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Vol. 19 No. 4 - October 2013

Uttarakhand Disaster 2013 - Floods and Landslides:

Lessons of Ecology Not Yet Learnt

By: Anil K Gupta1*, Sreeja S. Nair2 and Mohammad Yunus3

Uttarakhand, a part of Indian Himalaya, is not new to disasters. But the frequency and intensity and in particular the complexity of natural processes and their devastating consequences are on rise. Climate change is a known issue, aggravating large scale land-cover and water regime changes, causing vulnerability of land and its people. Equally and even more important, the degradation and massive alteration of landscape, that resulted in their instability and fragility, is due to short-sighted, profit oriented, poorly planned, ecologically unsustainable developmental and infrastructure projects with namesake feasibility studies without any system based approach of impact studies. Disaster of 2013 June was not actually a surprise. Several prior warnings were given by the nature itself - in the form of floods, landslides and tremors of varying intensity almost every year. Scientists and local ecologists also warned the engineering centered economists, government and people to be aware of what may be consequences of ignoring ecological limitations and local geology. This disaster is, thus, a consequence of the “lessons of the past not learnt” and of “deliberate ignorance” of carrying capacity concerns, indigenous knowledge and locally sustainable models of economic growth.

The Disaster: Triggers of this catastrophic mega-disaster, although natural (i.e., hazard - heavy rainfall), its effects on land, its forming of loadings with silt, logs, boulders and unchecked velocity - led it to ferocity. On the flash flood’s way, were the denuded, eroded, fragile landscapes along with their poorly maintained infrastructure like bridges, culverts, towers, wrongly located and poorly designed buildings, etc. and floating population in ignorance and unpreparedness of such tragedy to come. Absence of local level risk management systems, altogether synthesized the grave consequences in terms of lives lost, human sufferings, infrastructure and business loss and equally important a further permanent damage to the eco-geological systems. It recorded more than 340 millimetres (13 inch) of rainfall, 375 per cent more than the benchmark of 65.9 mm rainfall during a normal monsoon on June 17, 2013, may be attributed either to implications of climatic changes or to natural and man-made disturbances to ecosystems. Space based studies, geological, ecological interrogations and social-media versions pose few other origins like Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (Kedarnath) or a heavy Cloudburst, or even of 'terrorist's activity of scientific sabotage' or even a foreign hand. Specific features of flash flood are given in table 1.

Table 1.Specific features of flash flood

Flash Hoods


Rapid water level rise above natural channels Reaches peak flow within minutes up to a few hours

Rapid recession (within minutes to few hours)

Often dissipates quickly

Not necessarily related to base flow levels

Short lag times


Very high intensity rainstorms/cloudbursts

Rapid snow/glacial melt due to rapid increase in


Dam (both artificial and natural) breaks

Associated problems

High sediment and debris loads

Very high hydraulic force and erosive power


Occasionally, any time during the year

Affected areas

River plains and valleys

Alluvial fans

Mostly local extent

Generally small to medium areas are affected


Very difficult to forecast

Potential mitigation measures

Early warning systems

Community preparedness and awareness

Appropriate emergency measures

Heavy rainfall for four consecutive days as well as melting snow aggravated mountain floods caused heavy floods in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Western Nepal. In the city of Dehra Dun, capital of Uttarakhand, this was the wettest June day for over five decades. Death toll over thousand, missing much more than it, and more than 60,000 stranded in known and unknown locations, were the direct impact on human life. Damages and losses to other life forms - rare to concern in our 'damage assessment' systems, but certainly of notice to the academic and scientific community to work upon. On a rapid assessment, following are the major aspects of this major disaster:

(a) Making of the Catastrophic Ecological Risk: There are several ecological, anthropic and economic factors known to have made the 'natural hazard’ a 'catastrophic risk'. Largescale commercial ventures that primarily degraded or modified the natural landscapes of the hills and devastated the land from its original vegetation cover (which the system-ecologists can explain) causing changes in drainage pattern and watercourses, erosion, and precursors of several (thousands) landslides. Transport and aviation fuelling hot emissions are known to affect the thermal flux possibly attributed to increased glacial meltdown, climate-change implications (to which Hindu Kush Himalaya HKH region is highly prone), and ABC (atmospheric brown cloud, a regional impact of biomass and fuel burning). Rise in the vegetation cover even up to 4000 mts height as against the earlier up to 3200 mts or so (which is reported sometimes as great achievement) but the fact is that it increases thermal profile and snowmelt, with exposed soil. Some scientists referred to the British intervention of replacing broad-leaved forests with pine plantations to cause increased erosion. Lack of recognition of a system approach in impact assessments and feasibility studies resulting in poor explanation of eco-geo-physiological contexts and their consequences (Table 2), led to improper and inappropriate developmental activities include infrastructure and production units, in their location, design and site restoration management. Besides this, the non-recognition of relations between earthquake tremors, floods, forest fire, ecological succession and landslides, and their effects on land (hills and slopes) and infrastructure including buildings increased the risk. Declining respect to the natural and old river or stream courses and missing of upsteam-downstream relations added to the complexity of challenge in terms of blockade to natural flow of floodwaters. There are several other aspects besides those mentioned here that need to be studied and brought into a common research platform to facilitate a forensic base of investigations.

