`I did not have a government for 36 hours'

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah pleaded helplessness as the seat of his government went under water and his ministers and officials were marooned. As extreme weather events become more frequent and natural drainage systems collapse due to urbanisation, Indian cities have to be ready to deal with urban floods

By Soma Basu, Jyotsna Singh
Published: Wednesday 15 October 2014

`I did not have a government for 36 hours'

Jammu and Kashmir

When the rains began in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on the morning of September 3, it was just another day for Vijay Gadhia. The 50-year-old employee of Jammu’s Power Development Department had gone to Srinagar with his colleagues for official work. He expected the next day to be bright and sunny. A day of rain in the region is usually followed by a day of sunshine. But the rain did not stop. Instead, he heard the news that a bus carrying 70 members of a wedding party was washed away by flash floods in Rajouri, of which 50 could not be traced.

On the night of September 4, the Doodh Ganga, a tributary of the Jhelum flowing through Srinagar, breached its embankment following a cloudburst in its catchment area. On September 5, the water level in the Tawi and Chenab rivers in Jammu rose dramatically. Flood control bunds were washed away, bridges collapsed and agricultural land got submerged. Rains continued to lash the region in the next few days triggering landslides that disrupted highways and snapped power lines. Till the afternoon of September 5, Srinagar residents were clicking photographs of the gradually swelling Jhelum to post on social media.

August 30
A cyclonic circulation coupled with a fresh Western disturbance moves towards J&K

September 1-2
Rainfall starts in J&K

September 3
Landslides claim 10 lives across the state. The Jhelum flows a metre above the danger mark

September 4
The Jhelum rises to 5.43 metre above the danger level. Flash floods in Rajouri claim 50 lives

September 5
Cloudburst in the catchment area of Doodh Ganga. Jhelum breaches embankment

September 6
Water level reaches 7-8 metres in parts of Srinagar. Rescue operations start

September 7
Prime Minister NarendraModi calls the flood a `national calamity'

September 9
Death toll stands at 215

September 11
Floodwater starts receding

On the night of September 5, the Jhelum too breached its embankment at Padshahi Bagh, following which there was a half-hearted attempt by the state administration to warn the people. Announcements were made from several mosques in the city at 10 pm. Residents were asked to move to the first floor of their houses. But the announcements came late. Most people had gone to bed. Many of those who were awake ignored the words. According to Gadhia, it hardly sounded like a warning. Those who did not have a multi-storey building had no choice. By the time the announcements started, some parts of Srinagar were already submerged in waist-deep water.

Gadhia and his colleagues sensed trouble and fled Srinagar, spent four days in the wilderness without food and water before reaching the Shankaracharya hill on September 12. “After that we reached the Governor House from where we were airlifted to Jammu,” Gadhia told Down To Earth.

A city under water

In September, rainfall in Srinagar crossed its 10-year-high mark—151.9 mm of rainfall in September 1992—within 24 hours. This year, the city received 156.7 mm of rainfall on September 5 alone. The average monthly rainfall for Srinagar is 56.4 mm. The India Meteorological Department recorded more than 500 mm of rainfall in the first week of September. The floodwater started receding from September 11, but till September 13 more than 70 per cent of Srinagar was still submerged, with tens of thousands of people stranded.

The two distinct water channels flowing through the city—the Jhelum and the flood channel, an artificial outlet created in 1904 to drain out excess water from the Jhelum in case of flood—had merged into a big, brown lake. Some of the worst-affected areas include Allochi Bagh, Tulsi Bagh, Wazir Bagh, Rajbagh, Zero Bridge and areas along the right bank of the Jhelum. Maisuma, Natipora, Lal Chowk and several localities in Civil Lines remained submerged under two metres of water.

Murtaza Khan, a former legislator, spent three days on the roof of the MLA hostel building on M A Road. “The pace and level of rescue operation was only five per cent of the required scale. The Army or the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) hardly knew about Srinagar. They had no idea which area was densely populated with kuccha houses and which had high-rises, nor did they know where the water currents were maximum and why,” he says.

Gadhia and Khan were lucky to have been saved, unlike the 215 people who lost their lives in the deluge. The toll is likely to rise as the water recedes. Hectares of ripe crop and orchards have been lost, and the infrastructural damage is likely to cross Rs 6,000 crore.

Kashmiris have complained about the lack of coordination among the Army, NDRF and the local administration in rescuing people. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah pleaded helplessness. “I had no government for the first 36 hours as the seat of establishment was wiped out. My own residence has no power supply, and my cellphones had no connectivity. My capital city [Srinagar] was taken out. I resumed administrative operations with six officers in a makeshift mini secretariat,” he told journalists at a press meet on September 9. According to news reports, the six-storey secretariat was submerged up to the second floor.

Abdullah added that his officers could not be located for at least three days after the floods began. “People’s anger is justified, but we were caught off guard.” His minister for irrigation and flood control, Shyam Lal Sharma, told Down To Earth that his department had given a warning which was not taken seriously. “We issued a warning on September 5. People were alerted in various parts of the state,” Sharma said.

Floods not unprecedented

Jammu and Kashmir has a long history of floods. From 1905 to 1959, the state was hit by flood 14 times. The memory of the 2010 floods in Leh was still fresh when disaster struck again last month.

In 2010, the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Ministry had prepared a report and issued a warning that the state is likely to face a major flood catastrophe in the next five years and that the government is ill-equipped to save lives and property. The Irrigation and Flood Control Department had proposed a Rs 2,200 crore project to put the required infrastructure in place. The report was submitted to the Union Water Resources Ministry, but nothing happened.

The Jhelum is one of the most important natural drainage channels of Srinagar, which is otherwise like a bowl having no outlet for water. Silt has accumulated in all of its major tributaries and the flood channels are blocked. The wetlands of Nadru, Nambal, Narkara Nambal and Hokarsar that absorb rainwater have been replaced by residential colonies (see ‘Srinagar’s lost saviours’). Whenitrains for two to three days, the city gets flooded with water from the Jhelum. “Srinagar faces flood every 50 years. It has a cycle. But encroachment has killed its flood channels. Bemina used to be a flood basin, but many residential and commercial buildings have come up in its place in the past 10 years,” Sharma says.

Srinagar's lost saviours
The entire city of Srinagar was flooded after Jammu and Kashmir received more than 550 mm of rainfall in one week. Would the city have faced the same catastrophe had its wetlands and other water bodies been in good shape?

Urban floods increasing

Srinagar was once famous for its traditional ponds and tanks, which have been erased to house commercial complexes and parks. This has become a widespread practice across India. Every year floods are reported from cities like Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Surat, Rohtak, Gorakhpur and Guwahati. Factors are many—inadequate drainage systems, constructions on flood plains and river beds and loss of natural water storage areas. It only shows how rapid urbanisation in and around a city makes floods inevitable. In the past decade alone, India witnessed numerous incidents of floods in Mumbai (nine times), Ahmedabad (seven times), Chennai (six times), Hyderabad (five times), Kolkata (five times), Bengaluru (four times) and Surat (thrice).

Abdullah defended himself by saying that state capitals had never been hit by a disaster in recent memory. But the devastating flood could have been averted had his administration and the Union government taken necessary steps to save the drainage channels of Srinagar when an alert was sounded in 2010.

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