Grim situation continues

Grim situation continues

In most natural disasters, the govt is only found eng-aging itself in post disaster relief and rehabilitation work in a hurry.

Once again the northern sub-Himalayan state of Uttarakhand faced the fury of nature in a big way claiming some 30 lives and rendering hundreds homeless in floods due to cloudburst recently.

The post calamity sufferings of the disaster victims in the high altitude Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts of the state continue even as the government grapples with this grim situation like it has been doing every time a natural calamity hits the state’s rugged mountainous terrain.

This disaster occurred at a time when the state and its distraught hill folk were still engaged in rehabilitating themselves, months after the unprecedented cloudburst in and around the holy shrine of Kedranath in June 2013 in which some 5,000 people were feared killed and thousands were displaced. Of those killed, included the pilgrims from different parts of the country.

It may be recalled that a similar disaster in Pithoragarh district in August 1998 had claimed 21 lives in village Malpa in just one stroke. The deceased were all pilgrims on their way to lake Mana-sarovar in China. Landslides in 2013 were believed to have affected over 10,000 families and 336 villages in the four high altitude districts – Chamoli, Rudra-prayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh.

The gruesome memories of these chilling experiences of massive damage and destruction in the wake of natural calamities continue to haunt the affected victims of the 13 districts of the state. It is not in the above two districts alone that the lurking danger poses a threat. Other high altitude districts, barring the foothill ones, also experience such assaults of nature in equal measure.

In fact, prospects of heavy landslides and earthquakes, specially during the monsoon season, continue to loom large over the all the nine hill districts (out of the total 13). During the rainy season, sudden cloud bursts release huge amount of water just in one place triggering slope failures which eventually lead to massive destruction and loss of lives. The debris, which come tumbling down in high speed, wipe out village after village and paralyse the road transportation and communication systems.

All along, the only thing that the government has been found to be doing in such situations, is to engage itself in the post disaster relief and rehabilitation work in a hurry. This sudden swinging into action is marred by lack of coordination and proper planning. It has now set up an ad hoc centre for monitoring disasters and making preparations accordingly.

Following the disaster in and around Kedarnath shrine in June 2013, the Union government had set up a 12-member ad hoc committee to look into the impact of the calamity and identify the sensitive zones in the lower Garhwal Himalayas. The team headed by Jamia Milia University Vice Chancellor Talat Ahmed, in its recommendations, had said that landslide zones in the upper reaches can be predicted on a certain basis and the preparation to cope up with slope failures during the rainy season can be done in advance.

A member of the team, Pradeep Srivastava, a scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), opines that landslides generally occur in and around the main central thrust of the Indian plate on Asian plate. The increasing pressure of Indian plate on Asian plate had also made the this region seismically vulnerable.Experts point to some man-made factors responsible for increased incidence of slope failures in the high altitude areas of the state.

These include intensified construction activity through blasting of slopes. Enhanced road and building construction in the region has enhanced mountains’ vulnerability. Use of explosives had shaken mountain attachments while creating fissures in between.

Besides this, thick forests in the vulnerable parts of the upland have been severely denuded due to uncontrolled grazing, felling and wild fires. In fact, studies in the United States in the mountainous regions have amply demonstrated a link between the road construction and felling to the debris outfall.

Repetitive calamities

Thus, the repetitive calamities continue to inflict incalculable damage to the life and property in the this lesser Himalayan region. This has been going on since time immemorial. In any case, it is indeed not possible to decipher the magnitude of this cumulative loss over the centuries.

Lying in the zone four and five of the seismic map of the country, the state not only experiences cloudbursts and floods, but also is prone to seismic activities. Earthquakes measuring five to seven on the Richter scale have been experienced in the state from time to time. In May, this year, a quake measuring 4.1 on Richer scale rocked the state which affected five districts. According to the National Centre for Seismology, the epicentre of the quake was in Pithoragarh, which borders Nepal, where a huge earthquake had left a trail of deaths and destruction.

Going back a few years, people cant not forget the damaged done by two earthquakes, one in 1991 and another 1999, which occurred in Garhwal division of the state. In both the quakes, over 1,600 people were feared killed. It may be worthwhile to mention here some of the major earth quakes, which damaged the region badly, were recorded in 1883, 1919, 1920, 1970, 1991, 1999 and almost all touching above six on the Richter scale. In 1978, a huge cloud burst and landslides in Chamoli district had created a huge lake blocking river Bhagerathi posing a serious danger to the settlements in the downstream areas.

Some scientists point out that the given the neo- tectonic activities in the region and proximity of rocks to some tectonic plates, the sturdily of the massive rock foundations, some how, get affected. Besides this, incessant torrential rains during the rainy season also lead to the filling of porous rock crevices making the slopes quite vulnerable for a quick slide down. Environmentalists opine that climate change might also be triggering cloudbursts and excessive rainfall in the high altitude zones.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Dehradun)

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