Rivers breached danger mark, lakhs of hectares of standing crops were destroyed and millions were displaced. It's time we stepped back and understood why urban floods have become a new normal
Reeling under floods
In 2013, a multi-day cloudburst in Uttarakhand caused devastating floods, killing more than 5,000 people. A year later, Kashmir suffered disastrous deluge due to torrential rainfall. Thousands were displaced and more than 500 people were killed on both sides of Kashmir. At the end of 2015, Chennai had its brush with an equally catastrophic flood that paralysed the city. 2016 saw Assam and Madhya Pradesh grapple with the reality that floods of massive intensity have become the new normal for India.
While it is convenient to push the blame to extreme weather events for unprecedented rains, but not all of it is of nature’s doing. For instance, rains could cause so much havoc in Uttarakhand because the state had already witnessed indiscriminate developmental activities carried out in the ecologically fragile regions of the state. Chennai, which is no stranger to cyclonic storms and heavy rains, especially during the annual northeast monsoon in November–December, saw the worst flood in its history. In its bid to expand, the city has been encroaching upon its rivers, sacrificing wetlands to accommodate development and eating into the marshlands for developing public infrastructure.
On this note, let’s take a look at the reasons pushing urban floods and the price we are paying for not reading the signs.
An urban nightmare
The memories of unprecedented floods in Mumbai, Srinagar and Chennai are still fresh. Ignored as sporadic or once-in-a-while event, urban floods have become regular, and increasingly devastating. The floods repeatedly draw our attention to only one fact: our urban sprawls have not paid adequate attention to the natural water bodies that exist in them. A case in point is Chennai, where each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spill over. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water. We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water. And the result is in front our eyes.
An urban water body provides some crucial services such as groundwater recharge and flood management. If you ask the obvious question of how construction was permitted on the wetland, you will get a not-so-obvious response: wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water, and builders take over.
A number of cities including Chennai are both water-scarce as well as prone to flooding. Both problems are related—excessive construction which leads to poor recharge of groundwater aquifers and blocking of natural drainage systems. The city witnessed severe floods in 2015 when the entire city got completely submerged under water after it rained for a few days.
Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment’s research shows that Chennai had more than 600 water bodies in the 1980s, but a master plan published in 2008 said that only a fraction of the lakes could be found in a healthy condition. According to records of the state’s Water Resources Department, the area of 19 major lakes had shrunk from a total of 1,130 hectares (ha) in the 1980s to around 645 ha in the early 2000s, reducing their storage capacity. The drains that carry surplus water from tanks to other wetlands have also been encroached upon.
The analysis also shows that the stormwater drains constructed to drain flood waters are clogged and require immediate desiltation. Chennai has only 855 km of stormwater drains against 2,847 km of urban roads. Thus, even a marginally heavy rainfall causes havoc in the city. Explaining the problem of pollution, the City Development Plan says: “The waterways of Chennai… receive flood discharge only during the monsoon season; the rest of the year these act as carriers of wastewater from sewage treatment plants and others.”
So Chennai needs to do what all cities must—undertake a detailed survey of the wetlands and then bring every water body and its catchment under legal protection. The Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change are toothless and meaningless. What is needed is to ensure that city development rules include a comprehensive list of water bodies and their catchment. Any change of this land use should not be permitted. Even this will not be enough unless the city values the water this land gives.
The Central government should provide funds for water supply to only those cities that have brought their own water sources under protection. The cities must show they have optimised local water potential before claiming access to water from far away sources. This will reduce the cost of supply. The city can invest the saved money in treating sewage, which pollutes the lakes and ponds in the first place. It is this vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
It is time we realised that a water body is not an ornamental luxury or a wasted land. A city’s lake is its lifeline.
Shrinking water bodies push urban floods
Lakes and wetlands are an important part of urban ecosystem. They perform significant environmental, social and economic functions, ranging from being a source of drinking water, recharging groundwater to acting as sponges, supporting biodiversity and providing livelihoods. Their role becomes even more critical in today’s context when cities are facing the challenge of rapid unplanned urbanisation.
Their numbers are declining rapidly. For example, in the 1960s Bangalore had 262 lakes, now only 10 hold water. Similarly, in 2001, 137 lakes were listed in Ahmedabad city, and construction work had started on 65 of them. Another example exhibiting this increasing loss of urban water bodies is Hyderabad. In the last 12 years, Hyderabad has lost 3,245 ha of its wetlands.
The National Disaster Management Guidelines: Management of Urban Flooding report, published by the National Disaster Management Authority (ndma) in 2010, says that concretisation is a major problem in many cities and towns. According to the Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), 31 per cent of the country was urbanised in 2011. The ministry says almost 50 per cent of the country will be urbanised by 2050. MoUD data also suggests a 54 per cent increase in the number of cities and towns between 2001 and 2011.
