Understanding Risk from Floods and Landslides in the Himalayan Region: A Discussion to Enhance Resilience


a Disaster & Emergency Management, York University, Toronto, Canada Email: Nirupama@yorku.ca

Abstract — In June 2013, a cloud burst event dumped higher than normal torrential rains over Uttarakhand, a popular but sensitive Himalayan region in India. The rivers in the region overflowed to unprecedented levels causing severe landslides. The combined effects of these three hazards were extremely damaging. Nearly six thousand people perished in the disaster and many more got injured and went missing. Damage surpassed US$500 million. A discussion around making communities has been triggered by the event in the region that is considered a sacred destination for Hindu pilgrims. It is people’s belief that they should visit the four ancient temples in the region once in their lifetime. The challenge posed to the authorities is to find an approach that would allow them to address all aspects of similar event, including meteorological, hydrological, and geological. Currently, these different areas fall under different administrations.

Keywords – Natural hazard, risk, resilience, floods, landslide

1 Introduction

The State of Uttarakhand, the worst affected region of north India has a total area of 53,484 sq. km, of which 93% is mountainous and 64% is forest. The four very important and ancient temples are located in this region where pilgrims/tourists travel every year during summer months when roads become accessible (Yadav and Sahani 2013). During June 14-17, 2013, a weather system that has a very low likelihood caused heavy torrential rains over a few days. This rainfall resulted in extensive flooding and landslides in the region that is geologically sensitive due to its geographic location in the Himalayan mountain range. According to the Meteorological Departments of India and Pakistan, the monsoon advancing towards the west of South Asia, combined with westerly winds resulted in several days of torrential rains. The weather interaction of this kind normally occurs between October and April, but extended to June. The intensity was also much higher than normally seen (Nirupama et al. 2014). The destruction in terms of thousands of lives lost, millions of dollars (US$) lost in damage, and thousands of pilgrims gone missing was sufficient to encourage the public and the authorities to engage in understanding risks and potential mitigation measures to prevent a similar event from reoccurring in the future. This paper is intended to enhance our understanding of risk and vulnerability in the region and approaches to build resilience in communities. Figure 1 shows the impact region on the Indian subcontinent.

Figure 1: Impact area in the Indian subcontinent (Sundaramoorty 2013).
Table 1: district-wise rainfall distribution from June 13-19, 2013 (SANDRP 2013).
District Actual rainfall (mm) Normal rainfall (mm) % Departure
Almora 208.7 26.3 694
Bageshwar 391.2 26.3 1387
Chamoli 316.9 22.6 1302
Champawat 351 33.5 948
Dehradun 565.4 36.8 1436
Garhwal Pauri 149.7 15.8 847
Garhwal Tehri 327.7 22 1390
Hardwar 298.8 21.6 1283
Nainital 506.5 38.8 1205
Pithoragarh 246.9 73 238
Rudraprayag 366.3 53.9 580
Udham Singh Nagar 157.7 40.2 292
Uttarkashi 375.6 25.8 1356

2 The Case Study

A combination of heavy rainfall, glacial melt, landslides, and resulting debris flow wreak havoc in the Himalayan mountainous region. A global sweep of westerlies triggered severe flooding across central Europe (leaving a trail of deadly flooding in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic) and collided with the south-west monsoon over north India, causing the deadliest rains in decades (Fig. 2). Meteorologists investigating the factors behind the devastation said although such extreme weather events were not uncommon in Himalayan regions such as Uttarakhand, the monsoon could not have, on its own, resulted in heavy rainfall (Haq 2013; Krishnan 2013).

Although in July 1968 in Rajasthan and Gujarat States of India, a similar event occurred in which nearly 5000 people died (CWC 2013), it is a very low probability event. While cloud burst is due to natural causes, the flooding and landslides are due to a combination of natural causes and human induced factors such as deforestation, urbanization, and misguided landuse. Although there are no raingauges at the four main temples, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri where pilgrims/tourists suffered the most, the nearest raingauge stations in various districts in the region provide valuable data as shown in Table 1. Figure 2 shows the precipitation scenario during June 11-17, 2013.

Figure 2: Strong westerlies active over Europe in April-June 2013 and collide over Himalayan region in June 2013 (Haq 2013; Krishnan 2013)
Figure 3: The satellite images ISRO acquired on June 20, 2013 shows the extensive damage Kedarnath suffered after the June 2013 floods (NDTV 2013).

Since 1950, 17 major flood disasters have killed more than 1,000 people in each event in India (EMDAT 2013); and about 60,000 people were killed due to monsoon related floods during 1950-2012 (UWI 2013; CWC 2013; IMD 2013). The June 2013 monsoon rains came to the region two weeks earlier than normal with the fastest progression of the monsoon on record. This meant that the more than 340 millimetres of rainfall (normal rainfall being about 66 mm) coincided with the pilgrimage season in the region. Some areas experienced the wettest season in over 50 years. To make matters worse, there was snow on the ground, therefore, heavy rainfall combined with the snow created suitable conditions for landslides in the affected region (SANDRP 2013; Ramachandran 2013; Bagla 2013; Climate Himalaya 2013). Figure 3 shows widespread damage before and after the disaster.

