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Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

Last updated on: June 27, 2013 08:40 IST

Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

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The devastation in Uttarakhand is a classic example of the callous manner in which the Central Water Commission, the nodal agency tasked with flood forecast in the country, operates, says Himanshu Thakkar

Central Water Commission, India's premier technical body under Union ministry of water resources, has once again failed in the Uttarakhand flood disaster.

Even as the Uttarakhand state faced the worst floods in its history, the CWC, which has been given the task of forecasting floods across flood prone areas all over India, completely failed in making any forecasts that could have helped the people and administration in Uttarakhand.

First principle of disaster management is prior warning.

With prior warning, significant proportion of possible damages and destruction can be avoided. In that respect, one expected that the CWC would play a key role in forecasting the floods.

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has been monitoring the CWC flood forecasts throughout the monsoon for some years.

During June 15-17, when Uttarakhand was receiving the most intense rains, the CWC did not make any forecasts regarding Uttarakhand.

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Image: A pilgrim who was stranded in Uttarakhand reacts after meeting her relative
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

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As far as the most severely disaster-affected areas of Ganga basin upstream of Devprayag are concerned (these include the worst-affected Kedarnath and Mandakini valley, the Gangotri and Bhagirathi valley and Badrinath in Alaknanda valley), the CWC has made no flood forecasts at all this year.

Same is the case regarding other affected regions of Uttarakhand, including Yamuna basin, Yamunotri, Pithoragarh and Goriganga basin. What is then the role of this premier technical body tasked with flood forecasting?

The only forecast that the CWC made for Uttarakhand this June 2013 was for Rishikesh and Haridwar on June 18, 2013. Even in these instances, the CWC's callousness is reflected.

For example, by the fact that normally when flood forecasts are made for any site in the first place, the forecasts would be low flood forecast (where water level is between warning and danger level for the site), and only in next stage, would medium flood forecast would be made (water level above danger level).

However, in the case of both Rishikesh and Haridwar, the CWC straightaway made medium flood forecasts, clearly missing the low flood forecasts.

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Image: A view shows the damaged houses next to a river after heavy rains in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand
Photographs: Indian Army

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Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

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In fact looking at the CWC flood forecasting website, we notice that in the entire Uttarakhand state, the CWC has only three flood forecasting sites: Srinagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar, which means that the CWC would not be doing any forecasts for the most vulnerable regions of Uttarakhand in any case!

Even in case of Srinagar (which actually suffered the worst floods with hundreds of damaged houses), the CWC site says the highest flood level is 536.85 m, amazingly, below the warning level of 539 m!

This means that the CWC has never forecast flood at that site and even if water level goes above HFL, it won't forecast any floods since level could still be well below the warning level? Can one imagine a more callous technical body?

The callous performance of the CWC does not end there.

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Image: Indian Army personnel rescue a stranded child with the help of ropes through the flooded waters of a river
Photographs: Indian Army

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Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

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During June 2-7 this year, the CWC flood forecasting site and the flood forecasting site of the National Disaster Management Authoruty, which also depends on the CWC, stopped functioning.

After numerous emails and phone calls from SANDRP, the website started functioning on June 7, 2013 and V D Roy, director (flood forecasting management) of the CWC wrote, "Due to technical reasons, the CWC FF site was not working since June 2. With consistent effort, the website was made functional w e f June 7".

Pointing out a major blunder of the CWC, SNDRP had written to the CWC on June 12, 2013, "CWC forecast site reported that water level of Brahmaputra river at Neamatighat site in Jorhat district in Assam had reached 94.21 m at 0900 hrs, which was 6.84 m above the highest flood level of the site at 87.37 m. The FF site also forecast that the level will be 94.15 m at 0900 am on June 12, 2013. Both the recording and forecast were clearly wrong, rather way off the mark. The site or the area in question or upstream and down stream levels do not match with what the CWC site said."

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Image: Debris carried by floodwaters of the River Alaknanda crashes against a temple in Chamoli district
Photographs: Indian Army

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Forecasters played poker while Uttarakhand drowned

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Needless to add there was no flood in the Brahmaputra in spite of such forecast by India's highest technical body! The CWC is yet to respond to SANDRP emails on this issue.

It is strange that the CWC, instead of putting its house in order, is acting as a lobby for big dams by making baseless claims about the Tehri dam having saved downstream area of floods, as reported by Indian Express on June 25.

This is like adding salt to the wounds of the people of Uttarakhand, who are suffering from the ill-effects of lopsided developments including dams and hydropower projects. It would be better if the CWC tries to improve its flood forecasts rather than indulging in such lobbying efforts at such times of crisis.

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Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters
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