The 2014 Kashmir Flood: The Extreme of the Extremes

Greater Kashmir

What went wrong and the lessons thereof

The 2014 Kashmir flood fulfills every criterion for being categorized as the extreme of the extreme flood events. The Jhelum water that used to be the provider of life suddenly became a monstrously destructive force against the human life and the infrastructure that cohabit its backyards since millennia.  From the historical knowledge, this event was unique relative to the earlier recorded floods on the Jhelum with almost 100,000 cusecs of water gushing down the Jhelum at Sangam compared to about 80,000 cusecs recorded during the 1928 floods.
There are no authentic discharge figures available for the 1959 floods though some reports suggest that the discharge was almost 100, 000 cusecs at Sangam. Though the meteorological (cumulative rainfall) and hydrological conditions (peak discharge) of the three extreme flood events might not differ significantly in magnitude (extremes) but the extent and the consequences of the socio-economic destruction of the 2014 floods qualifies it to be designated as the extreme of the extreme floods in the archived history of Kashmir. The return period of this catastrophic flood is estimated to be about 100 years. Until now, the flood of August 1928 was considered as being the worst one in the living memory in Kashmir. During the 1928 floods, 275 locals (including 200 amarnathyatris) died compared to about 100 during the 2014 Jhelum floods. However, the flood duration this time was much longer than that of the1928 and 1959 floods.
The high discharge levels of 2014 extreme flood were frightening making the people fear for a high human loss and total destruction of the Srinagar city. Another reason why the 2014 flood frightened the local people was that the high water levels of Jhelum persisted above the low-lying surroundings for more than a week. The fragile dikes (bunds) were permeable at some places so that the water leaked through them. This may actually have aided the breach and collapse of these dikes as observed at certain places from Pampore down to Chathabal in Srinagar city. Further, I am of the opinion that the presence of the railway line aligned through the floodplains has made a difference in the observed inundation patterns during 2014 flooding and might be responsible for the higher levels of the inundation observed in Kakpora, Nowgam, Lasjan and Srinagar city. A few of the traditionally flood-hit areas in the Jhelum floodplains didn’t receive the floodwaters this time probably because of the presence of this significant physical barrier in the midst of the floodplain. However, in my opinion, the single most important reason for the high magnitude of the 2014 floods could be attributed to the loss of floodplains along the Jhelum. Floodplains are the flat lands adjacent to river created by the deposition of sediment and are inundated during floods.
In general, the layout of Kashmir valley is such that it is highly prone to flooding. The hydrographic features and drainage characteristics of the Jhelum river system show that the frequency of floods has been very high ever since the valley assumed its present form after draining out of the Satisar. There have been almost more than 30 major floods in the archived history of Kashmir valley. The data shows that the frequency of flooding has increased in the valley during the last 5-6 decades. Growth of human population and horizontal expansion of settlements and encroachments on the water courses, reclamation of low lying floodplain areas for agriculture, siltation of rivers, construction of roads along the river banks and the construction of settlements in the floodplains, have worsened the flood risk in the Jhelum basin. Coupled with the unplanned urbanization and mismanagement of the Jhelum floodplains, the situation attained disastrous dimensions due to the prolonged steady precipitation observed over the entire Kashmir valley during the first few days of the September, compounded by the high snowmelt runoff from the extensive snow-packs observed in the mountainous regions this year. It needs to be kept in mind that we have been getting a good snowfall in Kashmir Himalayas since 2010, which is responsible for higher snow and glacier-melt even in September.

The flood vulnerability scenario in the Jhelum basin has worsened during the last few decades as most of the wetlands that used to act as sponge during flooding, have been urbanized and converted into concrete landscape in the entire Kashmir valley. Most of our wetlands and water bodies are fighting a loosing battle for their survival. The functionality of wetlands, having strong linkages with the hydrological cycle, has got adversely affected due to their encroachment and seasonal changes in the precipitation and runoff attributed to the climate change.  In and around Srinagar only, we have lost 20 wetlands to urban colonies during the last five decades, particularly in the South of the Srinagar city. The impervious concrete surfaces in the city have increased from 34% in 1990 to more than 65% in 2010 severally affecting the hydrological processes particularly infiltration. Shrinking of most of the wetlands in Kashmir valley, deforestation, urbanization of floodplains and siltation of water courses has degraded the ability of our environment to absorb the excess rainwater and thus, increased the vulnerability of the Jhelum basin to flooding which is manifested in the frequent flash floods and water logging observed in the floodplains of Jhelum including the Central Business District (Lal Chowk) after just a few centimeters of rainfall. Most of the housing colonies built in the floodplains of Jhelum and along the Jhelum river course stand regularized by the successive governments and thus, encouraging the conversion of the remaining wetlands in the vicinity of the Srinagar and elsewhere to built-up enclosures.

