Monday, September 1, 2014

Disaster Management in India, the Urgency of Fresh Thinking - Prof RK Bhandari

Disaster Management in India - The Urgency of Fresh Thinking
Swami Vivekananda once visited a great sage of our country, a very holy man and wrote: “We talked about our revered book- the Vedas, of your Bible, of the Koran, and of the revered books in general. At the close of our talk, this great sage asked me to go to the table and take-up the book; it was a book, which, among other things, contained a forecast of the rainfall during the year. The sage said, Read them. And I read out the quantity of rain that was to fall. He said, now take the book and squeeze it. I did so and he said, why my boy, not a drop of water comes out. Until the water comes out, it is all book, book.”
This is also the story of disaster management in India. We have a National Disaster Management Act, a National Disaster Management Authority with the Prime Minister of India as its Chief, a country wide disaster management apparatus, an impressive array of knowledge institutions, a full fledged National Institute of Disaster Management and an over stocked library of Guidelines, Plans, SOP’s and Office orders. It is time we squeeze them all to count the drops! We have definitely progressed but we have a very long way to go.
By the very nature of the challenge, the road to disaster management has always been under construction and will remain so in the future as well. It has long been realized that the road begins from the territory of policy formulation, but the results will begin to trickle in only the day we come out of the comfort-zone of the business as usual and bridge the gap between our scientific and operating tempers and between the plan and its implementation. In our straight –jacket style of functioning, we get easily swayed when we see a logical, demand based approach to project identification, a scholarly written feasibility report tuned to environmental sensitivities, and a convincing environmental impact assessment. An exclusive chapter on Integration of disaster risk reduction with the project planning makes us feel that now is the time to take a break and hope for the things to happen on their own, as we had planned. Have we ever thought whether it is the right road that would lead us to the freedom from disasters?
Only one road can lead us to freedom from disasters and that is the road passing through the culture of safety to be travelled in the vehicle of non-violence with a deep sense of commitment to posterity. I have lost no chance to express myself by repeating Antoine de Saint Exupéry‘s words: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The real world of disasters is far more complex than we can singly or collectively imagine. In the real world, we can be only as successful as our ability to foresee multiple scenarios of hazards, vulnerability and risk. For decades, we have been in the business of making hazard maps and printing atlases. Let us squeeze and stir all our hazard maps and atlases, and count the drops. Sorry, we will have to wait until someone more serious and scientific places the first, validated and user-friendly hazard map into our hands. And imagine, if we can’t reliably anticipate the hazards before they strike, how can we ever prevent them from happening?
We are a democratic country and in order to appear democratic, we are perpetually engaged in discussion and planning, that leaves us without much time to spare for implementation of plans. According to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, “no real change in the history has ever been achieved by discussion.” But his words did not suit our way of life. Discussion per se is not bad, but when it comes to managing disasters, we have seen our plans getting bogged down in the quicksand of endless discussion and become stale on its way to the printing press. It is said that the devil is in the detail and yet we prefer to ignore details and instead face the wrath of the devil. On the other extreme are our people who would not move an inch beyond discussion because of the paucity of data or absence of consensus. ” Reality is, after all, too big for our frail understanding to fully comprehend. Nevertheless, we have to build our life on the theory which contains maximum truth. We cannot sit still because we cannot, or do not know the absolute truth,”said Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. “The finest of the plans are always ruined by the littleness of those who ought to carry them out, for the Emperors can actually do nothing”, said Bertolt Brecht.1
The use of clever or dishonest methods (chicanery) and sugar-coated populist approaches have hurt us a great deal. Non transparent approaches in the investigation and knee-jerk reporting often sully the disaster case records and bury the truth deeper. We were taught in the classroom to walk slowly when in a hurry. But in the race for supremacy in reporting, we fancy reporting as we walk and document as we talk. As Richard Bach has said, “The world is your exercise book, the pages on which you do your sums. It is not reality, though you may express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write lies, or nonsense, or to tear the pages.”2 But by not being honest, are we not robbing the future generations of the awe inspiring grandeur of nature’s exposition? By ignoring proof, logic and science, are we not ignoring our own future? Are we not increasingly getting identified as the generation of editors rather than of authorship?
From the Italian proverb “Alexander never did what he said and Caesar never said what he did”, we infer that disaster managers are generally seen to play Alexander’s role for the wrong reason. This is because of the Hobson’s choice managers face in dealing with disaster scenarios as they unfold, bearing little or no resemblance to those about which they had spoken. We have to create systems in which our actions speak louder than our words and we will feel free to act as Caesar did. Only when we will have the courage and humility to confess that our plans were useless scraps of paper as testified by the recent tragedies, that we will justifiably get license to plan. Einstein once said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are ever incapable of forming such opinions.” He further adds that, “we cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking that created them”. And, according to John Maynard Keynes, “Difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones.”
We have long been working with an ill-defined disaster management strategy conceived in a comfort zone, reducing one of the most challenging tasks to a hectic exercise in relief and response. With the advent of the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 came the hope that the world around us would begin to change from then onwards. We had hoped to see more of prevention and mitigation, more of the culture of scientific scrutiny and technological innovation, and more of an action than speeches. We seek development, but what value is that development which fuel disasters and takes us back to the zero-sum game? It is no choice, if we are asked to choose our day between 12 hours of pain followed by 12 hours of pleasure, or for 12 hours of pleasure followed with 12 hours of pain!
“There was an old owl, who lived in an Oak. The more he heard, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, more he heard. O, if men were like that wise old bird.”3 The time has come when speeches can wait and the endless engagement with the design of wings can end. All we need is a vision, a sense of direction and a will to succeed. “If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.” 4 Let us recall Ray Bradbury, who said that, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on your way down.”
Please listen, the last of the sparrow or sterling, which wants to fly to freedom from disasters is watching our movies! And as Martin Luther King, Jr, has said, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Bertolt Brecht in Mother Courage, 1939.

Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Cited from Punch.

Prof RK Bhandari is a distinguished alumnus from IIT Mumbai, a Fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering  and a recipient of the coveted Varne’s Medal for Excellence in Research and Practice of Landslides.
Other articles by Dr Bhandari are placed at 1 and 2

Article credit :- Vivekananda International Foundation.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

STH storm watch (27Aug2014) : Low pressure forms in the Bay of Bengal

After a quiescent period stretching almost the entire month of Aug2014, when there was virtually no activity in the Bay of Bengal, IMetD is reporting the formation of a low pressure area in the " west central and adjoining north west Bay of Bengal off north Andhra Pradesh­ south Odisha "
We will post updates as necessary.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

One day's rain (25/26Aug2014)

All rainfall figures quoted above are from IMetD except for Kalimpong and Darjeeling (which are from STH rain gauges)
In Kalimpong, the precipitation was heaviest in thundershowers between 1.00am to approx 2.15am on 26Aug2014.
As is evident from the rainfall data, the heaviest rainfall took place along the plains of the Dooars with the mountainous regions actually receiving much less rain as such no major landslides were reported.
For more on the rainfall read here.

Praful Rao
Dist Darjeeling

Friday, August 22, 2014

Heavy rain alert 22Aug2014 : more rain due

Excerpt from IMetD All India Weather Bulletin of Thursday (21Aug2014 - night) Meteorological Analysis (based on 1730 hours IST)
- The axis of monsoon trough at mean sea level continues to run close to the foothills
of Himalayas.
- The trough extends from Sub-Himalayan West Bengal and Sikkim to northeast Bay
of Bengal across Bangladesh between 2.1 and 4.5 km above mean sea level persists                           
All this, in short means, is that a band of low pressure is almost stationary over the Darjeeling - Sikkim Himalaya and is resulting in continuous moisture feed to this area - which means more heavy rain in this region. 
The clouding in the IR satellite imagery of 0500h IST is consistent with this and at 0630h (22Aug2014) it is raining  cats and dogs here in Kalimpong.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Heavy rain alert : third week of Aug2014

Transcript (excerpt) of BBC weather bulletin of Monday, 18 Aug2014(23:57 UTC)
“The main focus of storms – north east India, northern parts of Bangladesh and eastern parts of Nepal.... The rainfall suppressed a little bit on Wed and Thursday but there are signs that we could see it (the rainfall) intensifying further and through the coming days, taking us into the week we could see as much as 90cm of fresh rain around this sort of region which will of course cause widespread flooding....”

