A decade after the floods, is Kedarnath safer?

Tourism-focused reconstruction after major floods at the pilgrimage site of Kedarnath, Uttarakhand raised safety concerns among experts – underlined by a new deadly landslide.

Uttarakhand is deeply dependent on tourism, and in particular on visitors to famous sites like Kedarnath. The state suffered a huge economic blow from the disaster – the World Bank estimated losses from the floods at more than US$3.8 billion. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The Kedarnath Valley, located above 3,500 metres in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, has changed significantly since it was hit by deadly floods in 2013. A reconstruction project aimed at revamping and rebuilding Kedarnath, the site of a famous temple to which thousands trek to every year, started in March 2014. But delays, allegations of misappropriation, and – above all – the dangers of heavy construction in an ecologically sensitive mountainous zone have raised serious questions about whether Kedarnath is safer now than before the 2013 disaster, or even more vulnerable.

A fresh reminder of the area’s fragility came on the night of 4 August 2023, when a major landslide hit the Kedarnath pilgrimage route amid heavy rains. The landslide washed away several shops near Gaurikund, the start of the Kedarnath trek. At the time of writing, the incident had resulted in three deaths, with 16 others missing.

With a death toll of over 6,000, the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand were one of India’s worst ever natural disasters. Heavy rainfall on 16 and 17 June 2013, combined with melting of the Chorabari Glacier, caused a breach of the Chorabari glacial lake, in a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). This increased the flow of the Mandakini River, flooding the whole Kedarnath Valley and settlements downstream, and destroying the 14km pilgrimage route to the Kedarnath Temple.

“I was at Rambara village [near Kedarnath] on the day of the floods,” recalls Roshan, a former palki or palanquin bearer, who would help elderly or infirm pilgrims reach their destination. “All I remember is the mind-numbing destruction. The whole of Rambara just vanished in front of my eyes. In mere seconds, hotels, shops, people, and animals were all gone. The memories still give me chills.”

Manish Mehta, a scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, says that the risk of future GLOFs from the Chorabari Lake has receded. He tells The Third Pole: “As Chorabari Lake breached all its boundaries, it has now turned into a pathway, which basically means that… it cannot hold water anytime soon.”

But environmental scientist Ravi Chopra disagrees with this optimistic assessment, and warns of the dangerous impacts of climate change in the region. “Fragmentation of glaciers can happen, leading to the formation of lakes… in the areas surrounding Chorabari Lake, [therefore] the possibility of glacial lake outbursts must never be ignored.”

Tourism income drives reconstruction

In the aftermath of the 2013 floods, there were pressing reasons to overlook the enduring vulnerabilities of Kedarnath, and immediately focus on reconstruction. Uttarakhand is deeply dependent on tourism, and in particular on visitors to famous sites like Kedarnath. The state suffered a huge economic blow from the disaster – the World Bank estimated losses from the floods at more than USD 3.8 billion, more than the Uttarakhand state budget for that financial year (April 2013-March 2014) of roughly USD 3 billion. If the Kedarnath yatra (pilgrimage) were not restarted, the state was staring at further losses of up to USD 2.5 billion per year.

After the flood, Uttarakhand received an aid package of INR 73.5 billion (around USD 888 million). Of this, INR 62.6 billion (around USD 756 million) was for medium and long-term re-construction, to be provided to the state between 2013 and 2016, with the remaining funds going towards emergency relief and rescue efforts.

A top priority was to make the major tourist hub of Kedarnath town (also known as Kedarpuri) hospitable and suitable for pilgrims as soon as possible. Initially, this task was given to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, and then in 2017, it was transferred to the Shri Kedarnath Utthan Charitable Trust (SKUCT), constituted by the state government under its direct supervision to ensure that a single authority oversaw all reconstruction and infrastructure building in the area.