Despite several warnings and clear indications of the impending flood disaster, the successive state governments have failed to design and develop the necessary hydrological infrastructure in Kashmir valley that could enhance the resilience of the vulnerable sections of the society in the flood-prone areas and reduce their risk to extreme flood disaster. This is what I had written in an article in GK Eco Plus, in 2010: “Though, it is fortunate that the valley was not recently hit by an extreme weather event but, with the increasing temperature coupled with increasing discharge in the rivers due to the normal snowfall observed this year, an extreme rainfall event of the size observed in Mumbai (2005), Bihar (2008) and Karnataka (2009), shall result in one of the worst floods in the history of Kashmir and may unleash havoc in the floodplains of Jhelum basin. The planners and policy makers of this state need to prepare for flood control measures right from today including construction of an alternate flood channel on war footing”. There is an urgent need to organize and establish procedures for determining and inventorying flood vulnerable areas in the entire Jhelum basin, a forecasting system of extreme events and appropriate communication and warning systems, which would permit efficient real-time transmission of information to the public as and when any hazardous event develops and evolves in the Kashmir valley.

The people at the helm of affairs should know that the flood problem in the valley is due to the inadequate carrying capacity of the river Jhelum in its length from Sangam to Khandanyar. Just upstream of Srinagar at Padshahibagh, a flood spill channel with the original capacity of 17,000 cusecs takes off to by-pass the Srinagar city. However, in spite of flood spill channel, whose capacity is now reduced to less than 6000 cusecs due to the siltation, floods can be caused by Jhelum in the city (particularly South Srinagar), if and when the discharge of river through the city exceeds 35,000 cusecs. Keeping in view this scenario, the government should have long time back started the construction of the 2nd flood channel from somewhere in Awantipur to Wullar on priority basis to ameliorate the flood situation in the eventuality of a flood. Further, the government should have put in place flood zonal plans in the flood prone areas of Jhelum basin for flood risk reduction and flood mitigation.

Not to speak of the water ambulances, even the fishing boats were not available in the inundated areas of Srinagar city for the rescue and evacuation of the people. We can only imagine the situation in the traditionally flood prone areas of South Kashmir where the inundation levels crossed 20 feet in some villages. This spoke volumes about our preparedness to manage the most recurrent type of disaster in the state. One can imagine the state of our plight, if, an earthquake of high magnitude (which is already overdue in the Himalayan region) hits this hapless nation whose administrators have, time and again, aptly demonstrated their capability to quell the rebellion in the state (using every legitimate and illegitimate means) but miserably failed to ensure the security of its people in the event of a natural calamity. We all saw how the administrative system completely evaporated and collapsed during the eventuality and left the vulnerable people in the lurch and barehanded to face the fury of the nature. Government is squarely to be blamed for the dereliction of its duty for not putting in place, well ahead of the eventually, a framework for tackling flood situation in the Jhelum basin. A mere provision of the boats in the vulnerable areas of the basin, when the Jhelum was touching the danger mark at Sangam, would have saved the people from the traumatizing agony during the marooning of settlements and even saved some precious lives that were lost to the floods. However, one derives tremendous satisfaction out of the selfless and compassionate voluntary actions demonstrated by various segments of our society, particularly our youth, during those horrendous times.