Excerpt from IMetD All India Weather Bulletin (19Aug2014-midday)
Meteorological Analysis (based on 0830 hours IST)
· The axis of monsoon trough at mean sea level runs close to the foothills of Himalayas.
· The upper air cyclonic circulation over northern parts of West Bengal and Sikkim
and neighbourhood has become less marked. However, a trough extends from Sub­Himalayan West Bengal; Sikkim to south Chhattisgarh across Bihar extends upto 1.5 km above mean sea level.

Weather Warning during next 3 days (IMetD)
19 August (Day 1):
Heavy to very heavy rainfall would occur at isolated places over South Interior
Heavy rainfall would occur at isolated places over Assam; Meghalaya,
Arunachal Pradesh, Tamilnadu; Puducherry and Lakshadweep.
20 August (Day 2):
 Heavy rainfall would occur at isolated places over Sub Himalayan West Bengal; Sikkim, Assam;  Meghalaya,   Arunachal   Pradesh,  Tamilnadu;  Puducherry,  North  Interior  Karnataka,   South  Interior Karnataka and Lakshadweep.
21 August (Day 3):   Heavy to very heavy rainfall would occur at isolated places over Sub­ Himalayan West Bengal; Sikkim.
Slide 1 shows past 7days of rainfall in India from TRMM.
Slide 2 shows potential landslide sites also from TRMM.

For anyone interested, the normal rainfall for the whole of July in Sub-Himalayan West Bengal and Sikkim is around 61cm. If the forecast is correct, this region could receive one and half times that rain (ie 90cm) in the next couple of days. 
This should be a cause for concern to all of us in the region and the intent of this post is to make people aware and prepared - without causing panic.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

STH activities (02Aug2014) : Mapping rainfall in the mountains - a STH/KKKS initiative

Recording rainfall statistics for use by researchers, the farming community and by those who work in hydrological disasters has long been one of the aims of STH and towards this end we procured and positioned automatic rainfall gauges in several places in Darjeeling district and Sikkim. Data from these instruments is regularly posted on our blog all through the monsoon months since 2011.
Unfortunately, some of these instruments have become defective and we decided to replace these with the sturdy Symon's type manual rainfall gauges which are a lot cheaper too. I put up the proposal to procure these instruments for use by the farming community to Mr Bishnu Chhetri, General Secretary of Kalimpong Krishak Kalyan Sangathan who readily agreed to the proposal.
On 02Aug2014, after a talk in the KKKS hall, Kalimpong, aimed at standardizing use and recording of rainfall at all stations, 10 manual rainfall gauges were handed over to members of Krishak Kalyan Sangathan at the following villages of Darjeeling district :-
1. Towday 2.Gitdabling 3. Pabringtar 4. Payung 5. Echay 6. Lama Hatta 7. Kolbung
8. Mangwa 9. Singail (Kurseong) 10. Pokhriabung
We hope to include data from these stations in our blog from Sep2014.
Further, many NGOs from this region have requested that we procure these gauges for them also and so in time to come we may have a comprehensive network of instruments to map the rainfall of this region.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rainfall data July 2014 and associated landslide activity.

Deficient rainfall in the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya

As can be seen from the rainfall data of some stations of the region (slide -1) there was an overall deficiency in the amount of rainfall in the month of Jul2014. The monsoon rainfall normally peaks in July (see here) before starting to decline in Aug/Sep and withdrawing from the sub-continent in Oct.
However, in 2014 rainfall in Kalimpong was almost 40% deficient resulting in inability by farmers to plant the full paddy crop this year in some parts of Pudung village (Kalimpong). All other stations also show decline in rainfall in 2014 to varying degrees.
This is in keeping with the data obtained from IMD in slide -2 (see details here).

