Believe it or not – Mother Nature does often warn us of an impending hazard. So, the consequent disaster can’t really be dubbed as being Nature’s wrath – culpability of our ignorance can’t be shifted solely to Mother Nature. We have to accept our culpability in letting the hazard take disastrous proportion.
Mandakini valley, 1998
Landslides in Madhyamahheshwar and Kaliganga valleys – both tributaries of Mandakini river – took toll of more than 100 human lives in the year 1998. Even though major devastation in these two valleys took place on 11-12 August, most of us only remember the massive landslide of 18-19 August that brought down the forested hill slope on the left bank of Madhyamaheshwar river obliterating three habitations – Bheti, Paundar and Sem.
This landslide at the same time blocked the flow of Madhyamahheshwar river for almost 24 hours thereby forming a lake and threatening downstream habitations along Mandakini and Alaknanda rivers – possibility of a landslide lake outburst flood (LLOF).
What is however less known about this massive landslide is the fact that the locals had observed major ground fissures running parallel to the valley in the forest area above Bheti village soon after 1991 Uttarkashi Earthquake, and these fissures had registered significant widening some days prior to the landslide.
Kali valley, 1998
Around the same time in the year 1998 a massive rockfall incidence took place on 18 August at Malpa on Indo–Nepal border. Entire 12th Batch of the Kailash – Mansarovar Yatra which was night halting in the Kumaun Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) guest house on the right bank of Kali river little downstream of its confluence with Malpa Nala was wiped out in this incidence.
Protima Bedi, a celebrity, being amongst the persons that went missing – this incidence remained in media headlines for quite some time.
Similar but low intensity rock fall incidences had taken place around Malpa on 4 and 14 August, 1998. These were however ignored as the toll was limited to a few mules.
Malpa and Madhyamaheshwar are not the only instances of Mother Nature warning us of the impending catastrophe. Appearance of ground fissures, ground subsidence, widening of existing ground fissures, fluctuation in the discharge of seepages, bulging of retaining walls and slope-ward tilting of vertical objects have been observed at many places before slope failure.
It is not that these warning signs are available only before landslide incidences. Human life loss was averted in the flash flood of 6 and 10 August, 1978 in Bhagirathi valley as taking clue from suddenly reduced discharge of the river local population had vacated low lying habitations. These flash floods were caused by sudden release of water from the lake formed near Dabrani due to 4 August 1978 landslide in Kanodia Gad. Likewise, the water of the river is many a times observed to turn turbid before major flood incidences.
Interaction with geologists suggests that these as also other precursors are likely to be observed before slope instability and other common hazards in the region.
Logically so, establishing an organised structure – not only for observing but also for acting upon these precursors – has the potential of reducing our slope instability related problems that are taking gigantic proportions with each passing monsoon period.
Ground based instrumentation
Technically landslide is a surficial phenomenon, and technologically the same can easily be monitored using a variety of surveying techniques.
And out here is a fact to surprise you all.
After 18 September 1880 Sher-ka-Danda landslide in Nainital, apart from a number of well planned prevention and mitigation measures the British Raj officials did put in place a mechanism not only for regular monitoring of the slopes around the Naini lake, but also for sounding warning in case the slope movement exceeded a predefined threshold value.
You might be surprised – but then this system was functional till 1995.
It was in the year 1995 – not appreciating the significance of this system – it was unceremoniously dumped as the Forest Department did not permit lopping of trees obstructing the observation.
When the British Raj officials could monitor the slopes and issue warnings using theodolites alone – with advances in instrumentation, telecommunication and computing there exists no justification for us to shy away from doing so.
But then, not every slope, particularly in the remote areas can be monitored – safety and security of the instruments apart, there do exist issues related to power supply, telecom connectivity and real time data transfer.
Moreover, it is neither technically nor financially feasible to instrument every slope.
Instrumentation can thus be restricted to slopes that pose threat to major habitations and infrastructure.
Varunavat Parvat in Uttarkashi rightly qualifies for this, as the stakes out there are high and a number of experts have raised concern over lack of maintenance, and wearing out of the implemented restraining measures.
Satellite based monitoring
Yes, I do wish this to be true but then, not trying to disrupt your romance with satellite monitoring, scientists have confirmed that the same is not practically feasible at present.
The geostationary satellites that are placed over equator at altitudes of around 36000 km to provide us weather related information and facilitate telecommunication and navigation, can no doubt monitor any given area on the surface of earth continuously. Researchers however tell that the data provided by these satellites is coarse, and not suitable for ground movement monitoring.
