An analysis of the impacts of the disastrous flash flood in Uttarakhand in June, 2013, by Trisha Agarwala.
16 June, 2013 was a terrible day for the people of Uttarakhand (one of the states in the northern part of India). On that fateful day, a multi-day cloud burst caused devastating flashfloods and landslides, resulting in widespread and unprecedented damages that shook the foundations of the country. More than 5000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of people lost their homes and livelihood1. Uttarakhand was thrown into a state of chaos and confusion, as nearly 1.6 million people in the mountainous districts of Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Garhwal were affected by the torrential rains, landslides, and floods. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, nearly 350 people still remain untraceable2. Several houses and structures were damaged; instantly killing those who were trapped inside, and in some places, entire villages and settlements were obliterated. Over 70,000 pilgrims, visiting the famous Hindu Char Dham (four sites) pilgrimage centers, were stuck in various parts of the state due to damaged and blocked roads3. Losses estimated to be above US$ 50 billion were suffered by the State4.
This unexpected event showed the gross neglect of disaster management in India. The massive extent of the damages and the losses suffered demonstrated the complete lack of preparedness, and the inadequacy of the State government to handle such events. Expert opinion suggests that the damages caused by the flashfloods would have been far less if environmental norms had not been recklessly flouted across the state. The then Home Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde admitted that there was a lack of co-ordination between various agencies, which hampered the relief and rescue operations. The India Meteorological Department also claimed that it had issued specific warnings about heavy rains, but the state government blatantly denied that it received any1.
The ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ was effectively covered by the Indian media; however, the main focus was on the plight of the pilgrims visiting the Hindu Char Dham pilgrimage centers. Television channels repeatedly showed footages of the heroic efforts of the Indian Army to rescue the pilgrims who were trapped in various regions due to the continuous landslides. Even so, the media almost neglected to portray the impact of the flashfloods on the local population and the environment. The inhabitants of this tough mountainous region suffered the trauma of damage to their properties, their sources of livelihood, and economic sustenance. A large number of people in Uttarakhand are dependent upon the tourism industry for livelihood, while agriculture is another major source of income. Both the tourism industry and the agricultural sector were badly hit after the June, 2013 calamity. As an aftermath of the massive death toll, heavy destruction, and the lack of transport and communication, the inflow of tourists into Uttarakhand was brought to a halt. The disaster hit the Himalayan region during the peak tourist season, forcing a majority of the hotels to close down. This resulted in a lack of employment opportunities for thousands of people who depend upon the heavy influx of tourists to the pilgrimage centers for their subsistence. Moreover, many women who were the sole breadwinners in their families were also severely disadvantaged. The devastating floods washed away the meager cultivable lands of many poor farmers, as the agricultural lands were located close to the riverbeds in most of the villages5.
Environment and Development
Questions are now being raised as to whether this event was an exclusive climatic disaster, or the aftereffect of indiscriminate development in the region. This issue is still being debated, but there is a large consensus that the inefficient government regulations of land use, rapid cutting of trees, and messy and haphazard constructions were some causes instrumental in the occurrence of these floods. There were also many cases of illegal intrusions and invasions around the major water bodies in Uttarakhand. As an environmental consultant, Alok Gupta, said, “The public administration allowed illegal encroachments on riverbeds. A number of lives could have been saved if the government did not overlook this.” Many warnings and indications of an upcoming disaster had also been given, as early as three years before the June, 2013 tragedy. India’s Comptroller and Auditor General had warned that more than 200 hydropower projects and massive deforestation drives in the state had overlooked environmental concerns that could be catastrophic in case of a flashflood6.
The construction of more than 245 hydroelectric dams and mining projects along the 14 river valleys in the state, within the last decade, posed an enormous ecological threat. Rivers were diverted, hills were demolished, and forests were destroyed, which resulted in large-scale soil erosion and landslides. The debris from the construction raised water levels, which contributed to the dreadful floods7. The Uttarakhand government has been slow in the effective implementation of policy guidelines regarding climate change and development. This has become evident from the failure of the authorities to maintain the essential two-thirds of forest cover required by the 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change. India has already invested US $3.4 trillion in strategies for its 12th Development Plan for 2012-2017, which includes cutting emissions and developing renewable technologies. However, the implementation of these has been dilatory due to the government’s lack of political will6.
The June disaster was not a one-off case; similar disasters had occurred in certain areas previously, claiming even more lives. As an expert pointed out “The flood in Uttarakhand is not a new story. Many parts of the country are experiencing intense rainfall in short durations during the summers and extreme dry spells in the winters. The series of floods in short durations is also a clear evidence of intense climate variability.” Despite numerous forewarnings and clear indications of an imminent disaster, the local authorities disregarded requests for the proper execution of environmental norms. Nonetheless, the extensive media coverage and the large-scale nature of the event have finally woken up the country to the need for change.
