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Surviving Disaster

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The Indian Meteorological Department and, now, Home Minister Amit Shah have asserted that the timely warning regarding heavy rainfall from 17 to 19 October helped reduce the damage to life and property in Uttarakhand. District Administrations had the time to order closure of schools and anganwadis, keep the disaster management forces in readiness, advise pilgrims on the Char Dham Yatra to stay where they were, etc. Despite this, as it is not yet possible to predict exactly which valley or mountainside is going to be hit by a cloudburst, there has been the loss of a reported 54 lives, with another 11 persons missing. The loss of property, crops and livestock will become known only when specific inquiries are conducted by village level officials. Roads and other infrastructure have also been hit in several places. It may be noted, at the same time, that many lessons have been learned from the Kedarnath Disaster of June 2013. It has been possible, for instance, to resume the Char Dham Yatra almost immediately after the 18-19 October events.

Experts have pointed out that the heavy and unseasonal rain has been triggered by climate change caused by global warming. While this present climate shift is attributed to human activity, particularly the release of carbon dioxide into the air from industries, farming, etc., it must be noted that similar change has taken place ever since life began on Earth. Living beings, including humans, changed locations and behaviour to survive, leading to their evolution at many levels. So, while a global effort is needed to reduce the causes of ozone layer depletion, these are not likely to come about soon enough. As such, other ways have to be adopted to survive at the local level.

In the case of Uttarakhand, it is not possible to continue with the old ways of constructing roads, housing and other infrastructure. There have been enough number of warnings on not going forward with the more ambitious hydel and tunnel projects. This is despite the fact that, in many cases, the dams do help contain the impact of catastrophic flooding over larger areas. It has been seen that newer human settlements have violated even the traditional wisdom of hill society in the effort to be closer to business, markets, tourism and the main roads. Civil engineering will specially need to meet the challenge with better planning, techniques and material. Stabilisation of hillsides is a task for a multiplicity of disciplines. Hopefully, the relief that has been promised by the Centre in the present crisis will be utilised keeping these aspects and the long term in mind.