In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, there is no documented information about the flood vulnerability of the communities at the village or ward level so that the information could be used for flood risk reduction by initiating development schemes aimed at enhancing the resilience of the communities to flood risk at village/ward level. Flooding is a complex process and could be unraveled only by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach based on the use and knowledge of latest scientific tools and techniques. Even though there is tremendous advancement in the flood hazard prediction, but there is insignificant progress in translating the benefits of these scientific achievements for the good of the society in our state.
Academia has to play an important role to promote and develop coordinated interdisciplinary research directed towards the acquisition and improvement of scientific knowledge necessary for the containment of floods in the state; notwithstanding the fact that some of our educated elite, vested with the responsibility of building a knowledge society in the state, have created unnecessary obstructions, on flimsy grounds, for strengthening the network of meteorological towers and profilers for forecasting these extreme weather related disasters. The science-driven flood vulnerability and risk assessment at the community level is imperative for devising a robust flood disaster management plan so that the necessary pre-emptive flood control measures could have been taken well before the disaster actually struck the Kashmir valley. The lack of awareness among the people about their vulnerability to flooding was the single most important reason for their complacency when the government, at the eleventh hour, issued an advisory for vacating from some of the highly vulnerable and worst hit areas in the Srinagar city.

Post disaster, there is a need to improve the flood forecasting techniques in mountainous Kashmir Himalayas, plagued by lack of instrumentation, by using simulation models and satellite based observations supported by a dense network of automatic weather stations/towers/profilers. Flood forecasts, on operational basis, would minimize the loss to the life and property of the people by early warning the concerned segments of the society and ensure timely action, disaster preparedness and inter-agency cooperation for flood risk reduction. Considering the fact that absolute protection from extreme flooding is not possible, a scale of intervention priorities is needed, based on the comprehensive understanding of the causes and consequences of the extreme flooding, for integrated flood management in the Jhelum basin. Any future flood management plan for Jhelum basin shall benefit from our learning from this horrendous experience and the good practices elsewhere. It is a paradox that the worst quality of land by any standards except the economic (Rajbagh and its vicinity) is the highest-prized land in the city. Flood zonation plans shall help the government to develop safe housing policy and help to protect the floodplains and wetlands that used to act as reservoir of water during flooding in the past. Disaster risk reduction needs to be inbuilt as an important element in the development and planning process of the state.   
Human societies have deployed a variety of strategies to survive and develop despite natural and anthropogenic environmental catastrophes. The death of 275 people and the cutoff of the capital city Srinagar during the frequent flooding in the first decade of the 20th century, prompted the then autocratic and unpopular ruler of Kashmir to work on flood protection measures including the construction of the existing flood channel as an effective mechanism for protecting the kingdom from the destructive extreme flooding and it worked well to an overall satisfaction till 2014. Even the widespread devastation during the 1959 floods drew the then government’s attention towards the massive dredging operations of Jhelum that helped to increase the drainage capacity of the Jhelum below Srinagar city. However, how this extreme of the extreme flood events galvanizes the present dispensation and its successors into designing an effective hydrologic infrastructure that reduces the vulnerability of the city and its dwellers to flood disasters shall be judged by the future generations when an extreme event of more or less similar magnitude hits the city in a 100-year flood cycle.
Although, it is primarily a responsibility of the government to look after the flood control measures but the general public cannot absolve themselves of the responsibilities in this regard. Let the collective societal concern and yearning about safe habitation secure from the extreme flooding get reflected in the millions of individual decisions, that we shall make in the times to come, leaving indelible imprints on the landscape and thus, making us less or more vulnerable to flooding. Having evolved around the Satisar, we have always shared a benevolent relationship with waters. Our every sector of the economy is dependent on the waters. Our ancestors have gifted us with a legacy that taught us mutual co-existence with our watercourses, flood-fighting skills being a part of that inheritance. But in the pursuit for material advancement, we shed off many of those virtues, usually unconsciously and thereby made our assets, our surroundings and our person more vulnerable to floods and other potentially catastrophic events. Let every one of us introspect on what better could have been done (as an individual, a community or a nation) that would have reduced our vulnerability and risk to this disaster. We need to consolidate and organize our resources and ourselves in such a way that strengthens our capacity to reduce the human, social and economic loss during any such eventuality. Our preparedness at the individual/community/state level shall determine, if, the next extreme event, whether flood or earthquake or any other hazard, is likely to become a disaster or not.

(Prof. Shakil A Romshoo is Head, Department of Earth Sciences, KU)