Monitoring of ground surface is resorted to by polar orbiting low altitude satellites that revolve the earth north – south across the poles at an altitude of 500-800 km. These satellites however revisit the desired area on the surface of earth after a lapse of some days or weeks. These satellites can thus provide information with regard to spatial changes over the revisit period, and not real time changes.
The intention is not to reject satellite based monitoring and the same has to be utilised for identifying areas exhibiting signs of vulnerability and ground movement. This would help the authorities prioritise prevention and mitigation interventions and accordingly establish ground based monitoring systems.
Physical motoring to timely notice signs of slope instability can be resorted to through persons deputed with this very task, particularly in the Gram Sabhas identified through satellite based assessment as being vulnerable to slope instability and other disasters.
For the success of this initiative these persons would have to be provided know how of what to observe, where to look for signs of slope instability or other hazards, how to assess the level of hazard or urgency of action, what to do immediately and the like.
For this dedicated training programs would have to be designed with the help of GSI, IMD, CWC and other research and academic institutions. Together with this, capacity building of these persons in mass awareness, community mobilisation, resource assessment, data collection, grassroots level planning, search and rescue, emergency communication, first aid and lifesaving skills would make them an asset not only for the community but also for disaster management department – an Apada Prahari.
The Apda Prahari would inspect the surrounding area on a routine basis, make observations and assess the situation, collect information from various sources, verify and dispatch these to the designated authority at district and state level.
If analysis and examination of the input by the experts suggest possibility of a hazard, measures as suggested by them could be implemented to prevent or delay the hazard, and if required the population likely to be affected could be evacuated.
It would however be wishful thinking to assume that Apada Prahari would assess the threat of all likely hazards and all hazards would be forecasted well in advance. As is common presently, a number of hazards would keep happening without any warning.
But then, presence of Apada Prahari and other persons trained by him is sure to make a perceptible difference. Moreover, he would provide regular updates from ground zero, organise search and rescue, and deliver first aid to the victims even before formal responders reach the affected area.
After formal responders take over, he would assist them by narrowing down the search area, and mobilising people for specialised operations.
On the aftermath of most disaster incidences authorities are not able to quickly verify the losses, particularly in the remote areas. Resultant delay in relief and rescue exposes disaster managers to embarrassing situation and media criticism as also people’s wrath. Presence of Apada Prahari in the disaster affected area would ensure timely and regular updates not only of disaster induced losses, but also of ongoing relief and rescue works together with people’s perception and needs.
Apada Prahari would impart basic search, rescue and first aid skills amongst the community members, and ensure awareness on disaster related dos and don’ts. He would at the same time facilitate organisation of specialised capacity building programs such as ones aimed at imparting earthquake resistant construction skills amongst masons and bar-benders.
This would ensure popularisation of disaster safety techniques and measures and on the aftermath of any disaster there would always be a team readily available to immediatelyinitiate response.
Apada Prahari would also map resources available with the community together with vulnerabilities, and facilitate preparation of a disaster management plan for the Gram Sabha by the community members and ensure that the same is practiced through mock exercises.
This would make everyone familiar with his role and responsibility while handling an emergency situation. Role clarity would help avoid confusion and lack of leadership – resulting in organised and efficient response.
With agricultural terrace induced landslide (ATIL) becoming common, Apada Praharis would inspect the retaining walls of the agricultural terraces and facilitate repair works before the onset of monsoon rains, particularly at places where downslope debris flow from the terraces has the potential of threatening human interests.
Apada Prahari would also collect information related to previous disaster incidences – nature of losses suffered, which areas were worst affected and which remained safe together with cause of differential impact.
Innovation over tradition
Interaction with elders would bring forth measures traditionally implemented to mitigate disaster threat. The information collected on traditional knowledge would then be put to use for developing cost effective, simple and effective disaster safety options.
Agent of disaster resilience
Apada Prahari would at the same time facilitate percolation of disaster safety related tools and techniques in the community, collect information on impediments in mass popularisation, facilitate required changes, organise training and awareness drive to overcome the impediments and ensure voluntary compliance by the community.
Making safety everybody’s business
Presence of Apada Prahari would thus ensure greater participation of the community in various disaster risk reduction (DRR) initiatives, and with awareness, capacity building and experience sharing masses would better appreciate the importance of DRR in reducing disaster induced losses.
This would motivate people to incorporate risk reduction measures in developmental plans prepared at the Gram Panchayat level – dovetailing DRR into development.
Apada Prahari would thus infuse disaster resilience amongst the masses, and this in turn would have lasting positive impact on the entire region by way of ensuring sustainability of various developmental initiatives.