A FORGOTTEN STORY

In 2010, I happened to reach Kumaon a month after heavy rains caused widespread damage in Almora and Bageshwar. I wrote a small article from that trip, hoping it would engage a newspaper or magazine to publish. None I contacted carried it. Reading about the 2013 tragedy in Kedarnath, Garhwal, triggered by heavy rains, I remembered this old article. In the age of climate change, maybe there is something to remember from it still:

 Morning of September 18, 2010.

It was raining heavily.

Dhanuli Devi stepped out to check on her neighbour.

Water had collected inside houses at Dewali in Uttarakhand.  The previous day, in another part of the village, continuous showers had brought water into the house of Kamla Khulia, the gram pradhan. Authorities were informed and the affected portion of the building vacated. Suddenly as Dhanuli Devi watched, her neighbour’s house and some more nearby were swept off in a gush of gooey mud. Also lost was half of her own house; what remained as of late October was a cracked structure with a gaping hole on one side and a large mudslide next to it that had killed ten people. While compensation had reached those who lost their houses, Dhanuli Devi, who has no family, was yet to get relief. Technically, her house was only damaged. “ She should get the money in the next round,’’ Kamla Khulia said.

Besides lives lost, Uttarakhand’s road infrastructure took a beating in the rains. Travelling from Mussourie to Champa, Uttarkasi, Rishikesh, Shivpuri, Nainital, Ranikhet, Almora and Munsiyari – the road had sections to be carefully tackled. There had been massive landslides leaving buildings on edge, parts of the road had sunk and fallen off or developed cracks. Small stones kept rolling down from the top as traffic negotiated repaired segments. The road from Khairna to Almora, used by trucks, was shut for long. When it opened, it was half a road in some places and delicately poised with the river Kosi flowing below. In September, the bloated Kosi either directly washed off kilometres of this road or ate the hillside from below causing the road above to collapse. Vehicles were spectacularly trapped on isolated fragments of still intact road. “ The rains must have set us back by at least eight years,’’ a senior government official said. 

Dhanuli Devi in 2010 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dhanuli Devi in 2010 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some 200 people died in Uttarakhand, in the monsoon of 2010.

It was worst at Almora, where besides Dewali, there had been similar landslide and death at Balta. There were 44 monsoon related deaths in Almora district; 38 of that on September 18. Official figures say 323 houses were totally damaged; 3099, partially. In the wake of calamity, 178 relief camps were opened accommodating 4015 persons. The damage to Almora was billed at Rs 723.10 crore. It included both loss and what it would take to rebuild. On September 22, the Centre gave Rs 500 crore as interim assistance to Uttarakhand. Late October 2010, the Almora administration had received only Rs 40 crore for relief work. It may have changed since. On November 18, media reports said the Uttarakhand government had disbursed Rs 372 crore. It expected the balance to be exhausted in another month and wanted the Centre to expedite the relief package it had demanded.

Ironically in the recent past, Almora had been in the news for depleting rain and falling water levels. It was feared that the ground water fed-Kosi, which originates in the region, may soon dry off. Last monsoon, the Kosi was anything but that. The local office of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) had data for September 2010. To start with, from June 1 to September 23, Almora got 1263.4mm of rainfall as opposed to the normal 854.7mm. Within that it was: June – 78.2mm, July – 359.4mm, August – 292.2mm and September – 507.6mm. If you go years back to 1962, then the spread of rainfall is even: June – 302.51mm, July – 321.56mm, August – 321.82mm and September – 321.82mm. Take September alone: 1970 – 436.1mm, 1994 – 467.4mm, 2010 – 507.6mm. Now sample 2010 rainfall deficiency (or in this case, excess): June 1 to August 31 – +8 %, June 1 to September 23 – +48%, September 1 to September 23 – +275%.  The figures highlight two trends – a progressively uneven rainfall and shift in heaviest rainfall to September. Of the 507.6mm received in September 2010, 177.4mm happened on September 18. Four days – September 16, 17, 18 and 19 – were days of heavy rain.

Although September 18 was widely reported as “ cloudburst,’’ Prof J.S. Rawat of the Department of Geography, Kumaon University, said, “ it was an unprecedented long spell of unusually heavy rain.’’ The rain filled up the region’s underground aquifers causing external overflow. When land saturates, sub-surface flows also happen. Both Dhanuli Devi and Kamla Khulia said the muddy water that carried away homes and families at Dewali had erupted from the ground. Technically, the calamity at Dewali and Balta was called `slumping.’ However the rainfall of 2010 was yet considered an aberration in the otherwise declining average annual rainfall and water levels of the Almora region. The key to this paradox, it would seem, is the intensity of rainfall. In a healthy ecosystem, the natural rate of ground water recharge for these parts of the Himalaya is said to be 31 per cent. Against this, the Kosi area has a recharge rate of 12 per cent; in Almora town, it is two per cent. Senior residents, including Prof Rawat, remember a phenomenon called `satjhar’ that used to be there years ago. It featured a week-long spell of low intensity rain, which was the best way to recharge ground water. That’s why the intense rain of September and the deluge of September 18 mean nothing, except continued worry.

According to Prof Rawat there is a need to study how these trends affect Almora, which is in Seismic Zone 4. The professor maintained that many of the buildings that collapsed in the rain or were severely damaged had been new ones built on “ superficial deposition.’’ Result – water gets below the foundation. “ We don’t have a Master Plan yet that tells which areas to build on and which, to avoid,’’ he said.

Uttarakhand is a state trapped in mythology and natural beauty. The Himalaya made it scenic. It became the backdrop of epic, folklore and fairy tales. People flock there in large numbers. They seek God and a sense of space their own numbers have denied them in the plains little understanding that their moving en masse in a different direction, merely carries the lack of space also over. A young mountain chain like the Himalaya will be restless and its sides far less settled than the terrain through which roads and highways have been built elsewhere. Mix this with climate change’s ability for catastrophic weather – the consequences are a handful to deal with even under normal conditions with only the local people to take care of, leave alone the thousands who invade from the outside. In the media, Uttarakhand’s tragedies unfold in predictable fashion typically with shrill emotional note struck by focusing on what is happening to places of worship. It works as spellbinding visual on television for some people. It did in 2010 with much hysteria whipped up around a temple on the banks of the Kosi. It did again in 2013, which was anyway all about pilgrimage. On the ground too, people are quick to highlight to the reporter what happened to a place of worship even as their own lives are in tatters. 

In Uttarakhand, I suspect, this dovetails neatly into an existing tradition of staying mythological for the rest of India. Such perspective obfuscates the real story, which is one of geology, geography, human presence, rising population, climate change and the impact of economic growth featuring construction projects and such. This – especially business and projects – would be brought to sharp focus as the tragedy of 2013 got analyzed. Reports appeared of ill advised construction and ones that may have obstructed the natural flow of rivers – not much different in principle, from what Prof Rawat mentioned in a different context about lacking a Master Plan. Not to mention, detailed studies of rainfall pattern in the age of climate change and what that holds for pilgrimage seasons established by the realities of bygone eras. It is absurd to expect 2013 to be the same as a year from millennia ago.

In Dewali I remember asking Dhanuli Devi where she would go. She indicated a relative down by the road she could seek shelter with for the time being. But otherwise; she just looked into the distance, tears welling up in her eyes.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was modified towards the end to tie into the developments of 2013.)        

 

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