The famous Kedarnath Hindu shrine, located just a short distance from the snout of two mountain glaciers was hit by a massive 75 m wide landslide. The shrine being one of the most important pilgrimage destination was packed with devotees celebrating a religious holiday (Dobhal et al. 2013; Krishnan 2013). The debris flow gained enormous speed due to the steep slope in the area.

2.1 Understanding Risk and Vulnerability

Hazard risk can be defined as a product of hazard likelihood, exposure to the hazard, and vulnerability (Smith and Petley 2009; Armenakis and Nirupama 2013). The event in this paper can be described as a combination of heavy rainfall, flooding, and landslides for which the severity of impact was enormous (Theophilus 2013; Sphere India 2013; NDMA 2013; DMMC 2013).

Historical data of past similar rainfall events in the same area has been examined in order to establish a likelihood using the records of the India Meteorological Department (IMD 2013). The last time a cloud burst of a similar magnitude happened was on July 25, 1966 in the same area, which is about 48 years ago. In rough terms, we can treat this as a 50 year return period, which ties in well with the analysis we did above for the impact.

In order to better understand vulnerability of people and infrastructure as well as exposure to the hazard, social, economic, infrastructural, and environmental factors have been taken into account in this study. Social impact was felt by communities that lost nearly 6,000 people, found over a million tourists stranded/evacuated, and lost account of thousands of missing persons. The total number of affected persons is estimated as an astonishing 1.6 million (UWI 2013). Over 15,700 villages suffered destruction covering an estimated area of 96,000 sq. km. At the time of tragedy, about 30 million tourists/pilgrims were present in the region. Figures 5-6 show the pre and post disaster scene of the area.

Economic impact became evident when thousands of livestock were found dead, illegal housing on riverbeds were discovered and reported, and thousands of illegal mining sites were uncovered, notified, and stopped in the region. Close to USD 500 million were lost in damages – most of which was uninsured.

Environmentally, there were water contamination concerns, millions of dollars lost in forest damage and loss of flora and fauna in this extremely ecologically valuable and sensitive region. Critical facilities and essential services were severely crippled by the shortage of medicines and drinking water in hundreds of villages.

Critical infrastructure, such as important bridges (Fig. 6), roads connecting remotely located villages, water distribution and hydroelectric plants, and power lines were critically compromised and damaged. Estimates suggest (UWI 2013) that 695 water schemes were affected and over a thousand bridges were damaged.

Greed, ignorance, and misplaced priorities have contributed to deforestation, illegal mining, and unplanned development in the region (Fig. 7). Commercial deforestation in the Himalayas has been going on despite government’s claim of forest cover increasing (Yadav and Sahani 2013). India has been growing about twelve times per century but it would be unwise to increase existing and create new social and environmental vulnerabilities in this process. With the current economic growth in the country, the infrastructure has gone up exponentially and in most cases safety standards have been ignored.

Figure 4: Kedarnath temple area in 2010, showing urban growth (Frontline 2014).
Figure 5: Kedarnath temple area after the landslide in June 2013 (Jagran 2014).
Figure 6: A bridge on the verge of collapse in Kedarnath valley (Deccan Chronicle 2014)
Figure 7: Evidence of poor building codes and lack of safe development practices (CASA 2013).

3 Conclusions

Four ancient holy sites of Uttarakhand (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, and Yamnotri) in northern Himalayan region of India that are visited by millions of Hindu pilgrims and tourists every year were in the impact area. If there is another event in the future that is similar to this one, the potential impact could be ten times as compared to the June 2013 event. A multifaceted event that is not uncommon in the era of ever developing urban and rural regions in developing countries. Changing natural environment and human interactions with it needs to be addressed in order to bring meaningful awareness among stakeholders.

A challenging aspect of the particular event discussed here is that it crosses administrative boundaries which makes it difficult to prepare for potential risk and respond to the disaster. Every summer season (May-August) millions of religious devotees participate in the pilgrimage to the difficult Himalayan terrain, therefore, it is important that resilience building in communities and institutions is taken seriously. Identification of unsafe locations and conditions and assessment of risk and vulnerability is a vital first step toward mitigation of future disasters. Mitigation measures should address improving of roads and tourist accommodations, reducing soil erosion in the hilly terrain, and regularly monitoring rainfall and river flows in the area. Feasibility of these mitigation options needs to be discussed with communities for their understanding and consent as well.


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Nirupama, N. (2015): AUnderstanding Risk from Floods and Landslides in the Himalayan Region: A Discussion to Enhance Resilience. In: Planet@Risk, 3(2): 1-4, Davos: Global Risk Forum GRF Davos.