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9 August 2023

Tragedy in Shovi: What Happened and Could the Loss of Lives Have Been Prevented?

Following the mudslide in Racha, Georgia, many questions are being asked. What exactly happened, could this tragedy have been prevented, and could it happen again?

Tragedy in Shovi: What Happened and Could the Loss of Lives Have Been Prevented?

Image: trend.az

(JAMnews) Eighteen people have lost their lives in a landslide in the mountaisn region of Racha, with 18 more missing. Rescuers say that the chances of finding the missing individuals alive are minimal. Among the deceased and the missing are children.

Society is grappling with several questions in the wake of this tragedy.

Chief among them: What exactly transpired in Shovi, and could the catastrophe have been foreseen and prevented?

How effectively did the state respond? Were the rescue operations conducted in a timely and efficient manner?

The melting of glaciers in the Caucasus and the impact of this process on future natural phenomena will intensify. Can similar natural catastrophes be avoided in the future?

What was the root cause of this natural disaster?

At this point, only preliminary conclusions and hypotheses surround the tragedy that occurred in Racha. Experts discuss that around five million cubic meters of earth shifted.

Three days after, on August 7th, the National Environmental Agency published a preliminary report on the causes of the catastrophe. The essence of the document is that authorities could not have done anything to predict the catastrophe and avert its dire consequences.

According to the conclusion, the landslide was caused by the convergence of natural, geological, and hydrometeorological phenomena that led to the formation of an extreme mudflow in the valley of the Bubiskali River.

As stated in the conclusion, the formation of landslide process was triggered by a combination of various factors, yet the process itself that led to the natural disaster developed instantaneously. According to the conclusion, the information that water in the Bubiskali River valley had stagnated shortly before the catastrophe is not confirmed.

According to the report, climate changes contributed to the landslide processes – the recent rise in air temperatures, intensive glacier melting caused by climate change, and accompanying atmospheric precipitation.

The conclusion also mentions that the exact timing of this disaster was impossible to predict; the mudflow reached the resort cottages and residential houses within 8-10 minutes.

The conclusion states that to the west of the Buba glacier, a collapse of a rocky massif occurred, which, upon being set in motion, collided with the glacier, causing a collapse of a certain part of it, which could have led to the outpouring of subglacial waters. After this, the resulting flow began to move swiftly within the valley.

Moreover, in an information-geological bulletin prepared by the National Environmental Agency as early as 2021, which describes geological processes and provides forecasts for the following year, it is explicitly written that Shovi is under the threat of landslides.

Excerpts from this bulletin were published on Facebook by Nino Gudjaraidze, a representative of the “Green Alternative” organization. It is stated there that the landslide threat poses a danger to both the central thoroughfare and the infrastructure of Shovi.

Why this conclusion was not taken into account is currently the subject of debate.

Virtually all experts concur that the catastrophe that occurred on August 3rd was unprecedented in scale for Western Georgia.

Specialists note the fateful convergence of various geological and hydrometeorological phenomena in Shovi.

“At the same time, intense glacier melting occurred in the same location, with two glaciers in the river’s source area. This was accompanied by heavy rainfall. Abundant precipitation led to the erosion of the riverbanks. The so-called creation and activation of coastal landslide processes turned into a landslide, resulting in what transpired,” says Merab Gaprindashvili, a geologist from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

On August 6th, Professor at Ilya University and glaciologist at the New Zealand Antarctic Research Centre, Levan Telidze, wrote on Facebook: “We can now confidently say that the Shovi catastrophe was caused by a glacier landslide.”

A scientist reports that on a recently obtained satellite image, captured on August 5th, the epicenter of the catastrophe is clearly visible.

According to Telidze’s information, the epicenter was located on the main watershed ridge of the Caucasus, on the southeastern slope of the right tributary of the Tbilisi Glacier, at an altitude of approximately 3,700-3,800 meters above sea level. This is where the rock-ice avalanche originated.

In the scientist’s view, one of the main causes of the avalanche could have been “the destabilization of slopes, which, in turn, is related to permafrost.”

In simpler terms, slopes affected by climate change can no longer maintain their stability and may eventually collapse on their own due to heavy rainfall, or even a minor earthquake.