Natural streams and watercourses, formed over thousands of years due to the forces of flowing water in the respective watersheds, have been altered because of urbanisaiton. “As a result of this, the flow of water has increased in proportion to the urbanisation of the watersheds. Ideally, the natural drains should have been widened to accommodate the higher flows of stormwater. But on the contrary, there have been large scale encroachments on the natural drains and the river flood plains. Consequently, the capacity of natural drains has decreased, resulting in flooding,” says the ndma report.
Threats to urban water bodies
For the last two decades, urban water bodies have been a victim of unplanned urbanisation in India, because of which they face several threats such as encroachment, disposal of sewage, groundwater decline leading to fall in the level of lake, unplanned tourism and absence of administrative framework. Let us discuss these in detail:
Pollution: There has been an explosive increase in the urban population without corresponding expansion of civic facilities such as adequate infrastructure for the disposal of waste. Hence, as more people are migrating to cities, the urban civic services are becoming less adequate. As a result, almost all urban water bodies in India are suffering because of pollution. In many cases the water bodies have been turned into landfills. Guwahati’s Deepor beel, for example, is used by the municipal corporation to dump solid waste since 2006. Even the Pallikarni marshland in Chennai is used for solid waste dumping. Adding to the sorry state of urban water bodies is also the misuse of these water bodies by local communities for their cultural or religious festivals such the immersion of idols. Heavy metal concentration is found in Nagpur lakes, Bhopal lakes and Hussainsagar Lake in Hyderabad after the immersion of idols every year.
Encroachment: This is another major threat to urban water bodies. As more people are migrating to cities, the availability of land is getting scarce. Today, even a small piece of land in urban areas has high economic value. Hence, these urban water bodies are no more acknowledged for their ecosystem services but as real estate. Charkop Lake in Maharashtra, Ousteri Lake in Puducherry, Deepor beel in Guwahati are well known examples of encroachment. Another interesting example of encroachment and pollution, not by some private builder but the government itself is Pallikarni marshland in Chennai. The size of this city wetland is decreasing rapidly. Once a bird sanctuary, it is now the dumping yard of the city. The dumping of solid waste, sewage discharge, and construction of new buildings such as a railway stations and a new road have shrunk this wetland to a great extend. Another example of government encroachment is Sola beel in Guwahati where the state revenue department allotted the lake bed for construction, in spite of Gauhati High Court’s order to protect all wetlands in the state.
Illegal mining activities: Illegal mining for building material such as sand and quartzite both on the catchment and on the bed of the lake have extremely damaging impact on the water body. For example, the Jaisamand Lake in Jodhpur, once the only source of drinking water for the city, has been suffering from illegal mining in the catchment area for the last 20 years, despite a court order to stop mining in 1999. Badkhal Lake in Faridabad has dried up in the same way. Unmindful sand mining from the catchment of Vembanad Lake on the outskirts of Kochi has lowered the water level in the lake.
Unplanned tourism activities: Using water bodies to attract tourists has become a threat to several urban lakes in India. Tso Morari and Pongsho lakes in Ladakh have become polluted because of unplanned and unregulated tourism. Another example is Ashtamudi Lake in Kaerala's Kollam city that has become polluted because of spillage of oil from motor boats.
Absence of administrative framework: The biggest challenge remains the government apathy towards water bodies. This can be understood from the fact that the government does not even have data on the total number of urban water bodies in the country. Few cities have recorded water bodies because of court rulings. A 2010-11 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report on the plight of 22 lakes in 14 states said: “MoEF&CC (Union Ministry of Environment & Climate Change) had not identified wetlands associated with each river/lake and no identifications of risks to these wetlands due to pollution of river water/lake water had been carried out by CPCB (Central Pollution ControlBoard). Further, CPCB had not identified the major aquatic species, birds, plants and animals facing risks due to pollution of rivers and lakes.”
From ignoring warnings to delays in taking actions, Tamil Nadu administration played its part in making the December floods more devastating
On December 1, houses on the ground floor in Jafferkhanpet, a neighbourhood in southern Chennai, started to inundate because of torrential rains. By five in the morning, almost 80 per cent of the city was under four metres of water. The situation continued for the next 72 hours, killing more than 500 and destroyed infrastructure worth Rs 500 crore. It was most intense of the three spells that had battered the city in just one month. Earlier, the city had received incessant rains from November 11 to 13, and then from November 15 to 17.
Chennai received 1,200 mm of rainfall in November 2015, which was the highest rainfall the city received in November in the past 100 years. The city on an average receives 407.4 mm rainfall in November. On December 1, Chennai received 300 mm rainfall, making it the wettest December day ever recorded in the city. The normal rainfall for Chennai in December is 191 mm.
A closer look suggests that the intensity and the resultant losses due to the recent floods could have been greatly reduced. Tamil Nadu faltered on several accounts. Firstly, it failed to act despite a clear warning from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) of heavy rains. Secondly, the state administration has over the years done little to prepare for disasters despite being flood-prone. Thirdly, Chennai and its neighbouring areas have witnessed unplanned urbanisation in recent years that has destroyed the city’s natural flood sinks such as marshlands and river channels.