Table 2. Factors affecting catchment run-off



Basin characteristics

Channel characteristics

Forms of precipitation (e.g., rain, snow, hail)

Geometric factors (size, shape, slope, orientation, elevation, stream density)

Carrying capacity (size and shape of cross section, slope, roughness, length, tributaries)

Types of precipitation (e.g., intensity, duration, aerial distribution)

Interception (depends on vegetation species, composition, age and density of stands, season, storm size, and others)

Evaporation (depends on temperature, wind, atmospheric pressure, nature and shape of catchment, and others)

Physical factors (land use and cover, surface infiltration condition, soil type, geological conditions such as permeability, topographic conditions such as lakes, swamps and artificial drainage)

Storage capacity (backwater effects)

Transpiration (e.g., temperature, solar radiation, wind, humidity, soil moisture, type of vegetation)

(b) Making of Human and Infrastructure Vulnerability: Receding of value and application of traditional wisdom and indigenous technology in locating and designing housing and shelters, and polarization of constructions and population due to 'low-labour high return' aspiration factor attracted them to pilgrim towns, contributed to increased exposure to this disaster event. Unregulated inflow of tourists and pilgrims without any briefing about the terrain, its climate, its risks, with large number of vehicles plying in, and many staying in ill-located, ill-designed and even ill-constructed hotels contributed to death toll besides loss of such constructions. Poor capacity in terms of training, skills and motivation of the local administration and regulators to reject or disallow such constructions, besides poor maintenance of roadside landscapes (especially up and downsides stabilization) and bridges, culverts, hilltops vegetation (with suitable species), etc. also contributed to the disaster. Buildings affected by tremors and floods previously were never assessed in an effort to document the local level Hazard-risk and vulnerability and to draw a local level risk mitigation and disaster management plan, which otherwise is a legal mandate prescribed by the Disaster Management Act 2005 and National Policy of 2009. Increasing urban sense leading to reduced social cohesion coupled with non-resident people, migration of youth for income and wages, gender and age related factors are equally important aspects of vulnerability.

(c) Making of the Disaster and Complex Challenge: The ignorance of the 'risk-sense' over the meteorological forecast has been the primary lapse. Failure to 'concern of poor or no mobile connectivity' in most stretches of the affected region in the immediate hours of the tragedy, and no effort to raise the frequency, made the situation more complex. Primary impact of floods on mobile towers, bridges, roads and public service system caused the incident to become a great challenge and stalled rescue and relief to start. Difficult terrain and limited atmospheric suitability affected the air force's operations for rescue and relief. Aspects of pollution and ecological degradation in affecting atmospheric and land conditions have also been referred. Over and above the lack of adequate understanding or planned approach at the State Government level and obsolete records as disaster management plans at district level and in particular lack of risk management mechanism at local administration made this challenge to convert to a disaster. Himalaya has attracted the attention of ecological researchers, geologists, botanists, foresters and social reformers, but lack of cohesiveness and coordination resulted in no use of the knowledge and lessons generated by their studies, and a wide gap between the scientific facts and administrative understanding resulted in this state of grief and misery.

(d) Greening Relief Actions - For future risk reduction: Internationally, a rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of disasters is common practice. REAI of Indian Ocean Tsunami was carried out even in smaller countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, however, in India we keep away from such useful tools and practices. This needs academic and research interventions to give a call on the sustainable recovery and ecological compatible reconstruction framework with proper scope for livelihood restoration as key to reducing social vulnerability. Like few earlier ones, Uttarakhand disaster also witnessed huge waste dumps left by relief operations, with used, unused or scrapped non-degradable materials, posing a serious threat to our ecosystems, and the consequences to be faced by human societies of the region. International guidelines 'Green Guide to Relief Actions' are followed in most developed countries and we need to learn and adapt those, as these form key to avoiding future risks. An estimation (and its reference in the restoration and recovery plan) of the damage/losses to the natural resources and ecosystems including forests due to rescue and relief operations needs to be effected to ensure that local people's resources and future sustainability are less-compromised.

