Friday, June 21, 2013

Uttarakhand Flood of 16th June 2013 : Would Good Engineering Practices Have Reduced the Losses ?

When the news of the heavy rains and the subsequent land slide calamities that rocked India, especially the north Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh a couple of days ago, with the horror stories still pouring in, some memories of my experiences in those areas more than three decades ago flashed in my mind. Thousands are now believed to be either dead or missing in this worst natural disaster in the recent times. And this tragedy is likely to cause lingering pains to thousands of families across India crying and searching for their near and dear ones. 

As a quick response of responsibility, Google has started a special service for locating and reporting the details of the missing persons -you may click this Person Finder link for more details: 2013 Uttrakhand Floods. Against this backdrop I find it most unfortunate to observe the much publicized Prime Minister's National Relief Fund Donate Online website  a non-functional one with invalid server certificate,  today ! 

Now coming back to my memories. The period was late in the Nineteen Seventies when I was a post graduate chemical engineering student at Roorkee University, the successor of the first engineering college that started functioning any where in the British Commonwealth regions under the British empire way back in 1853 as Thomason College of Civil Engineering  which later got rechristened as the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee.

Being passed my degree in chemical engineering from the only college that offered that stream of study in the south Indian state of Kerala in those days, the Government Engineering College, Trichur, there was no reason for me to go to the plains of north west India for further studies. I could have done that elsewhere much conveniently. But my decision to try Roorkee was in a way purposeful. Two years at Roorkee would give me enough opportunity to explore some of the mountainous Himalayan terrains of North India.

Those were some of the memorable days of my life. There were a few adventure loving friends. Mr Ujjagger Singh Kooner pursuing his ME in Mechanical Engineering and Mr Donn Treese from USA pursuing his masters in Architectural Engineering were my hostel mates in Jawahar Bhawan who used to be my adventure and sight seeing companions on many occasions. The Himalayan Explorer's Club of the University also provided much help for me to understand the problems of life in the mountain terrains of Tehri Garhwal  and adjoining regions situated then in undivided Uttar Pradesh State and now in Uttarakhand State. A week's training in ice craft and mountaineering in Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi was a good experience which I still cherish.


These Himalayan ranges are the sources of streams that make up the great north Indian rivers such as the Ganga (River Ganges)  and its main tributory the Yamuna that make the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar fertile. Being a nation of nearly a billion people following Hinduism, it not a surprise that the Himalayan ranges have many revered Hindu shrines and worship places where a devote Hindu would like to visit as a pilgrim. The Ganga water is holy and the source of the Ganga (Gangotri)  and Yamuna (Yamunotri) are holy places making them most desired locations in the Uttarakhand regions of the Himalayas for the religious tourists. Besides the entire routes to these places in the mountains offer awesome treat to nature lovers and adventurists alike. Visit of people to these places has been a regular affair for decades. While few hundred people visited these places every year a couple of decades before, perhaps millions visit now. Better roads and affordability of good vehicles and mushrooming of hundreds of guest houses along the valleys and hill slopes have made such a transformation.

During the time of my visit to these places in the late Seventies, the roads connecting Uttarkashi , Harsil, Rudraprayag  and Kedarnath were broken at many places due to land slides. I remember trekking for kilometers and taking some help from the Indian paramilitary personnel from ITBP, BSF, etc to cover some distances in the motor-able patches of the roads on their vehicles. I had seen the difficult work of the BRO in repairing the difficult mountain roads that had caved in due to landslides at many places. Travelling in those roads and trails running by the slopes of the mountains make one feel highly vulnerable to various kinds of potential dangers like falling stones, fall, etc., etc. If one gets physically incapacitated by any means, an evacuation to a safer place would not be easy if the roads become cut or isolated due to landslides or caving ins. . Helicopters of the military organizations would be the only solution in such a situation. I had faced such a situation of helplessness when I caught a mild fever while I was on trek beyond Uttarkashi. My stamina all of a sudden got drained out that I was incapable of trekking any more ! Fortunately, some friendly paramilitary men helped me by giving shelter, medicine and transport when it was needed the most !

While I visited these places, the travelers and visitors in these places were much less as compared to the situation now. But I can visualize the horror if you get stranded in any of these places. I remember getting stranded in a mountain village in Himachal Pradesh north east of Shimla  during a pleasant season when the road connection got suddenly broken on another occasion during that time when me and my American friend Donn ventured in to a personal adventure trip. We had to walk nearly 50 km taking two days to get the public transport to Shimla ! Fortunately, the weather was nice and we had my uncle who worked there in the Public Works Department as our guide. Imagine the horror in a situation when the weather is hostile and you are left to fetch for yourself !


But the world has moved much ahead in the last three decades. The roads of Uttarakhand has become a bit wider perhaps to accommodate more vehicles. But, regrettably nothing more to prevent those roads from getting damaged extensively due to floods, earthquakes or landslides has been implemented. There could have been alternate routes at many places to give the people some option when some long stretches of road become isolated. The building constructions along the river side and the slopes could have been with better and safe engineering designs. There could have been more helicopter landing pads. The unstable mountain slopes could have been strengthened with appropriate landslide prevention methods.

When we talk about landslide prevention methods, it is now common knowledge that there are many methods the engineering fraternity around the globe practice and implement. For example see this wikipedia article on landslide mitigation .

Of these, the most important in my opinion, is the provision of good water drainage systems for both surface water as well as sub soil water. In the roads in India, this one aspect is the most neglected one with improvisation doing the major role than well- thought- about engineering designs. An unstable soil surface , such as the sloppy terrains of Uttarakhand, would slide out when rain water seeps in and accumulate below the surface. There are many ways to stabilize those slopes along the roads and below the roads and to strengthen those roads from total damage as was seen this time. The towns in the valleys and ravines also could have been saved to a greater extent, had some authorities thought of such eventualities with the help of engineering experts well in advance.

Perhaps for reasons well known to them, the authorities found it convenient to keep these roads in a perpetual state of damage and damage mitigation state rather than adopting sound engineering practices to build safe and stabilized roads and infrastructure. I am not sure !

Landslides due to floods, earthquakes and rains are not something new to Uttarakhand. But hopefully, this kind of a tragedy could have been mitigated of its severity with the adoption of sound engineering practices.

Let us hope the authorities would consider it something important to implement in the future !

My heartfelt sympathies with all those affected families and persons!


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3 comments:

  1. Perhaps this disaster losses could have been mitigated to some extent !

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  2. Army Chief General Bikram Singh on Friday said the armed forces would continue their operations till all the people stranded in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand were rescued.hats of to them

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