One of the most effective ways to avert distruction can be setting up early warning systems that can alert people residing the downstream of a river about the impending disaster.
Little can be done to prevent the nature’s wrath that unleashed in Uttarakhand early in February causing massive floods, loss of lives and even damaging a power project. Whether caused by a lake outburst, triggered by an avalanche or due to excessive rains, the debate is open, but whatever may have been the reason, it was definitely the result of a natural process that hardly could have been stopped by human intervention.
Nevertheless, its frequency or the amount of devastation it caused could have been minimized by early forecasts. In the beginning, one of the most effective recourse can be setting up early warning systems that can alert people residing the downstream of a river about the impending disaster. The administration should be ready with evacuation plans for these communities to safe houses.
Syed Iqbal Hasnain, Pro-Chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University in New Delhi told Indian Express that there are several parameters to monitor glacial lakes so that a warning system can be set up. Several countries like Nepal already has such a kind of warning system in place.
India being a tropical country already uses a warning system for other natural disasters like cyclones. Thousands of people are evacuated every year and relocated to shelter homes before cyclones strike low lying areas near the sea. Climate change has increased the frequency and strength of cyclones, but at the same time, apt warning systems have reduced the loss of lives significantly.
India also has an early warning system for Tsunami but with half an hour lead time to evacuate. Nonetheless, mock drills have shown that even with that little lead time one can shift the vulnerable population to a large extent. In recent years, warning systems for floods or heat waves during summer are also there helping lives.
Setting up a warning system for flash floods, in mountainous states like Uttarakhand, is far less complicated compared to other warning systems with so many indications of glacial lakes being formed, change in water level, excessive rainfall, etc. Hence warnings can be sent hours or even days before the impending disaster.
Anil V Kulkarni, a glaciologist and scientist at Divecha Centre for Climate Change at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru finds that there are ample ways to detect a lake burst and it is possible to avert the tragedy. The natural phenomenon can even be prevented in some cases through drainage systems that can let out water regulating the level.
However, one reason that this warning system was not set up in Uttarakhand, experts point out, is because the responsibilities are spread across several government departments and there is no nodal agency that can coordinate with them to work together.
While the Geological Survey of India (GSI), which is under the Ministry of Mines monitors the glaciers, the Department of Science and Technology coordinates scientific research, the IMD under the Ministry of Earth Sciences monitors rainfall and precipitation, Environment Ministry studies impacts of climate change in the region. DRDO monitors avalanches. Central Water Commission works on the hydrology aspects, National Remote Sensing Agency, part of ISRO does remote sensing of the areas. Irrigation departments and state electricity boards also have participation in monitoring the glaciers there.
A few years ago, setting up National Centre for Glaciology was proposed to be established in the Castle Hill Estate in Mussoorie held by the Survey of India. In the final stages, the government argued that it would be wiser to upgrade and strengthen the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun than to set up a new agency.
Another government official said on the condition of anonymity that event with two disasters happening in Uttarakhand in the last eight years, setting up a warning system has “not been a priority issue”. It has been easier to set up other warning systems where there have not been so many agencies involved, he added.
Glaciologist Kulkarni also suggested asking hydropower projects to install an early warning system as it would cost not more than a few lakhs in hundreds of crores worth of projects and in turn save not just the lives of the communities residing there but also their own assets.