While a disaster may strike anywhere without warning, and this can result in heavy loss of lives and property, it is undeniable that the Himalayan states like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are particularly vulnerable. The distressing news coming from Himachal Pradesh is evidence of the fact that each monsoon brings with itself a number of landslides, building collapses and even deaths. Many buildings including hotels are reported to have been washed away in Manali and other places in Himachal Pradesh this season already, even when the monsoon season is yet to peak.
In Uttarakhand, so far, there has been no report of any major disaster this monsoon, but the concerns remain. Some smaller incidents like the bus being swept away in Vikasnagar in Dehradun on Sunday and of landslides in Almora and in Pithoragarh are of lesser concern, but Joshimath and some areas of Uttarkashi remain major concerns as there are reports of some fresh cracks in some buildings. One would recall that residents of Joshimath had to flee their homes in the freezing winter season. Walls had cracked open, while foundations were observed to be tilting and sinking in hundreds of buildings. While the majority of the affected families have been relocated, claims the administration, not much has been done towards preventing further cracks in the town and hence the worries in respect of Joshimath remain as before. While the Joshimath disaster was waiting to happen because the authorities ignored multiple warnings over the past several decades and continued to allow unplanned construction of hotels, etc., in the town. In addition to earthquakes that pose danger here because the whole of Uttarakhand falls under high seismic zone, cloud bursts are another regular cause of disasters in the state. It is the cloud bursts that cause flash floods, resulting in massive destruction of property and loss of lives. According to the data from the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, around 600 people lost their lives and 500 others were injured in natural calamities from 2014 to 2020.
However, monsoons are an annual feature and it is to be expected that some years rains can be heavier than in others. In view of this, there has to be full preparedness to deal with monsoon produced disasters. Currently, despite the heavy rains, the Char Dham Yatra continues unabated and needs to be regulated strictly especially during the monsoon period. While Uttarakhand’s disaster preparedness and response have improved, the fragility of the Himalayas and the increase in population and infrastructure are at the root of crises like the Joshimath incident. A regular action plan needs to be put in place with all the SOPs worked out in detail in order to deal with regular disasters. Building parapets, and also constructing elevated roads by avoiding cutting into the hills in more vulnerable regions needs to be considered seriously. An optimum balance needs to be maintained between development and conservation of nature also in order to minimise major natural disasters. Too rapid urbanisation of the hills should be best avoided too.
Preparation of a database for risk prediction and prevention must be improved. Action and preparedness will require data to anticipate and prepare. With climate change, greater uncertainty is to be expected. In addition, community-based disaster preparedness should be prioritised. Greater uncertainty means building modular planning units with sufficient capacity. Not only are small communities agile and can mobilise quickly, but they also know their own populations best.