Landslide activity

  • No major landslides and no deaths due to landslides in Darjeeling or Sikkim in July2014.
  • Malin village in Maharastra, India - 151deaths due to landslide on 30Jul2014. 
  • Pangla, on Dharchula-Kailash Mansarovar yatra, in Pithoragarh district - 5 deaths on 27July2014

    Praful Rao,
    Dist Darjeeling

Monday, August 4, 2014

A village called Malin, in Pune Maharastra

From the TImes of India (01Aug2014)

Govt projects are to blame for Pune landslide tragedy: Experts
PUNE/ MUMBAI: Torrential rains may have triggered the landslide on Wednesday that buried Pune's Malin village, but experts say short-sighted government policy and shoddy implementation of its schemes are the major underlying factors for the tragedy.
Sahas Manch, an NGO working in the area, has blamed abject carelessness of government officials in measuring and levelling land for the Padkai scheme. Under this tribal employment project implemented under MNREGA, hill slopes are flattened and trees are cut down to develop cultivable plots. The NGO claimed that government officials did not survey the area thoroughly and allotted 25 plots on steep slopes.
Land was levelled by uprooting trees, which in turn loosened the soil, stone bunds were not built to contain erosion and nullahs were not cut into the soil to allow drainage. Such criminal errors caused the landslide, it alleged. On the other hand, massive deforestation for a windmill project along the hillside was equally responsible, said acclaimed ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil.

The Malin Mud Avalanche Tragedy of 30 July 2014

- The time to ask right questions

The mud avalanche that ravaged the Malin village in the Pune district of the State of Maharashtra on the 30 July is hardly any different in its end effect from the rock avalanche tragedy which struck the village of Malpa in the State of Uttarakhand on 18 August 1998. Both obliterated the villages, located at the foot of their respective ecologically ruined, fragile mountain slopes, known to be unsafe. Of the comparable population of about 250 in the above two cases, 210 people were buried alive by the Malpa rock avalanche and the death toll in the case of Malin mud avalanche tragedy may not turn out to be significantly different. Rescue teams at Malpa battled to exhume those buried under the debris-cover as thick as 15 m and the National Disaster Response Force now has no easier task dealing with 7m thick muck at the foot of the Bhimashankar hill, fouled with bricks, thatch, gas cylinders, clothes and bicycle parts. The oft-repeated standard and stale reason put forward to explain the two ghastly events, is the rainfall preceding the events. At Malpa, the avalanche had struck in the wee hours of the 18 August 1998. On the previous day at 2130 hrs, rainfall resumed and by about 00: 37 hours, Malpa was completely wiped out of the map of Uttarakhand. At Malin, the tragedy occurred in the early hours of 30th July 2014 around 07:30 am, explained in terms of the rainfall of 108mm on the previous day. These are only half-truths as rainfall has been a seasonal visitor for centuries on end. In both the cases, the blame also fell on factors such as ecological fragility of slopes, deforestation, improper landuse, quarrying. At Malin, the government has, as usual, assured the victims of all possible assistance, payments to compensate for every life lost with assurance of rehabilitation of victims. Such declarations are familiar to our ears. In the next few months, it is not unlikely that Malin will be forgotten the same way as we have forgotten Malpa, until we get another jolt.
The end of every tragedy is usually the beginning of the season of meetings, conferences, seminars and workshops. The ensuing debates on whether the disaster was natural or man-made and whether it could have been prevented naturally fade after generating a lot of heat but very little light. The post-mortem studies are more sketchy than scientific and these too end up with piles of reports and papers, which eventually gather dust on the shelf.
It is high time we dare ask the right questions. National Disaster Management Act of 2005 gave a call for a paradigm shift from the relief-centred response to disaster prevention and mitigation and yet no one speak a word of prevention , leaving everything to the heroic deeds of the National Disaster Response Force. The various
guidelines issued by the National Disaster Management Authority aim at zero tolerance for non-engineered constructions and for flouting of techno-legal regime and yet no one raises even a little finger to investigate disasters , affix accountability , learn lessons and make someone accountable to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated. The country has designated Geological Survey of India as the nodal agency for landslides but that declaration made years ago, and ratified yet again, remains a secret to most of the landslide victims, and our country men at large.
We will never be able to avert future disasters unless the mandated institutions measure up to their responsibilities in a coordinated fashion with eyes fixed on clock and compass. The foremost responsibility is to usher the culture of safety in a way the progress is seen on the ground. Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a French Writer sums it up beautifully when he says that “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The other questions that must be asked are why the tragedy could not have been avoided, and why the response was not quicker? The Malpa tragedy occurred at 00:37 am on the 19 August 2014. The thunderous sound of the rock avalanche was heard by many around 00:25 am. Five minutes later, sky witnessed fireworks due to colliding boulders. Closely on the heels of this came the fury of a dust storm. We had no preparedness to capture these signals and the first message of the tragedy could be radioed from the ITBP only at 05:25 am, and the real help came hours later. Why did we not learn from this?
Like at Malpa, the residents of the neighbouring Asane village had sensed the incoming mud avalanche at Milan by the loud noise heard at about 03:00 am. There were evidences of howling wind as well, similar to the experience at Malpa. There being no early warning system in place, the village Malin too did not receive attention until a bus driver encountered the devastated landscape at 07:30 am, and the Manchar city authorities got the news thereafter. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel could also reach the site only by the afternoon. District collector reportedly came to know about the incident at 9am. We lost hours at a time we were short of seconds!
Why no attempts were made to prevent abuse of land, educate the people on the perceived threat, do’s and don’ts, restore ecological stability to the area and disallow non-engineered dressing of the slopes for agriculture. Was it difficult for the government to keep a check on felling of trees and stone quarrying in the area , especially when landslides have been a common occurrence in this part of the district, and only last year, the neighbouring village of Kolthawadi was hit by a landslide.
Whenever landslide disasters strike, we rush to lean on fixed ideas in our minds. It has almost become ritualistic to name rainfall to explain away cataclysmic floods and devastating landslide events, without even attempting to understand the slope
dynamics. We can understand landslides only by systematic geotechnical, geomorphologic, hydro-geological and seismic characterization of slopes, and study of the environmental impact of urbanization. The question to ask is-why then scientific investigations in our landslide prone areas are exceptions rather than a rule? The earlier we insist on prevention by taking recourse to scientific investigations, the better.

