Sunita

Narain

Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

India's double challenge

Traditional system of flood management through lakes and connected water channels has been forgotten

THE FLOODWATERS devastating large parts of the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir caught the people and the government unawares, it is said. But why should this be so? We know every year, like clockwork, India grapples with months of crippling water shortage and drought and then months of devastating floods. This year offers no respite from this annual cycle but something new and strange is afoot. Each year, the floods are growing in intensity. Each year, the rain events get more variable and extreme. Each year, economic damage increases and development gains are lost in one season of flood or severe drought.

Scientists now say conclusively that there is a difference between natural variability of weather and climate change, a pattern brought about by human emissions that is heating up the atmosphere faster than normal. Scientists who study the monsoons tell us that they are beginning to make that distinction between normal monsoon and what is now showing up in abnormal extreme rain events. Remember, the monsoons are known to be capricious and confounding. Even then scientists can see the change.

This is further complicated by the fact that multiple factors affect weather and another set of factors affects its severity and impact. In other words, the causes of devastation following extreme events—like droughts or floods— are often complicated and involve mismanagement of resources and poor planning.

The Jammu and Kashmir floods are because of unusually high rainfall. This is only part of the problem. It is also clear we have destroyed drainage in floodplains everywhere through utter mismanagement. We build embankments believing we can control the river only to find the protection broken. Worse, we build habitations in floodplains. Urban India is mindless about drainage. Storm water drains are either clogged or just do not exist. Our lakes and ponds have been eaten away by real estate—land is what a city values, not water. In all this what happens when extreme rainfall events happen? The city drowns.

It is no different in Jammu and Kashmir. The traditional system of flood management was to channelise the water from the Himalayas into lakes and water channels. Dal and Nageen lakes in Srinagar are not just its beauty spots, but the sponge. The water from the massive catchment comes into the lakes, which are interconnected.

More importantly, each lake has its flood discharge channel which drains the spillover. But over time, we have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water. The attitude is it will rain for only a few days, so why “waste” land to manage that water. This is what has happened in Srinagar. Residential buildings have come up in the low-lying areas of the city, flood channels have been encroached upon or neglected.

Now when it rains heavily—and with greater frequency and intensity because of climate change—the water has nowhere to go. Flood and devastation are inevitable. All this makes for a double whammy. On the one hand, we are mismanaging our water resources, thus, intensifying floods and droughts. On the other hand, climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, making the country even more vulnerable.

Indians know that the monsoon is their real finance minister. Clearly, the opportunity is to make sure that every drop of rain is harvested and used in the prolonged dry season. But this rain will come in the form of more ferocious events. We must prepare for that. Holding and channelising rain must become the nation’s mission. It is our only way to the future.

This means every water body, every channel and every catchment has to be safeguarded. These are the temples of modern India. Built to worship rain.

Impact of urban land transformation on water bodies in Srinagar city, India

Quantification of loss in spatial extent of lakes and wetlands in the suburbs of Srinagar city during last century using geospatial approach

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  • Madam, Last year after

    Madam,
    Last year after uttarakhand disaster, center was to install doppler weather radars in himalayan region to detect heavy rains within short notice. what is the status of it?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Fragmented turf-protection

    Fragmented turf-protection approaches have been in the core of the problems. The regulatory safeguards certainly have been given a skip but the approval mechanism certainly worked through appropriate collusive arrangements of reward and punishment. This has happened all across Indian towns and the escape route has always been 'heavy rains' or extreme events. This was the culprit in 1978, for instance , in North Delhi and Rohtak subsequently. The engineering challenge now is getting our natural drainage and soak-pits right. Will they stand up and be counted?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Disater management policies

    Disater management policies framed by indian government are curative in nature. They lack steps and framework for prevention. We concentrate only on mitigation but neglected the preparedness. Planning for preparedness could mitigate human and economic loss.
    Casualties would have been very less if proper drainage plans for flood water were in place. Such unsustainable development could lead us towards disatrous of mankind.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 3 years ago | Reply
  • It say "Scientists now say

    It say "Scientists now say conclusively that there is a difference between natural variability of weather and climate change, a pattern brought about by human emissions that is heating up the atmosphere faster than normal. Scientists who study the monsoons tell us that they are beginning to make that distinction between normal monsoon and what is now showing up in abnormal extreme rain events. Remember, the monsoons are known to be capricious and confounding. Even then scientists can see the change." is inaccurate observation. First of all natural variation is main part of climate change. As back as 1966, WMO brought a manual on Climate Change in which presented methods to separate natural variations from human induced trends. One of the author of this report is K. N. Rao from IMD [my boss in Pune, IMD in early 70s], I started working on natural rhythmic variations in weather parameters from early 70s. The J & K floods of this year and Uttarkhand floods of the last year are part of natural precipitation pattern only. In both the cases human greed and encroachment of water flows are the main causes for the tragedy and deaths. Also, though on paper we got disaster management but they are ineffective. The other part is tourism & pilgrimage. These are not systematized.

    With reference global warming associated with the increased anthropogenic greenhouse gases is less than 0.25 oC since 1951 to date. We made IPCC change in AR5 but unfortunately our Indian reporting has not changed.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Evidently there are no easy solutions on environmental issues especially for a developing country like India where a big chunk of the population lack even the basic amenities.As a lay man I would like to know from experts if there were no such major natural calamities like floods,cyclone,earthquakes etc. before the Industrial revolution ?

    Posted by: D. Mohan | 2 years ago | Reply
    • Yes , there always were floods , cyclones, earthquakes before the industrial revolution but the rate at which their occurence and intensity has been increasing over the years is a proof that man has irritated nature and mother earth is refusing to 'keep taking' and has started retaliating .
      This is the begining of nature giving back , the retaliation would keep increasing unless the right steps are taken .

      Posted by: Iqbal Malik | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Well written article. You are absolutely correct ,Madam..
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    Posted by: Anumakonda Jagadeesh | 2 years ago | Reply
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