency Reseach, this anniversary discourse is restricted to the issues that could make life and property safe in the region, besides fostering sustainable development.
Disaster risk assessment
It is therefore recommended that comprehensive inventory of previous disaster incidences be prepared to establish hazard profile of the area, and based on this detailed risk assessment be mandatorily undertaken, taking into account extreme events with long recurrence period.
This needs to be made a necessary legal requirement for all major development projects in the Himalayan region that is prone to a number of natural hazards.
The hazard and risk assessment reports so prepared should necessarily be put in public domain.
Besides creating popular pressure against unsafe and environmentally unviable projects, this would at the same time desist financers and insurers from being part of unsafe projects. This would ensure that only disaster safe projects are implemented in the hazard prone Himalayan region.
With present level of technical knowledge, instrumentation and communication infrastructure warnings of hydro-meteorological events can easily be generated well in advance.
It is therefore required to put in place a close knit network of hydro-meteorological observatories with real time data transmission capability, and the same should be calibrated to provide rainfall threshold based flood / flash flood and landslide warnings.
Together with this site-specific monitoring and warning infrastructure is a must around slopes that are assessed as being vulnerable to instability, and have assets and habitations in their proximity.
Together with warning dissemination through multiple conventional and innovative modes, it is required that dedicated mass awareness campaigns be organised regularly for communicating the implications of different warning levels in the local context, together with actions to be taken after receipt of the warning.
A suitable legal instrument is required to be put in place for mandating large infrastructure projects to contribute data and resources towards warning generation and dissemination infrastructure for hazards that are prevalent in the region.
The authors suggest diversification as a risk reduction strategy that would in turn ensure equitable development of the region.
Capital investment by the state is however a must for this for developing basic infrastructure and facilities.
Authors recommend investment on nurturing DRR professionals rather than just building institutions and organisations. It is therefore suggested to create a dedicated cadre of DRR professionals at both provincial and national level.
Declaration of death
As regards declaring a missing person as being dead Section 108 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 requires that the person concerned not be heard of for seven years by those who would naturally have heard of him/her if he/she had been alive. On the aftermath of large disasters Registrar General of India (RGI) has to be approached for issuing guidelines for declaring missing persons as being dead and issuing Death Certificates in accordance with the provisions of Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969.
In order to promptly issue Death Certificate as also ex gratia relief, RGI should notify standard guidelines for declaring missing persons in a disaster incidence as being dead.
Abnormal meteorological observations
Between February 6 and 7, 2021 Tapoban at an altitude of 2000 m experienced rise of 2.8o and 5.4o C respectively in minimum and maximum temperature while the rise at Auli at 2600 m was 6.0o and 9.6o C respectively.
Though not attributing the disaster to these changes, it is suggested that abnormal changes in meteorological parameters be taken note of seriously and correlated with possible triggering of some hazard prevalent in the proximity.
Precautionary actions can also be initiated based on such observations even though this is sure to be futile in most instances.
We are sure that the peculiarities of February 7, 2021 Dhauliganga disaster further arouse inquisitiveness of the researchers while those responsible for planning and implementing DRR measures in the region find the suggestions worth trying.