Not every disaster is man-made

Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.

The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.

What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.

One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.

The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.

Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.

Map_of_Hydroelectric_Projects_in_Bhagirathi_and_Alaknanda_Basin

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and  inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.

In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.

We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.

Mandakini150411

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.

Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.

Update:
Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.

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11 Responses to Not every disaster is man-made

  1. Padmasini June 20, 2013 at 7:21 PM #

    Wish something can be done about this to atleast reduce the scale of the disaster. We all feel very helpless.Hope that the local government uses the grant sensibly to rebuild the losses sans human lives.
    Nicely written Pavan.

  2. Sai Pramodh June 21, 2013 at 3:49 PM #

    A cloud burst is something which definitely comes under natural disaster, and if such an event occurs the best we can do is to mitigate the effect. As you rightly said blaming such a disaster as man-made is too far fetched a conclusion.

  3. Hari June 22, 2013 at 2:09 AM #

    While I agree to your point of view , most of the these are man made or we act as a catalyst if you believe in the butterfly effect. The problem in today’s context every incident will be evaluated and responded with political lenses called 2014. Having said that, risk management in India is at a very nascent stage, be it personal or a society on the whole. Its a long way to go by the time we can call ourselves matured in this regards. With religion a force to counter, it would be next to impossible. All we can do is education people around us and pray for the souls who are no more with us.

  4. Manu Sharma June 23, 2013 at 3:27 PM #

    This post contains assertions that are scientifically misleading or completely false.

    It says: “…we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.”

    First of all, the event over Kedarnath was not a cloudburst, which is defined as 100 mm rainfall in one hour. What happened in Leh in 2010 (250 mm in one hour at some places [1]) was a cloudburst. Kedarnath and other regions in the state experienced heavy rainfall (defined as 120 mm of rain in a day) which led to flash floods but at no place was there a cloudburst [2]. Anyone writing authoritatively on technical aspects of this topic ought to have known these facts.

    Second: Sure, “knowing” attribution of a climate event requires 100% certainty but you’re never going to be 100% certain about any climate event anywhere in the world. Which is why scientists work on probabilities. Scientific understanding about events such as those that unfolded in Uttarakhand, USED TO BE that unless there’s evidence to demonstrate high probability, you cannot attribute it to climate change.

    The NEW emerging scientific understanding is that because extreme climate events have increased so much in their frequency, ALL climate disaster events should be assumed to have link with climate change until evidence surfaces to the contrary. [3]

    Third and finally, we DO know that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of precipitation events. The highly conservative IPCC warned of this in its 2007 AR4 reports and then in subsequent reports including SREX released in 2012. [4]. MoEF commissioned INCCA 2010 report had specifically warned of threat to infrastructure due to such floods in river basins calling it a “very severe implication.” [5] Therefore it’s a patent falsehood to claim we do not know.

    [1] http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/1872

    [2] http://goo.gl/O48Q1

    [3] http://goo.gl/WiOvV

    [4] http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/

    [5] See p29, CLIMATE CHANGE AND INDIA: A 4X4 ASSESSMENT

      • Manu Sharma June 25, 2013 at 9:13 PM #

        There’s nothing in that interview to support your assertions that I showed to be incorrect above. In fact Dr. Pachauri refers to SREX (incorrectly as released two years ago though, it was released last year) report which had warned of precisely such disasters and the fact that they will get more intense and frequent with time. This is in contradiction with what you said.

        • Pavan Srinath June 25, 2013 at 9:18 PM #

          On the contrary. Dr. Pachauri categorically refuses to link climate change to the floods in Uttarakhand – but points to such events increasing in intensity and frequency in the future. I do not have issue with that point of view.

          And please don’t dress up activism by island states and the opinion of Kevin Trenberth as “new emerging scientific understanding”. Thanks and have a good day.

  5. surya June 23, 2013 at 6:27 PM #

    When you say that a disaster is man-made, it usually means that preventive measures, or the management of disastrous situation was not up to the mark. Isn’t it so?

  6. Manu Sharma June 25, 2013 at 9:41 PM #

    You said: “Dr. Pachauri categorically refuses to link climate change to the floods in Uttarakhand – but points to such events increasing in intensity and frequency in the future”

    What is that if not linking?

    You said: “I do not have issue with that point of view.”

    But that’s not what you said in your post. You had said: “nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.”

    You said: “please don’t dress up activism by island states”

    That 2010 EDITORIAL in New Scientist magazine is not about activism by small island states but a comment on an emerging scientific view. Since then that thinking has taken much root, has been supported by published reseach and has found much wider acceptance.

    And it’s not just Kevin Trenberth’s opinion. Similar statements have come from James Hansen, Myles Allen, Kevin Anderson…take your pick. Each of these are world’s top climate scientists.

    If you do not regard opinion of Kevin Trenberth – head of climate at NCAR – as authoritative, I’d like to know who are your sources of climate science, Fox News?

  7. Amogh July 21, 2013 at 11:02 PM #

    Pavan, like always, your penchant for fact-based arguments is disarming. I have one question about your example of Kedarnath. It is true that Kedarnath, when considered in isolation can be said to be unaffected from developmental pressures. However, there could be a possibility wherein the developmental pressures at the state/national/global level could have played a role in the havoc at Kedarnath? I know there is no research as such to correlate them, but what are your thoughts?

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