Prof RK Bhandari
Mobile: +919810345123

Prof RK Bhandari is a distinguished alumnus from IIT Mumbai, a Fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering  and a recipient of the coveted Varne’s Medal for Excellence in Research and Practice of Landslides.
Read his article on Uttarakhand disaster here


Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

Sunday, August 3, 2014

STH Stormwatch (03Aug2014) : Another low pressure area in the Bay of Bengal

Excerpt from  IMD's All India Weather Bulletin (Sunday 03Aug2014)
"A low pressure area has formed over north Bay of Bengal and neighbourhood. Associated upper air cyclonic circulation extends upto 7.6 km above mean sea level. It would become well marked low pressure area during next 24 hours"

Updates will be posted as required.

Update on 04Aug2014
"The well marked low pressure area over Gangetic West Bengal and neighbourhood concentrated into a Depression and lay centered at 0830 hours IST of today the 04th August 2014 over Gangetic West Bengal and is close to Midnapur. It would move west­northwesterly direction during next 24 hours and weaken gradually."

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fatal landslide in Pune

Excerpt from Hindustan Times
"Casualties were feared as nearly 200 people were left trapped inside houses on a hillside following a landslide in Maharashtra’s Pune district on Wednesday.
Police official Vinod Pawar told mediapersons the landslide struck Malin village in Ambegaon tehsil around 5am after heavy downpour loosened earth and dislodged rocks and boulders.
At least 40 houses were feared buried under the debris from a hill that collapsed while residents were sleeping. Television footage showed the side of the hill shaved off, with large amounts of mud, muddy water and logs piled below."
Read full article here

Comments by Praful Rao
  • Having worked on landslides for the past 7 yrs, I am pretty much sure the number of deaths will climb to much higher than the 10 being reported now.
  • Rainfall data obtained of Pune from 23Jul-30Jul2014 (from here) shows that there was heavy rainfall only on 30Jul2014 (Pune Pashan agro record show 109mm today, other stations show significantly less amounts of rainfall) 
  • I cannot help wondering whether
    a. There was any early warning about the heavy rain specifically in the region
    b. Anthropogenic factors also added to the landslide trigger (since the region had a huge deficiency in rainfall till recently and IMD AWS rainfall data for the last  week does not really show catastrophic rainfall).

    Praful Rao
    Dist Darjeeling