Punctuated disasters- Uttarakhand

Natural disasters occur in a way almost as if they follow Stephen Jay Gould’s (1941-2002) controversial theory of evolution where he argued that life evolves by punctuated equilibrium.  He was trying to explain abrupt gaps in the fossil record.  Although several great mass extinctions have ‘punctuated’ the geological past, perhaps Gould’s notion of punctuation is not appropriate in case of adaptive radiation and evolution over geological time scales (billennia) but it appears relevant to populations locally over shorter time scales (centuries/millennia).  If we extend the punctuation analogy, a natural disaster could put an abrupt full stop in the life of a city, a forest, or even a country and if lucky it may allow a new paragraph where sometimes one has to relearn a language and relearn how to live.

My earliest memory of a natural disaster that occurred in India is the 1993 Latoor earth quake in Maharashtra.  I remember seeing pictures of devastation in the newspaper the day after and I remember feeling aftershocks in Bangalore nearly 700km away on the day of the quake.  Then there were the super cyclone of Orissa (1999), the Bhuj earth quake in Gujarat (2001) and the Indian ocean Tsunami (2004). Among many ways through which nature vents her fury, earth quakes are the most unpredictable and thus can catch the most prepared unaware.  Floods, cyclones and volcanoes provide some time to react, escape and minimize casualties.  The havoc caused by the premature Monsoon, cloud burst and flash floods in the Indian state of Uttarakhand (June 16-17, 2013) have made us doubt the limits to which we could go.  When a natural calamity walks through a region, it almost unavoidably leaves a trail of material damage and debris.  However, the tragedy in Uttarakhand underscores an underestimation of latent danger or even criminal negligence blinded by human greed  that has shaken the foundations on which the Indian civilisation is built.

I will not spend time explaining the factual details of the Uttarakhand tragedy and extent of damage. My intention is to give you the setting and context in which the disaster happened.  As many of you are aware, the epicenter of the devastating floods was Kedarnath (30.73° N, 79.07° E), a historic pilgrimage center.  The Kedarnath temple is located in the heart of the flood plains of a Himalayan glacier called Chorabari (Figure 1a, b) that later becomes the river Mandakini.

Figure 1(a) Photograph showing Kedarnath Temple (T) located in the path of the glacier snout (RS) [credit: Choujar, 2009] 1(b) Physical features of the location [credit: Mehta et al. 2012]
Figure 1(a) Photograph showing Kedarnath Temple (T) located in the path of the glacier snout (RS) [credit: Choujar, 2009]
1(b) Physical features of the location [credit: Mehta et al. 2012]

For most parts of its history (at least since 8th century AD), there was no human habitation in Kedarnath, except the temple (Figure 2).  Pilgrims had to travel by foot for 200 km to visit their God.  The picture changed in the last two decades or so to accommodate an up swell in the number of people visiting Kedarnath.  Rampant construction and road building continued in and around the temple area on the glacier snout (Figure 3; suffocating the Gods!) even spreading all along the river banks to the neighbouring towns. The intensity of the catastrophe could have overwhelmed even the most prepared and most well behaved.  However, one cannot ignore the fact that we were partly responsible for digging our own grave.  It was waiting to happen.

Kedarnath, Garhwal, Griesbach 1882. Geological Survey of India (via Outlook)
Figure 2: Kedarnath Temple, Garhwal in 1882.
Image courtesy: Outlook
Figure 3: Photograph of Kedarnath Temple in 2013 (courtesy: The Hindu)
Figure 3: Photograph of Kedarnath Temple in 2013 (courtesy: The Hindu)

Listen to the following audio excerpts where noted environmental journalist Bittu Sahgal and veteran actor Tom Alter react to the aftermath of Uttarakhand tragedy.  They were speaking on NDTV (June 27, 2013).  Their words of anguish and repent should resonate with every well-meaning human being.

Tom Alter speaking on NDTV: http://chirb.it/5vtzPI  Bittu Sahgal speaking on NDTV: http://chirb.it/nh3EP4

Bittu Sahgal
Bittu Sahgal
Tom Alter
Tom Alter

Also read: Joshi, VK (2006) Avalanche safe township for the holy shrine,  click here


Choujar, RK (2009) Climate change and its impact on the Himalayan glaciers – a case study on the Chorabari glacier, Garhwal Himalaya, India, CURRENT SCIENCE, 96(5), 703-708

Mehta, M et al (2012) Geomorphological evidences of post-LGM glacial advancements in the Himalaya: A study from Chorabari Glacier, Garhwal Himalaya, India, JOURNAL OF EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE, 121 (1), 149-163


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