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Yesterday, a young man and sole bread winner of a poor family lost his life in a tragic and completely avoidable accident that should serve as a warning for people to not treat nature and its risks lightly.

This is the waterfall rappelling site at Mahuli as seen from the top.

This photo is during peak monsoon. You can see the rope extending to the bank of the pool. This is for safety. The actual landing point is not visible here. It is directly below the two participants.

The actual landing point cannot be seen from here, but it is directly below the two participants you see going down the rope in the waterfall. Participants land below on a slippery ledge behind the water, and either follow the slippery ledge out to dry land (you can see the rope in the photo going to Landing A) or they enter the pool and wade through the water to come out at Landing B (shown by dotted line). In either case, participants remain roped onto the safety rope till they are completely on dry land. This means no wading through the water, no walking on slippery ledges without being roped up. The reason being that a waterfall this tall also generates whirlpools and strong undertows even in water you would normally think easy to walk through. This is known to instructors and is an explicit instruction for participants.

It is also fairly evident from the difficulty people face in wading through seemingly still water that it isn't as calm as it appears. On other days, like yesterday, with the monsoon waning, the water seems even more harmless. The flow is reduced, the undercurrents are reduced. But NOT the whirlpools, which are more from the fall of the water than its quantity. This is why it is important to listen, listen, listen to safety briefs, particularly things expressly forbidden.

This participant, against all advice to the contrary went down the "slide" from Pool 1 to Pool 2 below and got stuck in the whirlpool, unable to come out. Even as he went into the water, there were people telling him not to do it. He did not listen. Perhaps by the time he realized the danger, he was already in the slippery part and under the influence of the water. No one really knows. What they do know is that he failed to come up again, so people went to the lower pool in search of him. He was gone. Two instructors and about half a dozen participants
spontaneously linked hands to form a human chain and try to reach him, feel under the surface if they could, but to no avail.

The instructor on top got irate when he realized that the bottom of the rope had been left unattended resulting in a delay in the activity, when he realized what had happened. With the participant underwater for over five minutes by then, he called for activity wind up, realizing that he was dead, or even if found alive by some miracle, he would need to be rushed to hospital.

Police were called. Locals gathered. A local diver arrived with the police. Apparently he fishes out dead bodies from such whirlpools. Many such accidents happen. Always from carelessness. People don't realize how strong the water is. He dived into the water and got the body out in five minutes. It was intact. Complete with jeans, boots. Clearly the guy had no clue of how deep or dangerous the situation was. He wasn't even stripped for swimming and yet he had drowned in such a way that over half a dozen people couldn't even fish his body out with combined efforts and it took a diver.

The participant had come with a girlfriend. The group kept her from seeing the dead body then and there. She was devastated, but like everyone else who cautioned him, helpless against the will of someone "having fun". The instructors were taken in for questioning by the police, let go when it was clear that the accident was not because of their carelessness.

What remains behind is a devastated family without its breadwinner, traumatized girlfriend, horrified group of participants, some of whom completed the activity they came for, others not, all plunged into a macabre rescue, then retrieval operation. Instructiors whose professional reputations now have an accident, even if not their fault in an industry where your reputation for safety is everything.

I spoke with Hemant, the chief instructor for a long while. What could be done to prevent such accidents? He thinks it cannot be stressed enough that participants follow safety briefs. It is easy to come on a trip and feel invincible in the moment and dismiss what seems like childish suggestions to stay in one place, avoid something, wear helmet, not stand under the waterfall, etc but those instructions are there for a reason and they are there because instructors know the activity and location and want to keep participants safe. It is possible to violate them and be unharmed that time, but that doesn't make it safe.

It is possible to stand under a waterfall and not be hit by a falling rock, but that doesn't mean that rocks stop falling or the next one won't get you.

When I did my mountaineering course, I was irritated that the girl's course was designed easier than boys. My remark to the institute was that an avalanche doesn't care about the gender of those it buries. The forces of nature are beyond the capacity of man to overcome when it comes to raw power. There is no bravery in making a show of it. Famous mountaineers have reputations of safety, not stunts.

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Check Dams are boulder dams or rock check dams. The purpose of check dams is to retain water up stream, so that the water percolates into the ground and recharges the ground water table. As concerns arise around large dams and environment, check dams are proving their worth over and over. Check Dams built on seasonal rivers, stop rain water discharging into the sea or going waste and provide natural fresh water bodies for local use as well as strengthening ecosystems. Check dams also serve to trap sediment and pollutants, strengthen local bio-diversity and help improve the overall quality of the water.

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Check dam design: No complex engineering design or supervision is involved in check dam design. Check Dams can have a width of 5 feet and the height should not be more than 5 feet at any point from the river bed. That means the check dam will follow the contour of the river bed. The side slopes of a rock check dam can be 1 vertical to 1.5 horizontal. The objective is not to create a reservoir and exceed banks or submerge adjacent land, but to provide a point for the water to slow and permeate through the ground and replenish increasingly threatened water tables.

That means the bottom of the dam should be around 20 feet wide, sloping upwards at 1:1.5 to get a width of 5 feet on the top.

The foundation should be concrete, say around 1 feet high. (Where river bed is hard murrum or rock foundation avoided). Lay boulders, the heavier ones below and fill the voids with stone chips. Cement mortar 1: 6 can be used upto a height of 2.5 feet after which 1:8 mortar is fine. The voids between boulders need to packed with stone chips and low strength mortar.

Alternatively, check dams have also been created from logs, discarded truck tires and even sandbags. Virtually anything that can be stacked to block water which is sturdy enough to not drift or decay and does not leach harmful chemicals can be used to create a check dam.

Once the dam is built, secure all open faces with wire mesh, anchored to the foundation or ground for added durability.

The purpose of the dam is just to impede the flow of water and create a small reservoir to serve local needs and environment. What ever water remains trapped on the river bed, will recharge the ground water level. In case of flash flood, check dams provide slight resistance to the flow of water without actually stopping it. The flood passes over the dam, like regular water. If the flood is very heavy part of the dam may give way. So maintain it. My experience does not cause flooding of the banks. Dam stays well if maintained and the costs of maintenance are low.

Such Check Dams can be build every 3 or 5 km along seasonal water courses and will go a long way toward improving year round water availability in our country, which is predicted to have severe water scarcity in another decade or two. Studies have shown that the ground water table rises sufficiently after 2 seasonal entrapments.

It is also cost effective. In the cost of one major hydro electric project, or two, we could build check dams on most seasonal streams and make a significant dent in the problem of water availability.

Being labour intensive, check dam construction provides productive work for neighborhood and results in restoration of water table and strengthening of eco-diversity that lead to further sources of income. Check dams increase the availability of water for agriculture - an important factor for better yields in a country and world where food production is also an important objective.

Large dams entrap large amounts of water which percolates into the ground and makes the soil water logged and less fertile. Their large size results in trapping of heat and changes local climates. Not so with check dams.

Check dams are a cheap method to conserve water, rejuvenate falling water tables, support the ecology and fight the ever present threat of drought. In an increasingly polluted and water insecure world, check dams are a quick and effective way of reversing the clock.

 

Article written in collaboration by Jagannathan Sathyamoorthy @SathyMJ and Vidyut @Vidyut