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Report backlash may have contributed to Uttarakhand disaster – experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 12 Dec 2013 11:33 PM
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A view of the burst Chaurabari Lake near Chaurabari glacier in India’s Uttarakhand state. Photo: Lokesh Ruwari, Gutpkashi
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NEW DELHI (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) –A report warned a decade ago about the threat posed by a glacial lake that in June burst its banks and contributed to flooding that killed thousands in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

But fears that the report – and reporting about it – were too sensational may have contributed to a lack of preparedness for the disaster a decade later, people living in the area say.

Environmental expert K.N. Vajpai, director of Climate Himalaya, a nongovernmental organisation said he fears that officials at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, which monitors Chaurabari Lake and produced the report, may have been hesitant to overstate the risk from a glacial lake outburst at the lake in the days before the disaster, given a government backlash against their report a decade earlier.

In 2004, a scientist at the Wadia Institute, a government glacial monitoring agency, warned that Chaurabari Lake posed an imminent risk to people living in the region.

“Chaurabari Lake Will Explode Like a Bomb Anytime,” read a front-page headline about the report in the Indian newspaper Dainik Jagran in 2004. The story was based on a report prepared by D.P. Dobhal, the Wadia Institute’s head of glaciology, said Lakshmi Prasad Pant, who wrote the story for Dainik Jagran.

“I had managed to get a copy of the report from my sources in the institute,” said Pant, who now heads the Jaipur edition of the newspaper. “After getting the report, I was looking for Dr Dobhal, the author of the report.

“I traced him right up there at the base of Chaurabari Lake, and he told me exactly those words: ... ‘the lake will explode like a bomb’, and explained to me the geological details. But after I did the report, all hell broke loose,” he said.

SCIENTIST REPRIMANDED

The scientist “was severely reprimanded by the government for ‘leaking the report’ and ‘sensationalising the issue’ and the institute sent me a notice and published it in their records that my entry there was banned for life,” Pant said.

Dobhal, in a telephone interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, confirmed the report was withdrawn from circulation.

“Yes, I had done that report, and I had pointed out that danger, but the report was later withdrawn,” he said. He would not elaborate.

Dobhal said the “Himalayan tsunami” that killed more than 5,500 people in Uttarakhand in June was the result of days of heavy rain in the region and an associated avalanche at the lake that burst its banks.

Rain was so heavy that after June 14, it cut off all communication between the Wadia Institute in Dehradum, where Dobhal is located, and the monitoring watchtower at Chaurabari glacier, he said, which meant he did not receive information about what was likely to happen.

“We had been monitoring Chaurabari Lake at the side of Chaurabari Glacier. It has a depth of around 28 to 20 metres, but only about four or five metres of water was there. But on June 13, after heavy rains, my men at the monitoring post told me the lake seemed to be filling up, so I told them to keep monitoring it. But by June 14 due to heavy rains the communication system snapped and I was not receiving any information,” he said.

However, Vajpai of Climate Himalaya said his team was able to speak with local residents near the lake through June 17, suggesting not all communication in the area had failed.

And in the July 25 edition of the journal Current Science of the Indian Institute of Sciences, Dobhal compares data from monitoring stations at Chaurabari and Kopardhar, near Ghuttu, taken on June 16, just a day before the lake burst.

M.M. Kimoth, director of the Uttarakhand Space Application Centre, a state unit of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said he similarly was confident communication between the institute and the glacial lake had not broken down before the disaster.

The Wadia Institute “cannot claim that their communication system had failed. Communication was live till the morning of June 17, when the deluge came. If the communication failed, how did their people return safely and where did all the data for the report in Current Science come from?” he asked.

Instead of reporting any potential risk of a glacial lake outburst, the institute “remained completely silent,” he charged.

Dobhal insisted that was not the case. “We were monitoring it but it was a small lake with little water in it,” the scientist said.

UNUSUAL HEAT

People living near the lake, in phone conversations with people living further downhill, however, “spoke of constant noise of something breaking up” for weeks before the lake burst, Vajpai said.

He believes unusually high summer temperatures in the weeks before the disaster, as well as heavy rainfall in the days before, contributed to rapid melting of the glacier above the lake.

Ramesh Mumukshu, a Right to Information activist from the area, agreed. “This summer had been unbelievably hot, and we were up there at around 2,000 metres on a pilgrimage. We felt choking in the heat even at that height. Throughout summer people could not use blankets at night, which is very unusual,” he said.

Kimoth also said that “throughout June it had been excessively hot up there and snow melt had been exponentially faster than 2012 or 2011.”

But what appears to have precipitated the lake bursting, photographs show, is the collapse of a huge boulder – at least 15 metres (49 feet) long – from the melting glacier into the already filling lake below.

On the morning of June 17, at around 7.45 am, residents heard a thunderous noise, and within seconds a tsunami-like wave of water poured out of Chaurabari Lake, smashing everything on its path, eyewitnesses said.

The disaster killed both people living in the area and thousands of others visiting a Hindu shrine, the Kedarnath Temple to Lord Shiva. The temple was not hit by the flood, eyewitnesses said.

Sujit Chakraborty is a science and environmental journalist based in New Delhi.

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