Friday, January 28, 2011

The Writing on the wall...an excerpt from the Statesman


High-rises and low concern

27 January 2011
Caught between the chaos of the Gorkhaland movement and the advantage taken of an uncaring administration by local builders, Darjeeling is quite literally in need of help, writes dipjyoti das

NESTLED in the vicinity of the towering Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling – known fondly as the “Queen of the Hills” — provides the perfect getaway for those wanting to be in harmony with nature. But the rapid construction of high-rise buildings, the majority of which are illegal, has led to a degradation of the soil texture in the region which, in turn, could result in landslides.
   The Darjeeling Hills lie in the Mahabharata Range or the Lesser Himalayas, at an average elevation of 6,710 feet (2,050 metres). The area has steep slopes and loose topsoil, and the rock structure is of comparatively recent vintage, giving rise to frequent landslides over the past few years. But in spite of strict rules and regulations, local builders seem to ignore the natural threat and public concern and continue to erect their high-rises. And the authorities concerned also couldn’t seem to care less and have failed to take appropriate steps.
   Meteorological experts fear that such unprecedented construction will eventually result in massive calamity in the near future, accounting for millions of lives.
   Immediate steps need to be taken by the government and the local authorities to curb and avoid any further construction.
   Strict regulations that apply regarding construction and “no-objection” certificates need to be sanctioned but somehow the norms are neither followed nor enforced by the authorities. The state government too has been ignorant about the entire matter and has allowed these constructions. Instead, West Bengal’s minister of state for urban development, Ashok Bhattacharya, lays the entire blame on the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the local municipal authorities.
   He recently pointed out that the state government could not interfere in the matter directly but would ask the local civic bodies to curb such constructions. He added that the law and order situation had denigrated in the Darjeeling hills over the past few years because of the renewed movement by the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha for a separate Gorkhaland state. Local builders, he said, were taking advantage of the situation but he hoped the local authorities would take adequate measures once the situation gradually improved.
Another massive worry is also that the Darjeeling region is seismically very active, which can result in earthquakes. And given that the construction of a single high-rise creates further inroads into newer areas, the threat of landslides is exacerbated. According to the Bureau of Indian Standards, Darjeeling town falls under Seismic Zone-IV, (on a scale of one to five, in order of increasing proneness to earthquakes) near the convergent boundary of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates and is subject to frequent earthquakes.
   Particularly during the monsoon, heavy rains trigger landslide in the region, a calamity that has occurred in increasing number over the past few years. The entire picture of the hills was different during British rule, when no one was allowed to construct five- or six-storeyed buildings. But during the 1970s and ’80s there was a massive real estate boom in the country and Darjeeling was no exception.
   Subir Sarkar, a meteorological expert from Siliguri, expressed his concern at the major threats these constructions posed for the hilly region. “There is a twofold problem,” he said. “One, when you are constructing a huge building you are putting additionalpressure on the hill slopes; the construction of such a building also brings newer areas under the landslide threat. Due to the construction of one massive structure, innumerable human lives are under threat. Second, as we know, these hills are seismically very active and earthquake activities are also not uncommon. We are lucky enough nothing like that has happened till now here, but it can any time in the near future. If a major earthquake, like one measuring 7 on the Richter scale, should occur here, you can imagine how many millions of people would perish. During the monsoon, too, frequent landslides occur at various junctures along the highway.
   The government and the law enforcing agencies need to immediately look into the matter and take drastic measures to put heavy constructions on hold to avoid a major disaster. One must not forget that Darjeeling is different from the foothills of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. In Darjeeling, the carrying capacity is much less than those areas.”
   He also questioned the role of the state government and the authorities concerned over their negligence and attitude towards such a significant issue.
   The Darjeeling hills and its administrative section have been seriously disturbed by the political turmoil that has been going on for the last few years because of the Gorkhaland movement which has, as mentioned, provided the opportunity for many builders to construct high-rises illegally. The locals too have been unaware of the threat posed by such constructions and the administrative negligence that has been a contributing factor to the current scenario.
   Given the massive number of tourist from all over the world, never mind the many from across India who visit Darjeeling on a regular basis to enjoy its scenic beauty and congenial climate, thereby contributing to the economy of the region, precautionary measures need to be adopted immediately so as to preserve and maintain the persona of the Queen of the Hills.

Comment by Praful Rao
Much has been written about building codes and improper land use in this area yet we seem to be hurtling towards impending disaster without a care in the world. I daresay that the entire dry period from the end of monsoons in 2010 till now has been wasted and virtually nothing has been done towards landslide prevention or preparedness in the entire district. You may read more about this here or check a previous blog

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Excerpts from Sikkim Express : Landslide Mitigation with Japanese technical help

Meeting on landslide mitigation held
Focus on preparation of State Disaster Management Plan with special emphasis on landslide management
 GANGTOK, January 13 (IPR): A meeting on the prospect of funding landslide mitigation through Japanese cooperation was held on January 6 in the chamber of Commissioner-cum-Secretary, Land Revenue & Disaster Management Department.
The meeting centered around how landslides could be tackled with the assistance and technology, to be provided by the Japanese government.
Dr. Surya Prakash, State Nodal Faculty for Sikkim from the National Institute of Disaster Management, was present on the occasion. He explained the purpose of his visit and provided the background as to how the State had been selected as one of the sites to be studied by a team of experts from Japan. He informed that a Joint Declaration by way of an MOU had been signed between the Government of India and the Japanese Government in October 2008 to work in possible areas of consideration and collaboration of which disaster management was one of the items apart from defence and science & technology, agreed upon by the two sides at the ministerial level. The Japanese have thereafter sought to work in landslide prone areas of the country of which 3 states including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim are the selected States, where landslide sites under the Border Roads Organizations(BRO) will be the working area with the Japanese teams.

