The ongoing relief operations in Uttarakhand, though incomplete, have now reached their endgame. Close to 100,000 people have been evacuated or airlifted but an estimated 3,000 people are still missing and approximately 1,200 are still stuck at different places across the state. The death toll is a controversial and wildly varying number with no reliable estimate at hand yet.
However, controversies of a different sort are emerging. How much of the disaster is natural or manmade? Was it the product of freak weather or a macroscopic symptom of global warming? Does the pattern of the flooding condemn or condone the making of big dams?
These are important lines of enquiry for the armchair debaters but a level-headed examination of the events that unfolded only reveals that this has been a terrible tragedy made of an inextricable mixture of bad luck and unpreparedness.
While it is easy to engage in armchair debates about ecology, growth and reckless hydraulic engineering, the fact is that states such as Uttarakhand need to heed far more practical advice. It is beyond debate that the mountainous terrain is inherently risky, and because of its proximity to the Himalayas, is extremely prone to sudden changes in weather. Between 15 and 18 June, Uttarakhand saw an unusual 32cm of rain when the state normally gets only 16cm through the whole of June. However, public documents show that the Indian Meteorological Department didn’t publicly warn of an imminent deluge until it issued a series of advisories on 14, 15 and 16 June, when showers were underway and close to their peak.
What is surprising in this episode is the lack of scientific and administrative preparedness to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. For example, Uttarakhand is home to a number of research institutions dedicated to the study of its topography and climate. The state is also at the centre of research investigations as an earthquake prone zone. Yet it does not have a reliable weather forecasting system that can foretell heavy rains at least 48 hours in advance.
News reports now suggest state authorities ignored warnings from meteorologists that heavy rains were expected. Ostensibly, the state didn’t take these warnings seriously because they didn’t expect the Met’s heavy rains to be an order of magnitude above what heavy rains mean to the residents of Uttarakhand. Still, any competent state administration ought to respect that given the sheer number of people who flock to the place annually—as tourists and pilgrims—there is only so much that a region such as Uttarakhand can handle. Even New York, administratively organized in a far more efficient manner, ground to a standstill in the aftermath of cyclone Sandy, a weather phenomenon that is extremely well understood—and planned for—by the local authorities.
There are two practical steps the state government needs to take to prevent occurrences in future. One, it needs to create a pilgrim and tourist management system and, two, it ought to devote more attention and money to regulating tourism infrastructure.
It might seem logical to cap the seasonal number of tourists itself. However, such a system will ultimately disintegrate into a licence, permit and bribe arrangement. When even a slightly-above normal rain can throw matters in disarray in such a fragile region as Uttarakhand, it is important for the state to put in place a rapid response system that can immediately ban trekkers and pilgrims from proceeding on their dangerous sojourns.
It is easy, in hindsight, to blame the magnitude of damage on the several hotels and buildings that encroach the flood plain. It is equally facile to blame the construction of reservoirs that have made the shifty geology of the region more unstable. It will, however, be well worth considering that these exist because of their importance to the local economy. Tourism accounts for between 25-30% of the state’s gross state domestic product. A recent KPMG report on tourism in India said that in spite of hosting 4% of India’s tourists, Uttarakhand spends only 1.5% of its budget on tourism; not much considering that it ranks among the bottom half of Indian states by GDP. Thus, unless the state ups its expenditure in being able to offer a much enhanced support infrastructure for tourists, a Sisyphean cycle of surprise, destruction and death will continue to surface.
Heavy rains or administrative incompetence: what made Uttarakhand a disaster zone? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org