Geologist Georgy Boychenko, head of the Geology Department at the Earth Science Institute, informed Radio Liberty that at this stage, he has two versions of what happened:

“For several days, there was abundant precipitation. According to the first scenario, a landslide could have occurred in the upper reaches of the Bubiskali River valley, causing a dam and subsequent water breakthrough in the river.

The second scenario is that a portion of the glacier (there are two) broke off, carrying with it moraine (accumulated debris from rock materials in front of the glacier’s edge), and all of this simultaneously turned into a landslide. However, I am still inclined towards the version of a rockfall.”

Could this have been prevented?

It is said that the prevention of such catastrophes could involve a monitoring system. A much-needed yet complex-to-manage system, according to geologist Georgy Boychenko.

He sees a solution in zoning.

In his view, “The best approach would be to establish zoning – simply delineate any valley, near any river, with red lines indicating areas where settlements are permissible and where they are not. Glacial rivers like Bubiskali or Chanchakhi are numerous in Georgia and the entire Caucasus. The challenge is that glaciers and human settlements are in very close proximity. To ensure effective warning systems, there needs to be sufficient distance between the point of problem detection and the arrival of a landslide or mudflow at a populated area, allowing enough time for evacuation.”

It’s impossible to precisely predict when a disaster of this magnitude will strike, says Levan Telidze. However, “When we know that we have vulnerable regions, we need to realistically assess the situation, understand what is done in such conditions in all normal countries, and the state should spare no financial resources for this.”

Telidze recalls the avalanche that occurred in Georgia on May 17, 2014, on the Devdorak Glacier. According to him, it was the largest manifestation of a natural disaster, and it should have served as a warning to the relevant authorities even then:

“We have many such places in the Caucasus, and we must constantly study them and know where there are particularly dangerous areas. We need to maintain continuous monitoring there.”

The scientist believes that different regions in Georgia should have functioning regional centers, where experts would work on-site and be involved in the monitoring process.

“And not with Russian or Soviet helicopters, but with drones or small helicopters. For instance, people inform you that there has been no water in the river for two days. And if at that time a group of specialists were on-site, able to immediately see what’s happening and react, there would be at least 15-20 minutes to evacuate from a potential disaster area,” Telidze tells Radio Liberty.

“For many years, glacial floods have been raging in Western Georgia. Therefore, this is a signal in itself to initiate monitoring. And now, in the context of global warming, the water level in any glacial river could rise tomorrow,” says Tea Godoladze, Director of the Seismological Monitoring Center at the Earth Science Institute of Ilya University.

How prepared is the country, and what are the challenges?

The second crucial question under discussion is how well the government was prepared to handle the aftermath of the natural disaster, how swiftly and effectively state agencies responded, and whether human casualties were minimized.

There are numerous criticisms which are causing frustration within the ruling Georgian Dream party.

The primary complaint from experts revolves around the fact that the rescue operations on August 3rd commenced three hours late, and after sunset, the helicopters of the border police were unable to take off due to the lack of night vision systems.

The tragedy in Shovi has once again highlighted the issue of procuring rescue helicopters in Georgia.

Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili stated on August 29, 2022 Georgia would acquire three new helicopters capable of conducting rescue operations. Today, authorities are once again discussing the ongoing procurement process for three French helicopters.

The government also faces criticism for not seeking assistance from other countries and declining offered aid — for instance, Azerbaijan promptly expressed its readiness to help Georgia in search operations.

Why did Georgia decline assistance?

“There was no need for it. None,” the Prime Minister said to a journalist.

The government was also reminded of another promise – the pre-alert system that has been pledged to the population for several years now.

“Within two to three years, we will have a comprehensive early warning system throughout the territory of Georgia,” Levan Davitashvili in 2018, who was the Minister of Environmental Protection at the time and is now the Deputy Prime Minister, said. Similar assurances were given by other members of the government, although five years have passed since 2018, and the alert system has still not been implemented in the country.

According to experts, due to its geographical location, Georgia will be exposed to a constant risk of natural disasters. The Racha region is particularly vulnerable to this. It is true that natural disasters cannot be halted, but appropriate safety systems can be employed to ensure timely warnings and population evacuation.