Till last month, monsoon remained active in north India with rains lashing most parts of the region, causing water levels of major rivers to rise dangerously. Haryana released over 6, 00,000 cusecs of water in the Yamuna River, as a result of which its water level in the national capital crossed the danger mark of 204.12, and climbed up to over 205 mm. Delhi went into a panic mode, as thousands living in the Yamuna banks were evacuated in haste.
“The overload of water has happened because Haryana released nearly nine lakh cusecs of water in the Yamuna,” explained Ish Kumar, Chief Engineer, Irrigation and Flood Control Department, “But there was no reason to panic. Alerted by the unusually heavy rains last month we increased the number of pumps installed and intensified pumping action. So the situation was under control.
” Reassuring words but a frightening scenario. What is scarier though is that no one seems to be confident that this will not happen again next year. Do we have the mechanisms in place to prevent this kind of catastrophe?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes because we do have the official strategies in place to tackle the floods, and no because the infrastructure and the machinery just don’t seem to kick into action when the floods come rolling in.
So in the current context it is crucial to understand the forces and circumstances which let things spiral out of control.
Floods: our annual visitor
Every year floods of various proportion hits the Indian subcontinent with varying magnitude. At times it takes the shape of a national calamity, while at times it causes a minor ripple. But it does occur with almost unfailing regularity.
Another disturbing aspect is that floods tend to create the maximum havoc at night. It might be due to the tide timings, but the water strikes the victims’ at the most vulnerable moment. “Therefore, being prepared is the only way to combat it, because once the flood hits a particular region, very little remains under control”, G. Padmanabhan, Emergency Analyst of the United Nations Development Programme.
A common sense approach to this annual visitor of the Indian sub continent is to have a contingency plan in place. What the experts call rear guard action. Thankfully, we the people of India have been enabled with the tools, devices and mechanisms to deal with it.
But before we explore the safeguards, let’s trace the trail of disaster that this year’s deluge has left behind.
Circa 2010, monsoon, India. Floods had overtaken almost the whole of northern part of the country with excess rainfall across all places. Lakhs of people across several states, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana were affected, as floodwaters entered homes and inundated vast swathes of agricultural land. Even in states which had rarely witnessed floods in their history, like Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir were under water.
Major rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna and Sutlej were in spate, threatening to overflow their banks and prompting authorities in various states to issue high alerts and announce emergency evacuation.
In Punjab, thousands fled their homes as the rain-swollen Satluj River flooded 15 villages in Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district, inundating vast acres of farmland. A nearly 100-feet breach in the river bank turned the villages of Laudipur, Gajjpur, Burj, Nangli, Dasdgrain, Hariwal, Nikkuwal, Mehandli Kalan and Saini Majra into a sea of water.
Further north a massive cloud burst hit Leh and its surrounding Choglumsar and Pathar Sahib villages, drowning the area in a murderous mud slide.
The hardest-hit in the subcontinent, however, was Pakistan. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan was ravaged. The floods were caused by monsoon rains, and were described as the worst in the last 80 years. But more about the neighbour later.
“In the case of Ghaggar River, it is a seasonal river which does not flow throughout the year but only during the monsoon season. Illegal mining plays a major role in changing the course of the river,” says Madhuri, an environmentalist, to a leading news channel.
In the first and second week of July 2010 Punjab and Haryana state experienced massive flood disaster in the Ghaggar River Basin. Ghaggar and its tributaries breached embankments one after another along its stretch and flooded vast areas. Over 2 lakhs hectares of agricultural land was affected in Punjab and Haryana leading to the death of scores of people and hundreds of cattle. There were breaches in the canals leading to transfer of flood waters to other parts of the basin as well.
How does mining trigger off deluges?
If sand and gravel are dug out in enormous volumes from the river bed the entire system is destabilised. If the extraction is higher than the capacity of the river to replenish them, it leads to changes in its channel form, physical habitats and food webs – the river’s ecosystem. The velocity of the flowing water increases and the distorted flow-regime eventually erodes the river banks, making way for devastating deluges.