India’s stand on Climate Finance
Climate finance refers to local, national or transnational financing that may be drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing. It is critical for addressing climate change, as large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions; notably in sectors that emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. Climate finance is equally important for adaptation, where significant financial resources are required to allow countries to adapt to the adverse effects, and to reduce the impacts of climate change. It is important for all governments and stakeholders to understand and assess the financial needs of developing countries, so that such countries can undertake activities to address climate change. Governments and all other stakeholders also need to understand the sources of this financing, that is, how these financial resources will be mobilized 8.
India has strongly committed to productively engage with the international community in the global efforts to preserve and protect the environment, and to collectively deal with the common global challenge of climate change. Further, India has also committed to spend large resources through its planning process on meeting the domestic mitigation goal of reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020, in comparison with the 2005 levels. Ambitious plans and policies have been chalked out to tackle climate change and environmental issues. India has prepared a comprehensive National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) with a view to achieve sustainable development with co-benefit in terms of climate change. Eight focused national missions in the area of solar energy, enhanced energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture, sustainable habitat, water, Himalayan eco-system, increasing the forest cover, and strategic knowledge for climate change form the core of NAPCC. Besides, there are several initiatives envisaged in the sectors pertaining to energy generation, transport, renewable, disaster management, and capacity building that are to be integrated with the development plans of the ministries. The Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, set up in June 2007, monitors the implementation of the National Missions and related actions in India.
However, given the scarcity of resources and other competing demands, finding the matching resources is a challenge. The Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies has also stated in its Interim Report that aggressive mitigation cannot be achieved without substantial international financial support, both in terms of financial resources and technology transfer. The Prime Minister, in his Rio +20 Summit speech said: “Many countries could do more if additional finance and technology were available. Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence of support from the industrialized countries in these areas.” This only goes to show that domestic momentum for addressing climate change critically depends on multilateral negotiations and the actual disbursement of long term finance that was promised at the Cancun Climate Change Conference in 20109.
Loss and Damage in Uttarkashi: Cases for Climate Finance?
As the world was debating climate change and its impacts, a small group; led by Beyond Copenhagen Collective, consisting of researchers, activists, civil society workers, and university professors, undertook a visit to Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand in September, 2013 and conducted a preliminary assessment of the causal factors and damages. The aim was to initiate a community-centric response to future climatic disasters and getting communities organized and empowered. A look at some of these cases would highlight the losses that inhabitants of the region suffered.
Narender Singh (32) of Didhsari village, Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand, is one amongst the thousands of people, whose homes were destroyed due to the devastating flashfloods of June, 2013. Even as he points to the debris of his home near the riverbed, he has a look of calm resignation on his face. “Yeh sab bhagwan ki marzi hai,” (This is all God’s will) is his stoic statement. He stated that a similar flood had occurred in 2012, but this time the focused attention of the media has made the public more aware of their Case 1plight. Currently residing at a relative’s house, Narender lost not only his house in the disaster, but also two cows and a bull. This cost him around 3,600 sq yards of land and the earnings he would get from selling milk. Moreover, the compensation of US $ 3,400 that he received is insufficient for building a new house, which would cost at least US $8,500. “Why doesn’t the government give us land? How can we build a house if we don’t have any land?,” he laments. With three children to raise, he wonders how he will manage with a daily income of US $4.
Meena (45) has been residing in a school building in Didhsari village since the June disaster. She lost her house and around 2,400 sq yards of farmland. Since the roof of her house was intact after the disaster, it was not considered total damage, and hence she only received a compensation of US $135 instead of the US$ 3,400 received by most other displaced residents. However, she also received other necessities such as rice and wheat. Her husband’s deteriorating health in the past 6 months has aggravated her situation. As Meena needs to take care of her ailing husband and her three children, the burden of earning a livelihood has fallen on the shoulders of her 18 year old daughter, who works as a grass cutter.
Hotel Sri Narayan lies on the Maneri road in Uttarkashi district, and is run by thirty-one year old Anil Narayan. Anil is also a part-time operator of the Maneri Dam. The hotel, built in 2010, generated around US $1,700 in peak seasons, but due to the June floods, Hotel Sri Narayan has not generated any income in the past three months. When the hotel was operational, Anil Narayan was able to hire three staff to manage it. Now, his father, who works as a bank employee, is the sole contributor towards the household.
