Cloudburst or Man-made Disaster?

March 13, 2007

Cloudburst or Man-made disaster?

Chorabari Tal which is also known as Gandhi Sarovar for immersion of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes in the lake. It is not a lake in typical sense but one of the two snouts (where a glacier terminates and a stream forms – river Mandakini originates here) of the Chorabari Bamak glacier which terminates at this tarn (formed in a cirque excavated by a glacier). This tarn Chorabari Lake or Gandhi Sarovar is located about 3.5 km away from Kedarnath towards north west.

Chorobari glacier tarn

Chorabari glacier is the source of Mandakini river which a tributary of river Alaknanda. This glacier lies from an altitude of 6000 meters to 3800 meters and its length is around 7 km. Its steep slope makes it one of the fastest moving glaciers.

It was not a case of ‘ गांधी सरोवर फटा था’. That was the breaking of the moraine of Chorabari tarn (read lake) for the cloudburst. Note, a moraine is an accumulation of consolidated glacial debris (rocks and soil) which normally occurs in glaciated regions.  These rocks are loose and carried by glacier itself and can vary in size – from a few centimeters to very big boulders of a house size. Needless to say, Chorabari Bamak glacier which happens to be one of the most important glaciers in Uttarakhand which feeds some perennial rivers.

Meteorological department can forecast of heavy to heavy rain, but cloudburst cannot be predicted. Cloudburst is a sudden downpour within a radius of few kilometers. Normally it last for a few minutes but it is capable of flooding the area without giving a notice.

Cloudburst descends from very high clouds; sometimes above 15 km. Quick precipitation can possible due to large droplets growing rapidly by coagulating with smaller droplets. During normal heavy rain, raindrops fall down slowly. But during cloudburst, large droplets could be as large as a trunk of an elephant when strikes the ground. Imagine when such droplets strike the ground from a height of 10 to 15km, what havoc it can create with its shear force. Few minutes of cloudburst can washout everything before one could react. This is what happened in Kedarnath region on that fateful evening and morning next.

Middle and upper Himalaya region is notorious for cloudbursts for a longtime. [July, 1970 — Cloudburst in the upper catchment area led to a 15 meter rise in the Alaknanda River in Uttarakhand. Entire river basin, from Hanumanchatti near the pilgrimage town of Badrinath to Haridwar was affected. An entire village was swept away. On August 15, 1997, 1500 people were killed when a cloud burst came bustling and trail of death are all that is left behind in Chirgaon in Shimla district, Himachal Pradesh. On August 17, 1998 — A massive landslide following heavy rain and a cloudburst at Malpa village killed 250 people including 60 Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims in Kali valley of the Kumaon division, Uttarakhand. Among the dead was Odissi dancer Protima Bedi. On July 16, 2003, About 40 persons were killed in flash floods caused by a cloudburst at Shilagarh in Gursa area of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. On July 6, 2004, At least 17 people were killed and 28 injured when three vehicles were swept into the Alaknanda river by heavy landslides triggered by a cloudburst that left nearly 5,000 pilgrims stranded near Badrinath shrine area in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand. On 26 July 2005. On August 16, 2007, 52 people were confirmed dead when a severe cloud burst occurred in Bhavi village in Ghanvi, Himachal Pradesh. On August 7, 2009, 38 people were killed in a landslide resulting from a cloudburst in Nachni area near Munsiyari in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. On August 6, 2010, in Leh, a series of cloudbursts left over 1000 persons dead (updated number) and over 400 injured in the frontier Leh town of Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir. On September 15, 2010 cloud burst in Almora in Uttarakhand has drowned away two villages one of them being Balta, leaving a few people alive and rest entire village dead and drowned. Almora has been declared as a town suffering from the brunt of cloudburst by authorities of Uttarakhand. Had there been a bit more swaying of clouds, town of Ranikhet must have drowned also.] Some smaller cloudbursts and localized to a very small area which could not bring large scale destruction have gone unnoticed as well. Eyewitnesses hardly ever survive to tell their own stories.

Remember cloudburst was on the north west of Kedarnath valley not in the valley itself. Kedarnath valley only experienced heavy to heavy rainfall and had to face the brunt of nature’s fury by getting submerged with debris and rolled down boulders carried by flash flood.erosional action


Gandhi Sarovar is not a dam or any man-made water reservoir (as the name suggests) to have floodgates, sluice gates or outflows to release excess water. So there was no question of releasing water twice on that fateful day. Yes, it is correct and true, it experienced cloudburst within a span of few hours (once in the late in the evening and later again early in the morning). Was it known to the government about the possible burst of sarovar (tal)? Where does this question arise?  No way, it was possible. Just it is asking if one knows about change of a river course.

The altitude of Kedarnath valley is around 3500 meters where as the lowest point of Chorabari tal is 3865 meters. When boulders as large as a house roll down with furious flow of water, it is quite natural it creates a more threatening sound than an earthquake or tsunami. Narrow width of the valley, steep high mountains all around and narrow pass through which Mandakini flows down makes it more dangerous.

Sandhya Navodita, I do not know have any information about BBC and other foreign media’s warning of cloudburst in Kedarnath. Please provide the clippings if you have any. Of course, our governments whether at center or in Uttarakhand were so inept for such calamities that it is better not to discuss about their competency to handle such situation (that’s clearly visible what’s going on for last 8 days in the name of rescue operation. It is true, of course, our government did not take any preventive measures to stop people going to that risky area despite of warning for heavy to heavy rains by our own meteorological department. It is another thing our officers of meteorological too did not know how severe and disastrous it could be. It would be better if we do not discuss about the competency and efficiency of department of disaster management.

They only know what they discussed and decided in the Annual Conference of Relief Commissioners/Secretaries Department of Disaster Management of States to review the status of preparedness for South West Monsoon 2013 on 14th May 2013 in Vigyan Bhavan. Can a common man ask why these highly paid babus from tax payer’s money should not be held responsible? Is there any responsibility or accountability anywhere in government run departments and machinery? When a Prime Minister of a country is not responsible for any action of his own office, why should we expect others to be responsible?

It is correct that it rained about 400 mm and there were two cloudbursts. Why it is unpredictable is very difficult to explain in a few words. Perhaps we are still way behind the nature. Heavy rain can be predicted but not cloudburst.

Entire Himalayas is still at its nascent stage, still growing. Rocks are loose and fragile. Vegetation at higher reaches are mostly of pine species that never hold soil as strongly as other deciduous trees do. Entire ecosystem is fragile save a few pockets where Oak and Rhododendron trees give stability to the slopes. More steep are slopes, more dangerous and fragile they are. So called development work in mountains that needs constructing new roads (resulting in destabilizing natural slope of mountains  which leads to land slide during rains in summer and winter), construction of dams/hydro-electricity projects (tunneling and underground power house needs lot of blasting) to meet the demand of electricity in cities, illegal mining which encourages unscientific mining using uncontrolled blasting of rocks, slopes, felling of trees and last but not least filling in the riverbeds with constructing houses all over are various factors making it more difficult for nature to breathe and result Nature’s fury – a Manmade Disaster.

See the photograph of Kedarnath temple and valley – how it looked 50 years back and you can see the loose boulders lying all around.


Kedarnath in 1950

You cannot stop cloudburst, earthquake, cyclone and tsunami but loss can be minimized to a great extent if you understand the NATURE and care for it.