Kedarnath Cloudburst & Flood Disaster

Garhwal Himalaya is considered adobe of Gods: this beautiful and difficult terrain has numerous majestic peaks like Shivling, Bhagirathi, Thalay Sagar, Nanda Devi, and spiritual sites like Tapovan. Hindus from all corners of India visit four very important holy pilgrimage sites: Gangotri (origin of river Ganga/Bhagirathi), Yamunotri (origin of river Yamuna), Badrinath (God Vishnu’s temple at banks of Alaknanda river), and Kedarnath (God Shiva’s temple at banks of Mandakini river and northernmost of 12 Jyotirlingas). This journey is popularly known as Chota Char Dham yatra, literally translated as “minor four God’s adobe pilgrimage circuit” (it draws its name from original Char Dham yatra consisting of Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram temples in four corners of India). June is peak month of Chota Char Dham pilgrimage for two reasons: it is summer vacation time in most of north India, and rain starts in Garhwal by end of June or early July. During the peak pilgrimage season, from 14 – 17 June 2013 (peaking on 16th), the region received unexpectedly heavy rain, about 375% more than normal, causing unprecedented magnitude of death and destruction, especially in Kedarnath (site of Destroyer God Shiva) due to cloud burst causing a glacial lake burst and flash flood downstream. In this still unfolding tragedy, more than thousand people died, many thousands still missing, several villages completely destroyed, hundreds of villages rendered inaccessible, Crores of rupees worth of infrastructure and property lost. As it is now monsoon season in the region, it will not only make rehabilitation difficult, but also cause its own annual quota of destruction and loss of life. I think the real toll of Kedarnath disaster / tragedy will be known only after monsoon ends, and hopefully rehabilitation/reconstruction will be completed before winter sets in Garhwal, Uttarakhand.

I have trekked in Gangotri and Kedarnath region a few times and have seen it being transformed quite a bit, for better or worse, in last 8 years. It has been painful for me to read and watch the news. Tragic loss of life and destruction was saddening and the magnitude was shocking. My plan to 10-days trek to Satopanth Tal and Swargarohini near Badrinath starting 10th June had fizzled out due to organization troubles (before flood news broke). So in a way I felt lucky, but thought that I would have been definitely among those stuck or might have been hurt and even perished was sobering, making it not some distant tragedy but rather something too close for comfort. I was hooked to news: reading and watching whatever being dished out. TV coverage was 24×7, and sadly it was mostly sensational, designed to grab eyeballs for high TRP. Politicians of all colors and hues were busy with their controversies and blame game. I was tired of sensational breaking news and typical blaming the government. I wished for something meaningful and more informative. I looked for explanations about what actually happened that caused something of such magnitude. Thankfully now at least some explanations are out there on internet. In this blog post, I attempt to put it all together: what I felt and thought as news and visuals poured in, explanation that I have learned, and my opinion on development vs. environment debate.

Events

News of heavy continuous rain and rising water level in Bhagirathi river started flooding Uttarkashi facebook group on 16 June. There were several reports of floods and landslides. I wasn’t surprised: since as early as 11 June, warnings of 4 days of heavy rain starting on 14 June have been floating in trekking groups (trekkers keep tab on weather of a region that they are about to trek); several weather websites were showing four days of heavy rain and thunderstorms followed by days of clouds/rains. And when it rains heavily in that region, landslides and flood follow.

All that certainly wouldn’t have been unusual post-monsoon. I was in that area in August/September in 2010 and 2012, and experienced post-monsoon destruction first hand. In 2012 August, there were flash flood, landslides, and severe loss of property and life in Gangotri – Uttarkashi region. We had to trek several kilometers to avoid roads blocked by landslides, and upon reaching Gangotri, we found town deserted and locked down instead of teeming with pilgrims. In August 2010, while going for Auden’s Col and Mayali Pass trek, we endured, in an army truck, tens of Kilometers of washed away road to Gangotri that had just opened-up. And when we reached there, we learned several pilgrims were stuck there for more than a week. Same story when we descended to Kedarnath at the end of our trek: people stuck in Gaurikund due to roads washed away or landslides for almost two weeks. I had to trek around three kilometers on roads blocked by landslide before I could board a jeep that had come to deliver newspaper to Kedarnath. Sadly these experiences have made me accustomed to such news from that region.

But by end of 16 June, there were videos of buildings falling into Bhagirathi. By 17 June, these videos and reports were widespread. I have seen damaged buildings previous year, and also that most of these mult-floors buildings are standing on four pillars raised on river bank. But this time, magnitude was alarming. On 17 June, there were several videos of Ganga flow touching neck of the iconic Shiva temple near Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh. Typically at this time of year, Ganga flows beneath the platform of the  statue, which means overflow of around 15 ft! That was a hell lot of water.