He recounts that fateful night, “We took in so many stranded pilgrims and gave them shelter and food till they got evacuated and did not charge a single rupee from them. And now...what has the government done for us? More so, when there is a loan to be paid off. Where do I get the money from?” When asked if he received any relief, he said, “We got rice, pulses and other material from the government and other NGOs but that is only temporary. We need our roads to be repaired and jobs to be created. That is most important in the long term. Also, tourists need to start coming again since we are totally dependent on them for our livelihood."
Who is to blame and what is being done?
Analysis has shown that no one cause can be attributed to the failure in response to the disaster. Governments at all levels - local, state, and central - need to be held accountable. It will take several years and plenty of investment to put the state back on its feet. If reconstruction proceeds in a haphazard manner, a recurrence of this calamity is most likely. Other ecologically fragile hill regions must also study what happened, and review their respective development trajectories to prevent similar events occurring elsewhere. The national disaster management process also needs serious review and overhaul. The time has come when all the institutions need come together and coordinate their work for the actual stakeholder - the common man/woman. Moreover, people residing in disaster prone areas should be equipped with all the scientific facts and information required for surviving in such conditions. The government has a duty to educate the communities about climate change and to provide damage limitation strategies, which it failed to do before the Uttarakhand disaster. Simple trainings on weather forecasting should have been given to inhabitants of far flung villages. Taking into consideration that tourism and hydel power production form the backbone of the economy of Uttarakhand, very careful thought needs to be put on the steps to be taken for resurrection post-calamity.11
The Uttarakhand government prepared an investment of US $15.2 billion to tackle climate change. An action plan was presented at the first meeting of the State Council for Climate Change under the chairmanship of Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar at the Secretariat in Dehradun on 23 December, 2013. Under the plan, US $1.5 million would be spent on agriculture to improve soil health in the plains and conserve soil and water in the hills; integrated farming; research; and village knowledge centers. Other measures include pre- & post-harvest management, crop insurance and marketing, and technical support to increase the farm growth. The state would spend US $1.4 billion on reforestation, rehabilitating degraded forests, increasing forest density and managing human-wildlife conflict. More fodder stocks would be provided for animal husbandry, 19 nurseries would be established to improve planting material and improving breed of domestic animals and quality of veterinary hospitals. As part of disaster management, US $62.2 million would be parked for study of climate parameters, community-level planning, threat perception, management of important water reservoirs, rehabilitation of endangered villages, and study of socio-economic conditions in remote areas. Human resource-related issues such as skill development would get US $17.5 million. Under urban development, all urban bodies would be provided support for solid waste management, sewage treatment, pollution control, planned development, and rainwater harvesting. The government plans to spend US $18.2 million on water resources under a state water policy that would deal with catchment area treatment, flood control, and misuse of water. Apart from earmarking funds for various aspects of climate change and environment, studies would also be conducted on the bearing capacity of tourist destinations, and responsible and balanced tourism development12.
In January, 2014 the Government of Uttarakhand also signed an agreement with the World Bank for the Uttarakhand Disaster Recovery Project. The focus of this project will be on the post disaster recovery plans, as well as, to improve the resilience of the state’s infrastructure and that of its communities from the impacts of such disasters in the future. This project is in accordance with the Government of India’s commitment to disaster risk mitigation at the national and state levels.13
The trudge towards Paris 2015
An important point to be noted is that no amount of measures implemented at the local level will be sufficient, if globally India’s position on climate damage compensation is not strong. For this, Indian environmentalists have been pushing the government to make common cause with the developing world. Although, India went through two huge disasters – Cloud burst in Uttarakhand that killed thousands and Cyclone Phailin, which caused damages worth billions of dollars in east India – the Indian government did not seek any compensation for the loss and damage. The Indian government delegate could only say that, they would “not go beyond what has been stated in the cabinet note regarding loss and damage.” The Cabinet note says that, the compensation for loss and damage should come under the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is meant for all forms of combat against climate change and its effects. Unfortunately, the fund hardly has any money.
Civil society experts and activists have been actively trying to put loss and damage in the UNFCCC’s agenda. According to them, there is no time for inaction and no time to lose14. Some of the demands that they have put forward are that developed countries must take the lead as they are still lagging far behind the required commitments. Also, the Conference of the Parties (COP) must establish an international mechanism on loss and damage that carries out the following functions: global oversight and coordination of actions, enhanced cooperation, collaboration and linkages with regional and global institutions on loss and damage associated with climate change, knowledge development and exchange among parties and civil society, support for implementation of the wide range of approaches identified to address loss and damage, facilitating and catalyzing the development of innovative financial measures; including measures for rehabilitation of damage, compensation for loss, and reparations for non-economic impacts. The Standing Body on Loss and Damage should start its work as soon as possible after COP19 in order to elaborate further modalities for performing its function. This should all be done well before time, so as to fully operationalize the mechanism by 2015 for COP 21, which is to be held in Paris, France.
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