Also, during monsoons accumulating silt from the residual mining dumps comes down with great force with the rain water, submerging areas downstream.
While the Supreme Court has put a complete ban on mining in the ecologically sensitive HP, the process continues unabated.
Damned by dams
In late August this report was published in leading news daily in Punjab: ‘To maintain the water level in the 225-metre Bhakra Dam, the Bhakra Beas Management Board has been releasing excess water into the Satluj since August 21. The inflow in Bhakra Dam was over 68,000 cusecs. This is threatening the low-lying areas of Ludhiana, Ferozepur, Nawanshahar and Ropar districts and the Sikh holy towns of Anandpur Sahib and Kiratpur Sahib’.
In the following week’s stories like this one appeared several times on the front pages of newspapers. They were not about Bhakra alone. The Hathnikund barrage in Delhi and the Nanaksagar dam in Uttarakhand also set alarm bells shrieking across North India.
''There is much to learn from the experience of floods this monsoon. Contrary to the case made out for large dams for controlling floods, the situation has actually been worsened by the dams,'' declared Medha Patkar, renowned environmental activist and anti-big dam campaigner.
Some experts believe that this year's deluge was a result of the failure of the authorities to balance flood control measures, with the other regular uses of dams, such as irrigation and hydro-power generation.
Ramaswamy Iyer, former chief secretary in the water resources ministry, told to a leading news agency, that many of the dams were specifically designed for flood control. ‘'But there is an inherent conflict of this objective with the other objective of trying to maximize hydro-power and irrigation,'' he said.
Iyer said while flood control demands that dams allow adequate space to receive flood flows, the objective of maxi mizing hydro-power potential means that water level in dams is kept as high as possible. ‘'As there is greater pressure to increase power generation, the objective of flood control gets lesser attention. This can lead to a situation when water has to be released suddenly on a large scale leading to disastrous flash floods,'' he said.
Dinesh Mishra, an engineer and convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (Campaign for Freedom from Floods) says: ‘‘it has been widely acknowledged in official documents that the siltation rate of an overwhelming number of dams has been much higher than original estimates. The real problem is silt, not water. Silt eats up the storage capacity of reservoirs. Hence, their capacity to absorb flood flow is reduced."
Aftermath of floods
The immediate and visible impact of a flood-hit zone is the damage it inflicts on life, property and other assets. G.Padmanabhan says, “In the case of the recent floods in northern India the damages were significant. First the fertile agricultural lands were inundated with stagnating flood water which has resulted in the land becoming unfit for agriculture for a while.
On the other hand the widespread flood has brought down houses and damaged properties across vast stretches. This has resulted in human and domesticated animals being rendered homeless. Similarly the flood has resulted in loss of lives as well as the spread of bacteria and viruses across the flood hit regions. This has also led to various types of diseases and epidemics.”
If floods are a recurring theme in the Indian weather context, it is only natural that there should be a flood management strategy in place. The objective of this strategy must be to anticipate and take actions to control and prevent such massive deluges.
The first and the most logical step of course is to plan for an effective and efficient flood forecasting and warning system, – a signal to inform where the river is going to use its flood plain, to what extent and for how long. This at least prepares the local communities as well as the authorities for the sequence of events that might quite literally sweep them off their feet.
This is subsequently followed up by rescue, relief ad rehabilitation measures. But it is often not enough to have just a strategy in place to manage the situation if the flood has already hit a particular area. The affected locals must be made a part of the operations as well.
They have to be kept informed about the management strategy and they must be fully involved in implementing it. Ideally, the plans should focus on the community and carried out as a collective effort of the government and local groups.
So what do we have on the ground right now? A lot actually…
Enablers like laws and policies can only be of use if it is implemented with the intent to deliver results. A damning piece of evidence is the continuing mining activities in the bed of River Ghaggar. Have we learnt our lesson from this year of Monster Monsoons? Will the rains next season fall on a stable river bed, unscarred by more mining pits? We are keeping our fingers crossed. Are you?