Vishwanath Singh, a project supervisor with SKUCT, tells The Third Pole: “Our initial task involved reconstructing the trekking route to the shrine, as the previous path was severely damaged after Rambara [village]. We created an alternative route on the left bank of Mandakini [River], connecting it to Rambara via a bridge. Additionally, we focused on Kedarnath town, constructing bridges, a three-layer protective wall behind the temple, ghats, and retaining walls along the Saraswati and Mandakini rivers. Furthermore, we built cottages, a temple access road … and other necessary structures at the Kedarnath base camp.”

Is reconstruction making Kedarnath unsafe?

The heavy construction in the Kedarnath area has been an issue for some experts. A 2014 study by the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, an autonomous institute of the Uttarakhand government’s Department of Disaster Management, had explicitly warned against heavy construction in the Kedarnath area.

Conducted just after the 2013 disaster, the study stated: “No new constructions should be allowed in the temple township. Small and light structures can, however, be erected for those responsible for performing essential services related to the temple. The temple township has freshly deposited cover of debris and boulders, and any attempt to disturb these could initiate mass movement besides accelerating the pace of erosion.”

Ravi Chopra says that the lessons that should have emerged after the 2013 floods have not been well understood by engineers and planners. “We are in a severe earthquake-prone zone, and the valley base where Kedarnath is located has been formed by the rolling down of big rocks and boulders over the centuries. So, the base of that valley is not a consolidated mass of rock, and in the event of an earthquake, these boulders will shake, which will make the superstructure on top quite susceptible to collapse.”

“In fact, the good thing would be to minimise the stationary population in Kedarnath and encourage people [who are visiting] to return soon after their temple visit, and that requires limiting the number of people who visit Kedarnath on a daily basis.”

Mallika Bhanot, a member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizens’ forum working for the free-flowing Ganga in its upper stretches, says that reconstruction work is putting too much pressure on the fragile Kedarnath Valley. “The rampant construction of roads, hydropower projects, guest houses, and…helicopter tourism is adding cumulative stress of excessive infrastructure construction and increased carrying capacity. Therefore, more people are reaching the shrine and adding to the load. The area is basically systematically being degraded… If another [flood like that in] 2013 happens, then the impact of the disaster will be manifold.”

As per a report by the Hindustan Times, a study on the carrying capacity of the Char Dham (pilgrimage site) was recommended by a High Powered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India in 2018. The committee had recommended a daily limit of 5,000 pilgrims to the Kedarnath shrine, but officially 13,000 are currently allowed to visit each day. In 2023, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, Pushkar Singh Dhami, announced a study of the carrying capacities of various hill towns, including Kedarnath.

Delays in Kedarnath reconstruction receive scathing report

Although the creation of a single authority was meant to make sure that the reconstruction in Kedarnath happened in a holistic and timely manner, a 2018 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found that construction had missed several deadlines. It also noted the non-approval of infrastructure projects, delays in under-construction projects by different agencies, and excessive allocation of funds. Neither the state nor the Union government has responded to these criticisms, but a number of pending construction projects were completed by June 2021.

Vishwanath Singh of SKUCT says that reconstruction work faced a number of issues. “The climate poses the biggest challenge, allowing only about five to six months of work [during the summer], which mostly aligns with the pilgrimage season [making work difficult]. Initially, ponies transported construction material, but a helipad was later built to expedite the process, and since then, we have been using the Air Force’s Mi-26 helicopter for heavy machinery transportation. I think completion of the remaining projects will take at least six to seven more years,” says Singh.

This completion date would be long after December 2023, which is when Sukhbir Singh Sandhu, chief secretary of Uttarakhand and president of SKUCT stated last year that all reconstruction projects in Kedarnath would be completed by.

Construction of a three-layered protecting wall surrounding Kedarnath (Kedarpuri) Township was finished in June 2021 and is now well into the beautification stage. Authorities claim that the wall will protect the township from future floods by diverting water away. But only another flash flood can test such claims.

Heavy rains in July this year led to the stoppage of the Kedarnath pilgrimage. Shortly thereafter, the 4 August landslide led to significant loss of life. This suggests that after a great deal of money and time, the route remains significantly unsafe.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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