By 18th, Yamuna has crossed danger mark in Delhi, and estimates that 60,000 people were stranded in Uttarakhand. Uttarkashi was not the only district affected. By 19th, it became clear that Kedarnath in Rudraprayag district was at the epicenter of nature’s devastating fury. In Chamoli district, Badrinath, and Govindghat (a town on NH58 20 km before Badrinath filled with Sikh pilgrims visiting Hemkund Sahib and tourists visiting valley of flowers) were gravely affected. Hell has broken loose in the adobe of Gods. Whole Garhwal was facing unprecedented tragedy.

I was shocked seeing photographs of the Kedarnath temple town almost totally destroyed with huge boulders littered around. Few kilometers down, Rambada hamlet didn’t exist anymore. I shuddered with the thought that anyone who was caught in Kedarnath area at that fateful time stood absolutely no chance. Imagine the force with which Mandakini would have been gushing that almost annihilated the whole town and brought such huge boulders from up the mountain! There were reports of 4-6 ft of slush inside Kedarnath temple (temple’s back is towards the mountain slopes from where water flowed, which means slush came when backwater from town entered the temple, and the temple is on a 3ft high platform). There were murmurs on facebook and other groups of dead bodies buried in the slush inside the temple, littered in the temple town and on the trail all the way 14 km down to Gauri Kund. At peak pilgrimage season, around 10,000 people visit Kedarnath everyday. Considering similar number of people staying overnight at Gaurikund before taking up trek to Kedarnath, I can’t fathom how the place would have looked after this tragedy, and how many died. Anyone coming out alive of it is extremely lucky, or depending upon perspective, extremely unlucky to live rest of his/her life with horrific intimate memory of the loss of their loved ones.

Reaction

After disbelief and shock, my first reaction was anger: if news of 4 days of heavy rain starting 14th June has been floating around at least 3 days in advance, why administration did not stop Chota Char Dham Yatra and evacuated pilgrims (later, there has been reports of blame game between Meteorological department and administration). But slowly, it dawn on me that I would have certainly abandoned idea of a trek in such weather; but if I was sheltered in a concrete building in Kedarnath, I would have considered it safe. Yes, trek between Gaurikund and Kedarnath would have been a pain in such a rain, but I wouldn’t have imagined that a cloud/lake-ful of water, and along with tons of boulders, would be gushing down at me. Who could have imagined that? Warning of heavy rain, yes, but 375% more than normal? And along with it, a lake burst. At least, my imagination would not have stretched that far. And I am not naive, I have been on treks where we have to be aware and think about severe weather eventualities. It wouldn’t be fair to blame administration: magnitude was truly unimaginable! That too in pre-monsoon season.

Then my thoughts turned towards what I could do: I felt quite agitated on 18th. In early June, I had abandoned my plan for a trek from Badrinath to Satopanth Tal, but later I had signed-up for a trek to Pin-Parvati pass in Kullu and Spiti valley in Himanchal Pradesh, and I had a ticket to Delhi for 20th June. I soon realized that with roads washed away, it will take 5-7 days for someone like me to reach affected area. And with my limited abilities, I will be a liability and most probably needed to be evacuated. This situation was different from, say, an earthquake or tsunami. It was not a situation where the only task was to rehabilitate and care for inhabitants. In this case, inhabitants have to be taken care of and also a very large number of pilgrims/tourists have to be rescued and sent home. Only when these visitors are sent back to their homes, inhabitants will be able to get undivided attention. I figured that, even if it is not satisfactory, the best I could do was to contribute material and money to NGOs and organizations that are active there. I think this will be an ongoing effort at least till the end of monsoon. Since I couldn’t do much, I finally decided that I would attempt Pin-Parvati as planned unless weather turns bad (Kinnaur was facing flood like Uttarakhand, but weather in Manali, Parvati and Spit valley seems to be holding with not so bad forecasts for the region for next ten days).

On 19th, it was still not clear what exactly caused it. There were rumors that cloud burst caused breach in Vasuki Tal, which is around 8km from Kedarnath, and that caused all this mayhem (days later I would discover several news reports speculating the same). For me, it was a bit hard to believe. When I visited it in 2010, the climb from Vasuki Tal to Vasuki Top was quite steep and of significant height. I don’t remember now exactly how the exit of the lake into a stream was, but Vasuki Tal basin is quite big. Also, Vasuki Tal is south-west of the Kedarnath temple, and if I remember correctly, the stream from it meets Mandakini river somewhere after the Kedarnath town. From the photos, it appeared that flood came from north of the temple, probably from where Mandakini originates.

