One could call it a coincidence, but in the year 2021 Uttarakhand has witnessed abnormal disaster incidences. In February during lean flow period of glacial rivers there was a devastating flood in Dhauliganga valley. Then during the post-monsoon phase in mid-October there was heavy rainfall induced disaster incidences, particularly in Kumaun division. Interestingly both these incidences were accompanied by abrupt rise in temperature.
2021 में जहाँ एक ओर उत्तराखण्ड ने शीत ऋतु में बाढ़ का प्रकोप झेला तो वहीं दूसरी ओर मानसून के विदा हो जाने के बाद की अवधि में हुयी भारी वर्षा के कारण विशेष रूप से कुमाऊँ क्षेत्र में भारी क्षति हुयी। अब इसे संयोग कहें या कुछ और पर यह दोनों घटनाये तापमान में हुयी अचानक वृद्धि से जुड़ी है।
It is around October that the sun apparently moves towards south resulting in weakened low-pressure conditions over the northern plains. The SW monsoon thus starts to withdraw resulting in the transition from hot and rainy weather to dry winter conditions. This is generally marked by clearer skies and rise in temperature, wherein days are usually warmer and nights are a little chilly and pleasant.
One could call it a coincidence, but then very first major disaster of 2021 in Dhauliganga valley of the province was also accompanied by abrupt rise in temperature. This disaster took place in the morning hours of February 7, 2021 and took toll of 204 human lives, besides inflicting massive damage to two hydropower projects in close proximity at Rini and Tapoban. A lake was also formed in this incidence close to the confluence of Rishiganga and Raunthi Gadhera.
On the very day of this disaster two AWSs of USDMA in the proximity of the disaster site; Tapoban at an altitude of 2000 m and at Auli at an altitude of 2600 m registered rise of 2.8o and 5.4o C and 6.0o and 9.6o C respectively in minimum and maximum temperature.
Disasters: Temporal distribution during 2021
Apart from earthquake most hazards in the state of Uttarakhand are generally confined to the monsoon period (mid June – mid September) during which the state receives almost 80% of the average annual precipitation of 1494 mm. Facilitated by the presence of water landslides, rockfall, flash flood and flood cause major damages during this period.
Temporal distribution of hazards has however been different during 2021. In the beginning of the year there was massive flood in the Dhauliganga valley on February 7, 2021. This was not accompanied by major rainfall incidence and took place during lean flow period of the glacier fed rivers.
During the monsoon period of 2021 Uttarakhand did not witness major disaster incidences and cumulative loss of human lives was restricted to 41 that is the lowest since the creation of the state, except for 2013 when the human life loss count surpassed 4000.
The monsoon was however late to depart in 2021 and IMD officially announced its departure on September 30, 2021. The region generally has pleasant weather in the post–monsoon period that also coincides with Dushehra and Deepawali festivals during which the region is visited by large number of people for pilgrimage, trekking and sight-seeing.
This year Dushehra was followed by a weekend and therefore the region had heavy inflow of tourists and pilgrims from across the country and abroad.
Just after Dushehra in the morning of October 16, 2021 IMD issued a warning with 26-50% probability of heavy (64.5-115.5 mm) to very heavy (115.6-204.4 mm) rainfall at a few places (25–50% area) with extremely heavy rainfall (>204.4 mm) at isolated places (up to 25% area) in all the districts of the state except Dehradun, Haridwar and Udhamsingh Nagar on October 18, 2021. The warning at the same time conveyed likelihood (26 – 50% probability) of up to 80 km/h winds and thunderstorm at a few places in the state.
By the afternoon the warning was extended to all the districts and on October 17, 2021 the red alert was extended to October 19, 2021 particularly for the Garhwal region.
The rainfall all over the state between October 17 and 19, 2021 was in keeping with the IMD forecast and the precipitation was particularly high in the Kumaun division with Nainital, Champawat, Udhamsingh Nagar, Pithoragarh, Bageshwar and Almora receiving most rainfall.
Except for Dehradun that received only 58.4 mm rainfall departure from normal was more than 125% in all the districts with Bageshwar and Almora with actual rainfall of 286.3 and 261.4 mm registering departure as high as 1257 and 1139% respectively.
Consequent disaster incidences
It is important to note that the state received 13.5% of its average annual precipitation between October 17 and 19, 2021. This heavy rainfall resulted in flash flood and landslide incidences at a number of places throughout the state and mobility was severely disrupted due to washing away of roads and treks. Large number of persons were thus stranded at various places while safety of a number of persons out on trekking in Higher Himalayas, particularly in Bageshwar, Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts was jeopardised.
77 human lives were lost in these disaster incidences while 05 have not yet been located. The disaster having been facilitated by precipitation, 70% of the human casualties were in the Kumaun division of which 55% were accounted for by Nainital alone. 15 and 13% of the casualties were accounted for by Uttarkashi and Champawat districts.
It is important to note that 22% human casualties were those of trekkers who were stranded at various places in the Higher Himalaya due to snowfall and bad weather conditions. Assistance of IAF, NDRF, ITBP and SDRF was quickly mobilised but many on Sunderdhunga, Neelapani and Lamkha treks could not be saved.
Besides loss of personal property and assets infrastructure of various departments of the state has been damaged by these incidences and according to preliminary estimates these losses amount to Rs. 890.66 crore with damage to transport sector alone accounting for 60% of the damages.
IMD warning was certainly timely and accurate. Based on this input the state authorities could mobilise manpower and resources besides suspending the Char Dham Yatra. All this ensured prompt response and saving of human lives.
Disseminating warnings to the far flung trekking routes that are out of telecommunication connectivity range was a major constraint faced by the state and this aggravated the death count.
Tourism Department therefore needs to put in place robust policy for trekking in Higher Himalayan region in consultation with Disaster Management Department. Besides compulsory registration, it needs to address the issues relating to (i) engagement of trained and certified guides and porters, (ii) access to standard personal protective equipment, high altitude clothing and camping equipment, (iii) emergency evacuation facilities, and (iv) access to communication and sos messaging equipment.
Possibilities of renting satellite based communication device and standard protective equipment to the trekkers can accordingly be explored.
All remote posts of Forest Department should at the same time be provided satellite communication devices so as to (i) receive and dessiminate warning messages amongst trekkers, (ii) monitor and regulate movement of trekkers, and (iii) communicate emergency logistics and evacuation needs.
It needs to be realised that adventure sports contribute large proportion of the tourism related revenue and the figures can only improve if these are aggressively marketed around unique selling proposition of safety.