New Delhi: The government may need to pursue alternative sources of energy in the long run instead of relying on hydropower from Uttarakhand, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has said in a report investigating the aftermath of the 2021 Chamoli disaster.
In February 2021, a devastating flood, caused by a rock and ice avalanche, killed at least 80 people and left 124 missing. The Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, with a capacity of 520 MW, was completely destroyed.
In its report, dated April and uploaded in May this year, the NDMA, which submitted its recommendations after a year-long study of the disaster, recommends that the Ministry of Power conduct a study looking at alternative sources of energy, given that the many hydropower plants set up in the Himalayan region are located in what it believes is an “environmentally fragile” area.
Environmentalists have opposed the construction of hydropower plants in the region because of its fragile ecology.
The NDMA has said that, among other reasons, a lack of predictive thinking by the district administration and project proponents, as well as a dearth of early warning systems, led to the disaster taking on massive proportions.
It also says that as an immediate measure, no houses, buildings, or infrastructure projects should be constructed at a high flood level — historically the highest level a flood has reached — without a site-specific study being conducted first.
Impending risks remain, the report says, with debris from the disaster forming an artificial lake and dam in the Raunthi Gadhera valley. The report warns that if the water level rises too much, there could be a breach.
“Since snowmelt is expected to increase during the summer, water will further accumulate due to blockage of flow by the debris dam. The debris dam is unstable and cracks are visible due to slumping,” says the report.
Filling institutional gaps
The NDMA arrived at its conclusions with the help of several other bodies, including the India Meteorological Department, the ministries of jal shakti and mines, and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.
In the report, the NDMA says the district disaster management plan did not “cover the climate-change-related risks and the impacts of developmental activities, infrastructure, environmental changes, houses/buildings, and deforestation”.
According to the National Disaster Management Act, districts are expected to prepare and update, on a regular basis, a disaster management plan.
The infrastructure companies in charge of the hydropower plants did not include provisions for early warning systems either, the report says.
“Lack of identification of escape and evacuation routes in the HEPs (hydroelectric plants) must be rectified and mock drills for the construction workers frequently conducted,” reads the report.
The NDMA also observes that various institutions in the fields of glaciology and glacier studies worked in silos, with “negligible sharing of data amongst academic, research, and field institutions”. In order to avoid “duplication” of efforts, the NDMA proposes the creation of a national-level ‘Centre for Glacial Research Studies and Management’.
It also says there is an “immense need” for a ‘State Institute of Disaster Management’ in Uttarakhand, which can “identify and study the probable risks and hazards that exist in the state in a technical and scientific manner”.
Early warning systems, counselling centre for victims
Among the NDMA’s recommendations is to set up a counselling centre for victims of the Chamoli disaster and their families, “given the frequency of disasters in the general area”.
Thirteen villages were impacted, and the NDMA notes that families are still traumatised by the disaster — particularly those who haven’t received the bodies of their kin — and live in fear of a recurrence.
The NDMA also recommends the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) increase the “constellation” of satellites over the area so an incident like this could be captured in real time.
It also says high-altitude, hydro-meteorological stations “are of foremost need”, and data from these stations should be “shared amongst the organisations for scientific and development purposes”.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)