It is found that there were two separate incidents in the night of 16th June 2013 and in the morning of 17th June 2013. On 16th, there was a cloudburst resulting in flash floods and also filling up and overflow of the Chorabari lake. On 17th morning, the lake breached sending a huge mass of water and debris towards the Kedarnath shrine.
Possible causes of the Disaster
The disaster has probably occurred due to a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) of Chorabari Lake (otherwise known as Gandhi Sarovar), triggered by a cloud burst, i.e, an intensive rainfall in a very short period of time where the rate of fall of water is much more than what the land can absorb, causing enormous runoff causing a huge mass of soil and debris to be carried along with the flow. The cloud burst would have caused the glacier lake Gandhi Sarovar (Chorabari lake) to overflow or breach as is evident from the ISRO Bhuwan imageries pre and post flood. The catchment area of Kedarnath above the shrine is around 3000 ha and even 10mm of rainfall would mean a collection of 3 lakh cubic metres of water. If such a 10mm rainfall occurs in a span of one hour, all this water would be run off without having time to be absorbed by the soil. The wide catchment area above the shrine abruptly narrows down into a deep gorge the bottom of which is the trek route from Gaurikund via Rambada to Kedarnath along the Mandakini river. This might have caused all the water to flow into the narrow gorge thereby raising the level of the river by several metres above the normal flow. The continuous rains and a probable cloud burst induced GLOF might have triggered several landslides and mass movement of the glacial debris of the Chorabari glacier situated a few kilometres above the shrine and caused siltation of the shrine premises and the force of the flowing mass caused destruction of buildings and property that came in its way. The velocity of flowing water accelerates due to gravity as it moves down from 3550m at Kedarnath shrine to less than 2000m at Gaurikund.
Google image of Kedarnath trek route and surroundings as on 19/3/2012
How is the phenomenon different from normal scenario
Kedarnath shrine is situated at about 3550m above mean sea level and is well above the treeline which is around 3300m. The areas above Kedarnath are snow capped mountains and the Chorabari glacier. There are several glacial lakes also in this area including the Chorabari lake (commonly known as the Gandhi Sarovar) and also the Vasuki tal in the adjoining catchment of Vasukiganga. This area, because of the high altitude remains usually above the normal height of clouds and only receives rain sprinkles or light rains most of the time during the monsoons and mostly the precipitation is in the form of snowfall. The area being devoid of tree or shrub growth due to its altitude does not have any cushion to reduce the force of the falling rain. The snowy glaciers are even devoid of grassy meadows in most of its area. This season, the area experienced heavy rain instead of sprinkles and hence the GLOF might have occurred.
Is Deforestation the cause of disaster
No. All the tree cover area from near Rambada to Gaurikund are part of the Kedarnath Wildlife sanctuary where the protection of forests is well ensured. The areas above Rambada slowly and naturally has a reduction in tree growth as one goes up and merges into the alpine meadows at around 3 km before Kedarnath. The forest cover of the State has increased by 1% in the last decade as per FSI reports.
Are Dams the cause of disaster –
There are no dams in the Kedarnath valley from Kedarnath to Kund. Dams are allotted to the States after cumulative EIA of the Watershed. The actual construction begins after EIA and environment clearance from Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. Further, the design and safety aspects have to be cleared by the Dam Safety Organisation in Government of India. In fact, a properly designed dam can actually prevent flood damage as it can bring down the velocity of water to a great extent thereby reducing the force. Central Water Commission has also said that Dams prevent floods. Most of the damage in other valleys where dams are present are in the upstream of such dams and very less damage is reported from downstream of the dams.
Are illegal constructions cause of disaster
Construction in Kedarnath valley is restricted to only three places, viz., guest houses and hotels in and around the shrine, a small cluster of shops and houses at Rambada and a larger congregation of buildings, horse stand and parkings at Gaurikund. The pilgrimage attracts a lot of people from all over the nation and also abroad. The large in flow of pilgrims cannot be regulated due to religious sentiments. In order to provide accommodation and food to the pilgrims especially during the peak season, it is inevitable to have adequate facilities at the starting point, mid point and the end point of the trek, viz. Gaurikund, Rambada and Kedarnath. Since it is a narrow gorge along the river Mandakini, there is no other space for any construction activity other than the present settlement.
The increase in construction activity is not the cause of disaster, however, it can be interpreted that loss of property would have been much less had these constructions not been there. The persons on the top storeys of multi-storeyed buildings have survived the disaster to a great extent, whereas most of the temporary constructions have been affected.
Post disaster there needs to be a relook at implementation of the Forest Conservation Act (so that endangered villages can be shifted to safer areas, including in forests where necessary (after following the procedure for diversion of forest land), enactment of building byelaws and zoning regulations for the entire State, capacity building in the area of urban planning (including kshetra panchayats etc) and for evolution of earthquake proof and flood resistant constructions. There needs to be rellok at lifting of material from river beds (to lower the level of the bed) and also integrated river training activities.
There is no mining activity in the Mandakini river from Kedarnath to Kund. Only a few boulders and sand is picked up for local construction by the villagers from silted banks of the rivers, which get silted up every year during the monsoons. The periodic removal of silt also helps to streamline the course of the river which otherwise would get diverted from time to time, eroding more of its streambanks.
Eco sensitive zone objection
There is a rumour that Uttarakhand government and the people have objected declaration of eco sensitive zones. Actually, the State and its people are in favour of having regulated and planned development of all its areas and is willing to declare the area as an ecosensitive zone. The recent objection raised was against the unilateral way by which the Ministry of Environment and Forests(GoI) imposed several restrictions in the name of an eco sensitive zone in the Bhagirathi valley without consulting the State government or conducting any stakeholder consultations with the villagers. The Bhagirathi notification also contained many lacunae in addition to declaring more than 100 times the area intended to be declared in the draft notification. This defeats the very purpose of the initial notification, is against the principles of Natural Justice and is bad in law. The final notification was hidden from public view and was put on the web only after four months of the notification. There was also confusion in the EIA notification where it has regulated activities even in 10 km vicinity of any eco sensitive zone.
The State is providing eco system services to the rest of the nation,which has been computed to be around Rs.27,000 Crores per annum by Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal for which the State has requested assistance from the Central Government in the form of a Green Bonus for the maintenance of these services.
Ecological responsibility of UK vs other states
The people of Uttarakhand has preserved and conserved its forest and environment at the cost of losing opportunities of economic and infrastructure development and also industrial growth. The other States have already torn down their forest and vegetation for rampant industrial development.
Rain instead of snow – climate change due to fossil fuel burning and industrialisation
The thermal and coal based power plants and heavy vehicular traffic in the plains of India, especially the industrialised States has caused large scale emission of green house gases which has resulted in global warming as a result of which the average temperature in the snow bound areas are also increasing causing rain fall instead of snow fall as it used to occur in the past. Rain fall instead of snowfall also causes the existing permafrost and glaciers to melt and cause avalanches and landslides and their flow along with the flash floods causing major havoc downstream.
Pictures of Rambada before the disaster (This settlement is not even traceable at present and is replaced by a debris laden gorge.)