Lack of sustained mitigation measures make J&K vulnerable to floods

Environmentalists recommend scientific dredging, increasing carrying capacity of Jhelum, restoration of flood plains
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.
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.File

Srinagar: With Jammu and Kashmir facing frequent spells of heavy rains, the threat of floods looms large over the Union Territory in absence of mitigation measures

In the past several weeks, J&K has been witnessing incessant spells of rainfall. The heavy downpour raised the water level in river Jhelum bringing back memories of devastating floods in 2014.

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 Wullar Lake in north Kashmir which has been nearly choked by heavy accumulation of silt and narrow outflow channels.

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 has decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km. Deterioration of wetlands has affected their capacity to absorb flood water. Colonies have come up on flood plains.

Environmentalists have recommended scientific dredging to increase the carrying capacity of Jhelum and restoration of flood plains.  “Water bodies and river Jhelum have lost carrying capacity making J&K especially Kashmir Valley prone to floods,”  Ajaz Rasool, a noted environmentalist, told Greater Kashmir.

The valley has been experiencing floods for centuries due to its topography. In 1903, British engineers provided the solution by raising river embankment and dredging the river from Sopore to Baramulla as a contingency maintenance measure to upset the effect of siltation due to erosion of topsoil from contributing catchment of Jhelum.

Ajaz, who is also a hydraulic engineer, said due to forest leases and deforestation without balancing required afforestation, this erosion increased. In 1960, two mechanical dredges named Soya-1 and Budshah-were were commissioned after being inaugurated by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to dredge steep river reach from Sopore to Baramulla.

This dredging continued till 1986 when the dredgers completed their designed lifetime. “Thereafter no dredging was done for 26 years resulting in siltation of river regime as also of Wullar lake fed by Jhelum which resulted in the lake losing 30 percent of its volumetric. The Wullar wetland lost its basic wetland function of absorbing flood water during high flows and releasing it in low flow time to act as a sponge,” he said.

The Irrigation and Flood Control Department procured and commissioned two modern cut suction dredgers in 2012 to resume the contingent maintenance dredging from Sopore to Baramulla. This was a profitable project earning revenue from sale of dredged sand to the extent more than that to pay for the cost of machines and their operation.

“In 2014 the effect of Highest recorded flood was minimal in Sopore and Baramulla as a result of this. Further on the I&FC contracted for dredging in Srinagar reach of the River which proved futile and counter productive making the Government of India to issue advisory to stop it,” Ajaz said.

IF&C department has been working on Phase 1 of flood recovery project to repair breached sites of the river in 2014 floods and raise abutment and anti erosion works at vulnerable reaches. Now it is  further working on Phase 2 to do works of permanent restoration of flood damages. “However the ultimate Project for futuristic management of floods in the valley in River Jhelum and its tributaries is being formulated by a Spanish company which would holistically address the measures to be taken in catchment and entire River regime. Once this is approved and funds made available to implement it on ground we can then only look forward to proper required flood control measures to be on ground. However, that seems to be a long wait,” Ajaz added.

The other problems of encroachments in Jhelum are under the scanner of the High Court in a PIL on floods filed by the Environmental Policy Group (EGP). The Court orders from time to time have been very effective for the purpose of flood control

To mention, 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.

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.

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. 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. Despite repeated attempts, Chief Engineer I&FC (Kashmir) did not respond for his comments on flood mitigation measures.

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