K Rajan with Taazakhabar Bureau Reports from Kashmir and New Delhi
Heads: it will be an earthquake…Tails: flood or drought. Almost 85% of India’s area is vulnerable to one or the other natural disaster. No less than 22 out of 28 states and seven union territories are disaster-prone. If it’s not cyclones from Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea; then it is earthquakes, floods or droughts.
Almost 57% of the land is vulnerable to earthquakes (high seismic zones III–V), 68% to drought, 8% to cyclones and 12% to floods. If nothing else, ever-so- vulnerable India has to watch out for the tsunamis. Either way; death, disease and destruction are inevitable in the world’s most disaster-prone area. As Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”
Some disasters don’t come alone but bring many hideous dangers along. For instance, an earthquake may cause buildings to collapse while uprooting electric poles and telephone lines. This hinders medical and relief operations.
All the more reason to ask is India prepared for disasters?
- The deadly Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the deadliest natural disasters in history caused by an undersea earthquake on December 26, 2004 triggered a series of devastating tsunamis with 30-metre (98-ft) high coastal waves that left over 230,000 people dead in 14 countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. It was the third largest and deadliest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph (9.1 to 9.3 Mw magnitudes) having the longest duration of faulting, between 8.3 and 10 minutes
- The Asian heat wave swept India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, Japan and China in 2007. While Japan suffered the most due to the heat wave, many deaths were reported in New Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where the temperature soared to 40°C (104°F) in three days of the intense heat wave before climbing down down to 37.2°C (99.0°F). At least 11 people died in Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh where the temperature rose to 44°C (111°F).
- Ladakh floods on August 6, 2010, left 1,000 people dead, over 400 injured and damaged nearly 71 towns and villages in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh region, including Leh township. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in the initial phase of the storm and some 9,000 people were affected by the flash floods, mudslides and debris flow resulting from a cloudburst and heavy overnight rains.
- A flash flood and cloudburst in Rudraprayag district killed 39 people on September 14, 2012.
- A flash flood due to cloudburst in Almora on September 15, 2010, washed away two complete villages in Uttarakhand — most of the villagers drowned.
- The worst natural disaster in Indian history — devastating floods and landslides due to multiple cloudbursts in Kedarnath and Rambada region of Uttarakhand on June 15, 2013 left over 3,000-4,000 people dead and buried under debris. Thousands of others went missing and approximately 84,000 were stranded.
- Heavy rainfall in parts of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, western Nepal and western Tibet left over 5,700 people dead and 100,000 pilgrims, tourists and residents stranded in Char Dham pilgrimage sites due to destruction of bridges and roads on July 16, 2013. More than 110,000 people had to be evacuated by Indian Air Force, Indian Army and paramilitary forces.
- It took just five days of heavy rains to swamp the Kashmir valley, leave 400 dead, 600,000 people stranded and damage roads, bridges, schools and buildings on both sides of the Indo-Pak border in the worst flood in 100 years. The late monsoon torrential rains started on September 2 and had inundated most parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in just four days. The mega floods caused by the unprecedented downpour that thewreaked misery, havoc and devastation across Srinagar and many parts of south Kashmir was a calamity that was waiting to happen. But it would take at least a decade for the people of Kashmir to recover from losses.
- On 16 June 2013, sudden floods caused by unseasonal heavy rains left more than 5,000 people dead and thousands more missing in Uttarakhand. Hundreds of cities were destroyed. Countless number of villages, homes, Forests, roads and hydropower projects were damaged in Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi. Everything was submerged by water. Since such rain was not expected in June, pilgrims and tourists were caught unawares. It started to rain without a break in Uttarakhand on June 16. Some 200 mm rain fell within hours and eventually whole Kedarnath village was washed away, leaving only the temple, one of the holiest Hindu shrines. This kind of disaster had never happened in Himalayan history. It would take a long time to undo the damage and rebuild Kedarnath for pilgrimage to resume in Uttarakhand
- Every year, Assam is devastated by floods and river erosion. This year too, 188 villages were submerged, and 25,000 hectares of crops destroyed in just one district. Landslides and flash floods triggered by two days of heavy rains led to 28 deaths in Meghalaya and Assam. Guwahati, capital of Assam, was flooded and some 90 villages of Goalpara district were submerged. More than 150,000 people were displaced in the area prone to flooding during June-to-September monsoon. At least 11 people were killed in heavy flooding in Guwahati in June.
- In Gorkahpur district of Uttar Pradesh, the intensity and frequency of floods have increased considerably — occurring almost every three to four years now. In the last few months, some 1,500 villages in nine districts of Uttar Pradesh have been severely damaged by floods, leaving at least 28 dead and thousands homeless.
- Bihar remains one of the most flood-prone states in India. Almost 76% of the population in north Bihar lives under recurring threat of floods, which come every year and destroy thousands of humans and animals, besides damaging assets worth millions. The flood in river Kosi called Bihar’s sorrow accounted for 1,399 people and 5,302 animal deaths and nearly 29 million people across 30 districts were affected in the most deadly flood in the state’s history. About Rs 68 million worth of crops and property was damaged. In 2004 again, a flood left 885 people and 3,272 animals dead, and 21.2 million others traumatized in some 20 districts of Bihar. The state witnessed one of its worst natural disasters when a breach in Kosi embankment caused the river to change course, killing hundreds of people and displacing 30 lakh people. The incident also brought wide scale destruction in over eight lakh acres of farmland.
All these incidents mentioned above are sad reminders that we are live from disaster to disaster and go back to sleep after each disaster is over – till the next one catches us unawares.
Let’s look at the similarities in all the above incidents — almost all the other recent catastrophes were caused by extreme heavy rains. Why is this so? Is the Indian monsoon becoming unpredictable and leading to increasing number of climate change-related extreme weather events?
Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged the fact that climate change is the one of the main factors behind the increasing number and intensity of extreme weather events. Scientists have warned that disasters are getting more destructive and more, and more people are exposed to floods and other events. An extreme weather event generally becomes a disaster when it causes loss to life and property.
Disasters are inevitable — no country howsoever advanced, no science anywhere in the world has been able to contain the nature’s fury or stop disasters from happening. So what do we do? Keep waiting for disasters to happen or preparing to mitigate the risk and damage? Putting in place an early warning systems and protocols for evacuations is not enough, preparedness should begin at the stage of planning and development of cities and town. The cost of building homes that can withstand earthquakes or floods is far lower than the cost of repairing homes after the flood or earthquake.
It is a daunting task to strike a balance between climate change and disaster risk reduction. A few years back, trees were planted on the edge of streams in the Leh district in Jammu and Kashmir – to tackle climate change. These very trees magnified the damage due to the 2010 flash floods. The fallen trees choked the mouth of the river forming dams and reservoirs that prevented the free flow of the water. The water kept exerting pressure and when the makeshift dam broke, it led to panic and chaos.
Even recently, some of the influencing factors behind the floods in Jammu and Kashmir that caused so much destruction were unplanned construction in flood plains, deforestation in the river catchment areas, choking of the rivers due to dumping of garbage and overuse of chemical fertiliser by farmers.
(To be continued)