My thanks to Ms Sarikah Atreya of Sikkim Express for the story

Praful Rao

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A week of cataclysmic natural disasters

To anyone even remotely interested in monitoring the weather, the week gone by has been one of exceptional and cataclysmic hydrological happenings the world over :-
  • Queensland in Australia saw some of the heaviest rainfall since 1974 which left 25 people dead, another 71 missing and billions of dollars of loss which is likened to be like the aftermath of a war. Unluckily they still have two months of rain ahead of them.
  • Widespread flooding and landslides in the Philippines claimed the lives of 40 people. The disaster, triggered by the northeast monsoon and a cold front, hit mainly the Mindanao, Eastern Visayas, Southern Tagalog regions and affected more than 1.2 million people. 
  • 27 people died, 12 are missing and more than a million people were affected by the floods triggered by torrential rains in Sri Lanka, particularly in the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara.

  • In Brazil at least 540 people have died due to landslides and flooding caused by torrential rain and another 10,000 people living in what used to be picturesque mountain towns popular with tourists have been affected by the torrential rains that began at the start of the year
I place below an excerpt of an article by Germaine Greer in the Guardian entitled :
Australian floods: Why were we so surprised?

Meteorologists warned Australians six months ago to prepare for a soaking. And nobody did a thing ...
What's going on in Australia is rain. British people might think that they're rain experts. Truth is that they hardly know what rain is. The kind of cold angel sweat that wets British windscreens isn't proper rain. For weeks now rain has been drumming in my ears, leaping off my corrugated steel roof, frothing through the rocks, spouting off the trees, and running, running, running past my house and down into the gully, into the little creek, into the bigger creek, and on to the Nerang river and out to sea at Southport. We've had more than 350mm in the last four days. My creek is running so high and so fast that I can't get out and my workforce can't get in…
The rain comes in pulses. When the noise abates, momentarily, I can see Mount Hobwee through veils of wet mist, and then I hear the advancing roar of the next pulse, and everything shuts down again. Behind my house a white cataract is charging down the gully through the rocks. When I'm in bed I can feel the thudding of its raw power through my bones.
The meteorologists will tell you that the current deluge is a product of La Niña. At fairly regular intervals, atmospheric pressure on the western side of the Pacific falls; the trade winds blow from the cooler east side towards the trough, pushing warm surface water westwards towards the bordering land masses. As the water-laden air is driven over the land it cools and drops its load. In June last year the bureau of meteorology issued a warning that La Niña was about "to dump buckets" on Australia.
Six months ago the meteorologists thought it was worthwhile to warn people to "get ready for a wet, late winter and a soaked spring and summer". So what did the people do? Nothing. They said, "She'll be right, mate". She wasn't.
______________________________

Comment by Praful Rao
Starting May2011, we will be engulfed by the SW monsoons once again and face 5 months of rainfall - I daresay, nothing; nothing whatsoever has been done by way of landslide prevention during the time when we should have been shoring up our defenses against the onslaught of the monsoons.

Too bad we never learn


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Community based landslide warning systems

Dr David Petley of Durham University (UK) has been a staunch friend of STH over the past 3 years and I consult him regularly on the many aspects of landslide hazards.
I reproduce part of his recent article on community based landslide warning systems; interestingly the article comes at time when we in STH will be starting work on the same topic in a small landslide prone village in Kalimpong - using much the same methods discussed in the article. The excerpt is placed below :-
"An increasingly important area of work in landslides is the development of tools to generate warnings to potentially-affected communities.  Whilst technologically-led examples have been available for a couple of decades now, and have proven to be quite effective, the growing emphasis is on low tech approaches that can be operated by and within communities.  This is entirely pragmatic – we know that most of the severe losses, whether measured in terms of lives lost or in proportion of per capita GDP, occur in less developed countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America. ... "

For those interested Dr Petley's full length article is available here


Praful Rao

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Working with the Communities 2011- Dumsi Pakha village, Kalimpong


Dumsi Pakha is a tiny village located within Kalimpong town's municipal limits and has been featured in detail in this blog here.
It has a population of approx 300 people with most of the adult males working as labourers. The houses in the area are densely packed with virtually no drainage system existing and the fact that two large natural drains (jhoras) plough through this area makes it inherently unstable.
As per the President of the village no one has worked in the area as regards capacity building or making the people more aware about landslide hazards even though as per him everyone spends sleepless nights when it rains heavily.
SaveTheHills carried out some community work last year in Chibo/Pashyor villages see here and with very positive results.
We hope to start similar work in Dumsi Pakha by February 2011 - preliminary ground work as regards arranging for training of volunteers in first aid, SAR etc is being undertaken currently.

Praful Rao