Meanwhile, TV coverage has been relentlessly going on 24×7 for a couple of days. While reports on the extent of damage and rescue and helplines were useful, but along with that, quite substantial amount of nonsense and sensation was also being dished out. In that media frenzy all around, my friends were worried about my Pin-Parvati plan. Despite knowing that Himalaya range is 2,400 km long, and not all of it flooded at that very moment, I confess that I had some moments of self doubt. There is always some amount of risk in mountain, I argued that I can always return if weather forecast or weather turns bad. I thought that hopefully there would be more info on what caused it by the time I returned.

Cause

I completed my trek and returned to Bangalore on 3 July. By that time, stories of traumatizing horrifying ordeals that survivors endured were starting to come out. I also found couple of blog posts by Dave Petley, Geography professor at Durham University, UK, reconstructing events based on satellite data and eyewitness accounts (also a news report based on those blog posts).

Mandakini originates from Chorabari glacier, which recorded 315mm rainfall on 15-16 June (not yet clear if it was a sudden cloud burst). That kind of rain usually happens at the peak of monsoon in July/August and not in mid June, when there is still snow melting on the ground. Heavy rainfall and melting snow are known to cause landslides. Several shallow landslides are visible in photos and satellite images, but there was a major landslide above the glacier (with 1200m length, 75m width and an altitude difference of 500m from crown to channel). That landslide quickly accumulated sediment and water, and highly energetic debris flow ran along the margin of the glacier and swept into the temple town around 6:15pm on 16th June. Velocities were so high that it went on to strike Rambada almost instantly.

Another serious trouble was developing over the night at the Chorabari Lake (actually a Tarn) at the western snout of the Charobari Glacier. In the morning of 17th June, rainfall and snowmelt caused catastrophic burst in the terminal moraine barrier releasing all of the impounded water. This water along with moraine and glacial sediments including large boulders swept down and picked debris on the way. This very energetic and large debris flow hit Kedarnath with hill-load of boulders and lake-ful of ice cold water.

Both these high velocity waves of water and debris caused unbelievable devastation and heart wrenching deaths. I think no matter how much I try, it will never sink into me. This is absolutely unbelievable, unimaginable horror.

Debate

Rain, cloud burst, lake outburst are natural phenomenon, but I think resulting destruction of such a magnitude is man-made up to quite an extent. There has been several article voicing issues of ecologically fragile Uttarakhand hills being turned into pilgrimage tourist spots, hosting 20 million pilgrims per years (almost double of its population), manifold increase in vehicles, ongoing hill blasting for building roads and controversial dams, soil erosion, unregulated construction. Several of these concerns were raised in 2009 CAG Report.

Anyone who has travelled in the region over the years can tell that there are more hotels, more shops, more tourists, and more garbage. I have heard from several people who visited the four pilgrimage sites after a gap of a decade or more that hotels and vehicles have increased manifolds. Most of these multistory hotels are built on the sides of winding roads by raising four pillars on the slope of the hill and often right on the river bank. These have looked scary to me, and now we know what flood can do to them. Number of dams and power plants have definitely gone up several folds in last decade. Some of these developments is desirable, but it seems that, at the very least, most of it is unplanned and unregulated.

The other side of argument is that people on the hills have the right to develop infrastructure: they need roads, hospitals, and schools. We enjoy all of these on plains, how can we deny them the same? Of course, more and better roads bring in pilgrims and tourists, and along with them come more jobs, more businesses, and need for more hotels and other related infrastructure. Mountain life is already hard, how can we deny people living there their right to livelihood and being wealthy?

And then there is third side of argument: how can we deny pilgrims the right to visit holy places of their faith?

I don’t know where the right balance is, but it is obvious that we have gone too far and hills can’t take it anymore. If we don’t correct it, nature will, in its own way, and we at least now know how tragic that can be. Let the touchstone of development be what inhabitants need rather than how to bring in more pilgrims. Let’s develop other sources of income than tourism. We don’t have dearth of environmentalists and experts who can define parameters of sustainable development. Let’s grow within those parameters, let’s follow regulations, let’s not build building next to rivers and create some buffer zone. Let’s at least take action based on 2009 CAG report. If infrastructure is within those parameters, I guess it wouldn’t be as easy as it is today for anyone and everyone to go on pilgrimage. Right to pilgrimage is fine, but who has granted the right for it to be easy. It was not always this easy. Several places like Kailash – Mansarovar and Amarnath are not easy even today. Let pilgrims figure out whether their faith is strong enough to make them trek to these holy sites. And if it is not, let them discover wisdom of God being within themselves and others. Let’s live without violating limits of nature.

I am not sure if we and our government will learn our lessons from this grave tragedy. I sincerely hope that we do, and assimilate that old saying in Himalayas: mountains respect your life as long as you respect their dignity and majesty.

UPDATE: Another scientific analysis piece analyzing what caused Kedarnath tragedy

What do you think?