J&K: Looming flood threats

We can’t prevent floods but at least minimise damage, and importantly prevent loss of lives
Following incessant rains on September 7, 2014, Jhelum had crossed record 23-feet at Ram Munshi Bagh gauge, while level went over 36 feet at Sangam submerging localities on both sides of the river from south Kashmir to Srinagar.
Following incessant rains on September 7, 2014, Jhelum had crossed record 23-feet at Ram Munshi Bagh gauge, while level went over 36 feet at Sangam submerging localities on both sides of the river from south Kashmir to Srinagar. File/GK

Recent incessant rains across Jammu and Kashmir brought back horrible memories of devastating floods in 2014. Despite the passing of nine years from the deluge, no lessons have not been learnt by successive regimes and importantly by people.

Kashmir valley is one of the most flood hazard-prone regions in the Himalayas. Surrounded by mountains, Kashmir has been witnessing frequent floods for centuries. It witnessed floods in 1903, 1929, 1948, 1950, 1957, 1959, 1992, 1996, 2002, 2006, 2010 and the last one was in 2014. There is a constant flood cycle guided by nature as a balancer.

Flood is a natural phenomenon, however in J&K, it is triggered mostly by undue man-made interventions. We have vandalised our natural resources be it forests, mountains, glaciers and water bodies. Nature does what we do to it. It is a cycle!

On September 7, 2014, massive flow of water from higher reaches following heavy rainfall led to overflowing in Jhelum, Chenab, and Tawi basins causing devastating floods in J&K.

Following incessant rains on September 7, 2014, Jhelum had crossed record 23-feet at Ram Munshi Bagh gauge, while level went over 36 feet at Sangam submerging localities on both sides of the river from south Kashmir to Srinagar.

As per estimates flood water measuring about 120,000 cusecs had in 2014 floods surpassed the carrying capacity of Jhelum by five times. Flash floods in Jammu division had also caused massive destruction. Property worth crores of rupees was destroyed due to floods.

Nine years down the line, incessant rains in the last few days have swelled Jhelum in Kashmir. Water bodies in Jammu too are overflowing. People are constantly monitoring water levels from the last few days. Flood threat is looming large as water levels have crossed Flood Declaration levels in Kashmir.

Continuous rain for a few days sends alarm bells ringing in J&K. The flat topography of river Jhelum, spanning 175 sq km from south to north Kashmir, makes J&K’s summer capital Srinagar the most vulnerable area to flooding in the Union Territory. Srinagar bore the brunt of floods in 2014.

The summer capital is prone to high flooding due to torrential rains coupled with topographical changes triggered due to rapid urbanisation.

Jhelum, which is the main source of irrigation in Kashmir, has been marred by extensive siltation in the last few decades. In absence of any conservation measures, the river had lost its carrying capacity and blockages of its lone outflow channel in north Kashmir's Baramulla district, posing a risk of floods in the Valley.

Originating from Verinag in south Kashmir, Jhelum is joined by four streams, Surendran, Brang, Arapath and Lidder in south Kashmir’s Islamabad (Anantnag) district. Besides, small streams like Veshara and Rambiara also feed the river with fresh water.

Jhelum meanders in a serpentine way from south to north Kashmir and settles in Wullar, Asia’s largest freshwater lake, before pouring into Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) through Baramulla. Experts said the devastating flood in 1959 caused backwater effects to Jhelum due to low outflows from Wular Lake in north Kashmir which has been nearly choked by heavy accumulation of silt and narrow outflow channel.

Wetlands on the left and right of Jhelum acted as reservoirs of the floodwaters. However, in the last five decades, most of the wetlands have lost their carrying capacity mainly due to conversion into agriculture land or concrete landscape.

Ecologically important wetlands in the Jhelum floodplains like Hokersar, Bemina wetland, Narakara wetland, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-arth, Anchar lake and Gilsar have been degraded due to rapid encroachment and urbanisation.

The total area of the major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with an area greater than 25 hectares have decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km.
20 wetlands have been lost to urban colonies during the last five decades, particularly in the south of Srinagar.

Deterioration of wetlands has affected their capacity to absorb flood water. Colonies have come up on flood plains. Filling up of water bodies has reduced their carrying capacity. 

The then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad in late ’50s had approached the Government of India to seek expert advice and engineering solutions to frequent floods. Under the guidance of Central Water Commission experts, a Master Plan for dredging works of Jhelum from Wullar to Khadanyar was formulated.

The project envisaged deepening and widening of Jhelum from Ningli to Sheeri by mechanical dredgers. However, at that time, the dredgers were not manufactured or readily available in India. After intervention by Government of India dredgers were purchased, however, dredging operation continued only up to 1986.

It was suspended due to lack of adequate resources and backup facilities. This resulted in accumulation of tons of silt deposition in Jhelum due to rapid degradation of its catchments. Subsequently this reduced flood routing efficiency of Jhelum’s outflow channel and its charge carrying capacity from 35000 cusecs in 1975 to 20000 cusecs.

The Irrigation and Flood Control Department had in 2009 sent Rs 2000 crore project to the Ministry of Water Resources for sanction. The project included many restoration works including improvement of Jhelum’s existing dredging of outfall channels, protection, and anti-erosion works and increasing hydraulic efficiency.

After the floods of 2014, the Government of India sanctioned the plan for comprehensive flood management of River Jhelum and its tributaries. The project was funded under the Prime Minister’s Development Package.

The flood management plan for river Jhelum was divided into two phases. Rs 399 Cr was sanctioned for the first phase to increase discharge carrying capacity of Jhelum from 31,800 cusecs to 60,000 cusecs.

After substantially completing the first phase, the government of J&K had sought funds for the second phase. A committee set up by the Government of India to go into the cause of catastrophic floods suggested several measures to prevent such calamities in future.

With rapid melting of glaciers creating glacial lakes in various mountain ranges of J&K, there is a need to devise a mechanism to avert disasters due to flash floods. Studies have shown that most of the glaciers in J&K are receding fast due to climate change. Melting glaciers erode land and fill up the space creating glacial lakes.

There are more than 100 glacial lakes spread across different mountain ranges in J&K. Sudden disastrous large water flow charged with debris caused by an outburst of a glacial lake due to the failure of the damming moraines can bring about catastrophic damages to life and property downstream. Vulnerable landscapes in the vicinity of river courses need to be identified and monitored regularly to avoid the 2013 Kedarnath-like disaster. 

What is more important is to increase carrying capacity of Jhelum by scientific dredging so that it can cater to over one lakh cusecs of water in extreme cases. There is a need to restore Jhelum’s flood plains by removing encroachments.

In every village and locality, some youth must be trained in rescue operations during floods and equipped with boats. We need to do flood hazard zonation mapping and also set flood alarm systems in vulnerable areas for quick evacuation and rescue operations in case of floods.

Embankments on both sides of Jhelum need to be strengthened to withstand heavy rains and high water levels. Alternate flood spill channels and dredging of existing ones must be undertaken on priority.

Creation of water storage facilities under supervision of experts on tributaries of Jhelum should be explored to prevent instant water discharge during rains.

Wetlands need to be restored to increase water holding capacity. We cannot prevent floods but at least minimise damage and importantly prevent loss of lives.

Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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