(e) Sustainable Reconstruction and Recovery:

'Built back better' is a basic key strategy for post-disaster reconstruction, which now implies incorporating sustainable - ecologically and geo-physiographically, and socially compatibility dimensions of development. The term 'structure' is under interrogatory explanation in disaster management context and incorporates - landscape, ecosystems, civil constructions, and community relations. Recovery in terms of livelihood, health, peace and well-being with minimal living standards calls for recovery of services and goods supplies including ecosystem services, employment, industry & commerce, and psychosocial stability. After the phase of 'extended relief’ is to be over, it is a great challenge to draw the regionally conducive and site-specific development-models that takes care of ecological safety and future disaster risk reduction, besides ensuring inclusive growth.

Lessons Taught but 'Not yet learnt': There has been no dearth of studies and lessons to light on the path towards sustainability in ecologically sensitive areas of Indian Himalaya region. The concept of Carrying Capacity Based Planning has been piloted for the Doon Valley region in 1995 but the recommendations and lessons were seldom brought to the planning and policy table. It's an irony in a country aloud enough on environmental and disaster management issues on international meetings that the Planning Commission and National Disaster Management Authority’s remain devoid of an ecologist as member expert. On the part of ecologists and academic world, there has been great lapse of keeping away from their practical utility to the safety and risk reduction of the people. Time calls for convergence of the two fraternities. Nature's warnings are foremost important but they need thoughtful minds with intelligent and dedicated research systems to interpret which is yet to be realized. Local level planning with community participation and indigenous & traditional wisdom forms local strengths of risk reduction. This needs to be effectively integrated with our environmental education and risk management systems. A framework of flood mitigation is given in table 3.

Table 3. Framework of flood risk mitigation

Pre-flood activities

"During-flood" activities

Post-flood activities

Flood risk management for all causes of flooding and disaster contingency planning.

Detection of the likelihood of a flood forming (hydro-meteorology).

Relief for the immediate needs of those affected by the disaster.

Construction of physical flood defense infrastructure and implementation of forecasting and warning systems.

Forecasting of future river flow conditions from the hydro-meteorological observations.

Reconstruction of damaged buildings, infrastructure and flood defenses.

Land-use planning and management within the whole catchment.

Warning issued to the appropriate authorities and the public on the extent, severity and timing of the flood.

Recovery and regeneration of the environment and the economic activities in the flooded area

Discouragement of inappropriate development within the flood plains

Response by the public and the authorities

Review of the flood management activities to improve the process and planning for future events in the area affected and more generally, elsewhere.

Public communication and education of flood risk and actions to take in a flood emergency.

Role for Ecologists and Plant Scientists: When it is realized that anthropogenic implications and natural factors cause large scale changes in our climatic system, landscape and ecosystem stability, which is further aggravated by changes in biodiversity, land-cover and species composition, atmospheric quality, ecological factors like fire, flooding, pests, etc. it calls for a 'system approach' to the study of disaster risk and vulnerability. This shall enable prudent planning and enforcement of effective strategies of risk mitigation, green relief, and sustainable recovery paradigms. Management of hydro-meteorological risks in the Himalaya region needs in-depth ecological research interventions especially after we have lessons of Uttarakhand disaster 2013. Post-disaster EIA and environmental needs assessment is yet to be taken up, and environmental recovery framework is yet to be drawn.

Latest Developments and Epilogue: The Uttarakhand disaster triggered acceleration to national and international thought process on role of ecosystems and their services in terms of disaster risk reduction and reducing people's vulnerability. Partnership of Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (UN-PEDRR) involving UNDP, IUCN, WWF, ADPC, CADRI, and pioneer institutions like NIDM of India, has evolved a mechanism called Ecosystem Approach to DRR (ecoDRR), which is now being considered through the State Authority created for guiding post-disaster rehabilitation and recovery in Uttarakhand. The in-making national plan for disaster management has focused on mainstreaming DRR and recognized ecoDRR and community centric interventions as key issues. It also calls upon the academic world and Universities to review and revise the curriculum of environmental sciences studies to emphasize adequately on disaster management related issues. Forest Department of Government of Uttarakhand is initiating a strategic intervention on role of forest restoration in DRR. It is high time a consortium of academic institutions and agencies related to environment, social development and disaster response evolves and installs a procedure of working together for the common cause of sustainable development.


1Head of Policy Planning & Environment Division, 2Asst. Professor & In-charge of GIS Facility, National Institute of Disaster Management, New Delhi -110002, 3Vice-Chancellor, Mohammad Ali Jauhar University, Rampur, U.P. (India) *E-mail: [email protected]


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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