Nothing to Celebrate About

The enormity of the catastrophe could be gauged from the fact that the floodwaters in some low-lying areas of the city couldn’t be drained out even after a month despite massive dewatering effort.
Nothing to Celebrate About
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It is exactly one year since we all helplessly witnessed the 2014 flood fury with the Jhelum discharging about 120, 000 cusecs of water and most of our capital city Srinagar, on an average, drowned under 10 feet of floodwaters for almost 10 days.

The enormity of the catastrophe could be gauged from the fact that the floodwaters in some low-lying areas of the city couldn't be drained out even after a month despite massive dewatering effort. Though, miraculously the human loss was minimum but the magnitude of the economic and infrastructure loss was unprecedented in the history of Kashmir. The administrative numbness and chaos was all pervasive during the most crucial days of the deluge and the people were bemoaning the absence of any flood management and relief efforts.

Even the CM of our State felt helpless during the crucial days of the peak flooding with total disconnect among various arms of the administration. All the communication channels failed us during the crucial period adding to the chaotic handling of the situation. Mishandling of the post-flood management, the displacement of a large section of the affected populace, the loss of the property, flooding of the Central Business District (Lal Chowk), the selective rescue operations and jingoistic reporting about army's rescue operations by a section of the national media and above all, the lackadaisical attitude of the central government made people more angry and disgusted. During those miserable days, we all felt helpless with our psyche deeply hurt. Though, some of us protested publicly or through media but most of us simmered inside reflecting on what went wrong and if and how the enormity of the disaster could have been reduced.

The commendable efforts of some local community-based organizations and a few brave individuals in relief and rehabilitation brought some solace. After the initial government inertia when people needed them the most, a few of the government agencies plugged in slowly, dewatering the floodwaters, clearing off the huge muck and solid waste that pervaded everywhere and therefore prevented an epidemic that was looming large over the valley during those agonizing days. 

After passing through this entire trauma, what had we all expected; introspection at every level (obviously starting from government to society to individuals), relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction, corrections, and finally perspective planning for long-term flood mitigation and control. One year has passed but alas, nothing of that sort has happened and neither there is any initiation of that process in sight. On the first anniversary, there is nothing to celebrate or feel satisfied about.

Our system has failed us on this front as well. Post-floods political expediency scored over the need for prioritizing relief and rehabilitation of the affected populace. Though prudence demanded the postponement of the elections but majority of the people, disgusted with the then government, thought it opportune to overthrow the system that had failed them. Relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and risk reduction (4Rs) became an important issue in the elections.

What happened post-election? Any introspection by the government- NO; Action on 4Rs: paltry; Development of any strategy for reducing the risk of people and infrastructure to floods: NO; Any corrective measures for reducing our vulnerability: Adhoc. We had all thought that it would be THE PRIORITY NO. 1 of the incumbent government but nothing of that sort has happened. Government might have certain constraints but we haven't even seen an initiation of a process aimed at developing a long-term flood risk reduction strategy in Kashmir. 

It is mandatory everywhere (having tremendous merit) that whenever there is a catastrophic event, governments immediately commission studies, hold investigations and consultations to understand the causative factors, quantify the magnitude of the event and damages, pinpoint the lapses in the response and make a scrutiny of all other issues related to the management of that event so that the learning from that introspection feeds and leads to better management of the disaster in the eventuality of the event striking us again. What stopped the government from doing that?

We have already lost a precious one-year. This is a major lapse. Any long-term flood risk reduction plan for Kashmir will enormously benefit from such a scientific inquiry. The university of Kashmir led a national team for such a scientific enquiry, ordered by govt. of India, for the Uttarakhand disaster and submitted a report to the govt. for taking corrective measures. Alas, there was no such initiative either from the state or centre to study the 2014 Kashmir floods. Therefore, we have learned nothing from this catastrophic event.

Flood damage was assessed by the state at Rs. 44,000 crores, which the Centre government found easy to dustbin. Who is at fault? State or centre! Please have a cursory look at the report, it is a shoddy document devoid of any credible data and analysis, which even an empathetic government at the centre would have found difficult to approve. There are standard methodologies available to assess the disaster damages based on the use of available models and data.

Data about flood depth and duration, built up, agriculture extent and yield and a number of other inputs are important for flood damage assessment. If the state government had used these standard methods, I am sure that even a recalcitrant government at the centre would have found it very difficult to disapprove. There is an important lesson to learn for our bureaucracy from this goof-up. We would definitely get benefited, if, we look beyond the school of self and seek knowledge and guidance beyond our confines. This avoidable lapse on your part has inordinately delayed the 4Rs process and prolonged the suffering of the helpless masses. 

Post-floods, we are at the highest vulnerability because of the reduced carrying capacity of the Jhelum and its tributaries, weak flood protection infrastructure and higher groundwater levels. We already have 3 flood alerts this year, none of which fortunately turned into a deluge.

Why doesn't the government put in place at the earliest a Flood Early Warning System (FEWS) for Jhelum so that the people are saved from the recurrent agony about flooding as and when it starts raining? We need to start FEWS right today by installing the requisite instrumentation all across the basin without waiting for the World Bank who might then strengthen it further. 

It is not that the government has done nothing on flood mitigation during the last one year. Within the given constraints, they initiated some engineering measures. They dredged patches of the main river course and even flood channel. But let me tell you that it is all hotchpotches. We should have a bathymetric data of the Jhelum for effective dredging and that is not there. In absence of the depth profiles, it is unscientific and adhoc.

The carrying capacity of Jhelum is ~35, 000 cusecs and that of the flood channel is ~5, 000 cusecs. Even if we dredge the entire Jhelum and flood channel, we might bring up its capacity to ~50, 000 and ~10, 000 cusecs respectively. But then how do we deal with a flood discharging 120, 000 cusecs? So, we will have to identify the wetlands in the basin that need to be dredged, with least impacts on their ecological functionality, to restore their storage capacity.

Simultaneously, we should embark upon a massive dredging plan for the Wular to restore its flood storage capacity. We should explore the schemes that could help us to store 0.75 Million Acre Feet of floodwaters in Jhelum tributaries as entitled under the IWT. With these measures, we shall be able to reduce our vulnerability to moderate floods but for a 50- or 100-year flood, we need to take extra-ordinary measures.

An in-depth analysis of the 2014 flood hydrograph at Sangam, Rammunshi bagh and Ashim provides a deep insight into the flood problem in Kashmir. There are various alternatives that need to be evaluated for technical feasibility. The space is not enough here to dwell upon those alternatives.

We can't really afford to go hotchpotch on this as well. Let there be a thorough scientific analysis of all the alternatives so that we are able to chose the best option with least environmental costs to reduce our vulnerability to high magnitude floods from which there is no escape keeping in view our flood history.

The people of Kashmir will be satisfied with nothing less than a honourable reconstruction and rehabilitation package and a scientifically robust strategy for flood risk reduction that shall include enactment of a law regulating the use of Jhelum floodplains. Let us all, particularly the political leadership, rise to the occasion and without any further delay, take the necessary measures so that we can plan and celebrate our safe future. 

The author is Head, Earth Sciences, KU

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