Thursday, October 16, 2014

Opinion: After Kedarnath and Kashmir, are there more natural disasters waiting to happen?

There were floods in Kedarnath last year and Kashmir this year. The triggers for both of these disasters, sequence of events and the learning are almost same. If we a take look back on both the events, it becomes clear they were not one time events and this may not be an end. Here is an effort to explore why it is so.

Sequence and reaction

This seems to be the sequence of events in both the cases.
Extensive rain causes floods ->   Water in low lying areas rise -> Transportation,  Electricity and Telecommunication are cut -> Rescue efforts seem inadequate and many a times cannot not reach in time ->  Causalities rise.

The typical reactions were as follows.

Army begins rescue efforts. Relatives of those affected pray the God. State Govt. start collecting relief funds. Newspapers blame weather forecast failure. TV channels run live shows focusing on victims and how their good life came to ruins in a short time. Opposition party blames ruling party for insufficient action. One research organization does root cause analysis which no one reads and recommendations do not get implemented.

Few months or years pass. One more natural disaster strikes in another place. And the history repeats.

Random pictures showing the impact of floods at Uttarakhand and Kashmir

Why Mother Nature became ultimate destroyer?

All the rainwater collected in the catchment area flows to the rivers also filling in water bodies, ponds, lakes on the way. Rivers act as a natural drain to the rain water. When the clouds burst and it rains for days, rivers see overflow, everything on its shores gets washed away, seams burst and the feeding channels to the rivers see the rise in water levels. Water reservoirs on the way hold more water giving it time to flow through channel. But during the dry years, there is encroachment on the route of the rain water flow. Civil constructions make those channels narrower. There is habitation built on the lake beds. People build their homes on low lying areas. They live in comfort only to risk their lives when the extensive rains come back.

Increase firefighting capacity or build better infra?

So what is the better solution for this recurring tragedy? Add more people in the emergency services to rescue who get struck or do better planning? For a country which has mastered rocket science and did Mangalyaan, town planning is not a challenge. But the devil is not in the planning but the economics of building infrastructure. Ever increasing population puts pressure on people to find new land to live on. It takes years before infrastructure gets built for them until the population reaches a mass to pay back the investments in infra. Mother Nature does not care for business cycles or wait until the man builds suitable infrastructure for himself. Ask your Meteorologist expert friend, he would say that the extensive rains in the catchment area are a recurring phenomenon and are sure to come back at least once or twice in a span of century though there could be a gap of decades in between them. So when the disaster strikes, it hits severely those living on its path. Thanks to low running bridges, poor quality roads, they flow with the water when the rain gods smile at them.

While there is no quick solution in place, both the Govt. and the civilians have to take certain precautions and steps forward toward disaster management. Efforts in understanding the monsoon dynamics needs to be intensified and thereby making the weather forecast more reliable. Ecology of the region and scientific challenges need to be understood thoroughly before building new dams and putting the civil infrastructure in place in the rain catchment areas. Habitation should not be encouraged on the lake beds and so on. Otherwise history keeps repeating until we learn from it.