When are We Going to Learn!

It is said, that one learns by experience. But when it comes to natural disasters, it seems that our memory is really short lived! In August 1998, the period between 11thand 19th was perhaps the worst for the residents of Uttarakhand. It was during this period that incessant rains brought the hill slopes tumbling down at Malpa and also at Ookhimath.

At Malpa on the nights of August 11 and August 17 the sliding took place from the top of Malpa Nala (Read: Helpless Against the Nature’s Ire) and it was more of a rock slide. Large chunks of rocks, as if torn from their roots began rolling down with a roar. As these chunks of rocks hit the ground splinters took off and hit the far off places. Few constables of a paramilitary force had taken shelter in the Inspection House at Malpa, located at a comparatively safe place. They told the team of Geologists dispatched immediately after the mishap, by the Geological Survey of India that all night they remained crouched under their cots as the boulders rained on the tin roof of the Inspection House. The sad part was that 380 villagers, including 60 pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar were completely buried under the debris. So ghastly was the scene that even after days colored fluid could be seen oozing out from the debris. This was perhaps the fat from the bodies of the buried mules carrying the baggage of the pilgrims!

Sad part is that the pilgrims died because of a wrong choice of the camping ground. This lay just on the margin of the Nala, which acted as a chute for the rock boulders to tumble down.

The disaster at Ookhimath was still worst. It was pouring all over and the severity of rainfall increased from 1th August. Continuous rainfall had soaked the hill slopes, more because of the fact that the terraced slopes, had rice fields, with margins raised to hold water for sowing paddy. Excess rains caused these tiny marginal bunds to give way and channels of water began flowing down the slope. On the other hand, rain kept lashing and further soaking the ground. The higher reaches of this area have dense cedar and oak forests. The rain water there managed to enter the crevices in the rocks widened by the roots of ancient trees. This water froze during the nights and in the day time, it would expand due to heat and chunks of rocks would break off with a plop.

Torrential rains acted as the best lubricant for the rock mass from the top to slide down. It began to slide, carrying in its wake all the mud and clay from the terraced fields. The moving slide mass did not spare anything or anyone in its route. Houses, cattle sheds, cattle, whatever came in its wake were swept down in a flash. So powerful was the slide at Madhyamaheshwar that it hit the valley and with the same gusto went across the stream and hit the slopes up to a height of nearly 50 meters on the opposite bank. The bouncing slide material razed several houses supposedly at a safe height on the opposite bank. That year 110 people lost their lives and nearly 10000 were rendered homeless as two villages were obliterated by the slide. The stream at Madhyamaheshwar was blocked and a temporary lake was formed there.

The story does not end here. There have been repeat landslides of devastating types in Ookhimath area again in 2002 and 2012.

After the first slide, the geologists working in the area had warned the government to take stringent measures to check construction activity in the hazardous zones. The advice went unheeded. On 13th September 2012, Ookhimath area had 212.5 mm rain in 24 hours. The ground conditions were worse compared to the 1998 disaster. The unconsolidated sediments of the past slides were being used for various purposes. When a land is being used, it is bound have humans around. The unconsolidated sediments are quite porous. With the result plenty of water seeped down and the ground became slushy and swollen. With hardly any drainage the pore pressure within the sediments became unbearable and the land mass moved downwards. To compound the matters in Chuni-Mangoli village a drinking water tank of one lakh litre capacity was also damaged. This added to the local woes.

After investigating the disaster of September 2012, Naresh Rana and Y.P. Sundriyal of H.N.B. Garhwal University, Srinagar and N. Juyal of PRL Ahmedabad recommend strong measures on part of the government to relocate people settled in the hazardous part of Ookhimath. It is sad that the nature is against people there and it is still sad to see that despite publicity, neither the people nor the government is taking any concrete steps to avoid loss of life and property in the years to come.

Most of us forget what happened yesterday. The mishaps at Malpa and Ookhimath were the reminders from the nature to wake up from the slumber. Yet, despite regular reminders by the Nature, we seem remained oblivious! With the availability of sensitive instruments and satellite pictures in the contemporary times it is not difficult to demarcate the hazard-prone zones and relocate the people likely to be affected.

Better drainage facilities in such areas will help in releasing much of the pore pressure. Drainage is even otherwise important on such slopes, as water is the best lubricant for the rock mass and wet slopes pave the way for a landslide. The importance of proper drainage in the mountainous terrains was better understood by the British. The drainage network on the slopes surrounding the Lake is a classic example of the care taken while inhabiting the area. Similarly, the drainage network along Kalka-Shimla Rail track is yet another example to check the slopes from moving downwards. It appears that we know these examples, yet we ignore the importance of developing a proper drainage before heading for a construction project.

The solution for Malpa is not that difficult as the population affected is not so large and also the camping ground for the pilgrims has already been shifted to a safer place. Thus relocating a handful of people is not a difficult task. But Ookhimath has a complicated picture. The construction activity has been going on despite the landslides and warnings of the experts.

It is time that the Government starts reviewing the safety of the population in such areas particularly from the landslide hazard. No doubt it is going to be an uphill task. But considering the lives involved and the amount of compensation the Government has to dole out after each incident is much more than the cost of one time relocating the families living in the hazardous zone.

Image (c) Gettyimages.com


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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