IMD in mid-October issued a forecast that predicted 11-12 per cent above normal rains in the southern states with a probability of about 90 per cent. It had said that the northeast (winter) monsoon, caused by retreating monsoon winds that attain moisture from the Bay of Bengal on their way back south from the northeastern direction, would be stronger. These winds are responsible for the rains in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Karnataka between October and December. The IMD forecast though did little to prepare the states for the situation.
On December 1, an ill-prepared Tamil Nadu administration decided to open the gates of the Chembarambakkam reservoir, and the released water inundated the city. A public interest petition filed in the Madras High Court against the Tamil Nadu government suggests 1,104 cubic metres per second of water were released into the Adyar river, which meets the water requirements of the city. Highlighting how the decision was delayed, the petition, filed by Chennai-based businessperson Rajiv Rai, says that the water was released after a warning was issued at midnight. “If one studies the levels of water in the various catchment tanks on a daily basis, one can see that the reservoirs had much greater inflow than outflow right through November 2015,” says the petition. It alleges that state chief secretary K Gnanadesikan waited for three days after the Public Works Department (PWD) wrote to him on November 29 to release water from the reservoir. “The chief secretary, even though he was well aware of the reports that there was going to be heavy downpour for a few more days, didn’t direct the release of water when he received the warning from PWD,” the petition says.
Clueless, yet confident
The administration was caught unawares despite the fact that floods are not new to the state. According to a 2013 Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) report, there have been 50 cyclonic storms in the region between 1900 and 2009. Even the hazard profiles of coastal districts prepared in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that hit the Tamil Nadu coast shows that most of the coastal districts experience flooding during the retreating monsoon, which normally accounts for 48 per cent of the rainfall in the state. “Heavy rains during the months of October, November and December inundate low-lying areas, coastal areas and the areas nearby major irrigation sources,” states the disaster profile prepared by the district administration.
The level of unpreparedness of the city administration can be gauged from the fact that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the key urban planning agency for the city, still relies on an outdated hazard profiles of Tamil Nadu, which says none of the areas in the state are flood-prone. According to CMDA’s hazard profile document, “From the flood hazard map of India (mapped by IMD, New Delhi), it is seen that no area in Tamil Nadu falls in the risk zone.” The document says that few areas in Chennai might get flooded due to heavy storms and for this, flood affected areas have to be mapped. According to N Madhavan, who has worked with the Municipal Corporation of Chennai, ward-level vulnerability mapping was done after the 2004 tsunami. “These efforts went waste as boundaries of wards and zones changed following the expansion of the city,” says he.
The callousness of the state administration does not end here. The State Disaster Management Authority, which was set up in 2008 under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, has not even met once, according to the 2013 CAG report. Close to seven years later, the state is yet to come up with disaster management rules. It was only in May 2015, following the Nepal earthquakes, the Municipal Corporation of Chennai started preparing a comprehensive disaster management plan which predefines the roles of officials during a disaster.
Only to get worse
The northeast monsoon is generally known to bring a few heavy showers amidst scanty rains to the southern states. Between October and the first week of December, 27 of the 34 districts in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry had received 10 per cent excess rainfall with several districts registering more than double the normal rainfall. While normally it rains heavily for three to four days and is followed by long dry spells, this year it rained continuously with practically no respite for more than a month. Chennai received 1608.6 mm rainfall between October 1 and December 16, 2015, which was more than twice the amount of rainfall the city received during the last three months of 2014 (719.7 mm).
“There are several factors responsible for the performance of the northeast monsoon in southern states. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) along with the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), which are heating patterns in the Indian and Pacific oceans, has caused a lot of atmospheric activity. These have culminated in the rain in the southern states,” says B P Yadav, IMD director (see ‘Winds of change’).
Several studies since early 2000s have pointed to a positive correlation between ENSO and the northeastern monsoon. “ENSO has been known to suppress southwest monsoons while enhancing the northeast monsoons. This year we have seen this to a great extent,” says Gibies George, a senior research fellow at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune.
The other global pattern that has influenced the northeast monsoon in India this year is the MJO—a traversing global oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that has been found to have global climatic ramifications. MJO has a 30-60 day cycle that is characterised by eastward moving clouds in the tropics over the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It has been seen that when the MJO cycle is close to 30 days, it aids rainfall in the country while a cycle longer than 40 days causes suppression. “A strong MJO remained practically stationary over the Indian Ocean all through November and this has been a major factor in the heavy rainfall. The differential due to MJO has forced rain-bearing winds into the southern region of the sub-continent. The influence of MJO has been in line with previous observations,” says D S Pai, director, Long Range Forecast division, IMD.
These connections are not the only newly emerging patterns regarding the northeastern monsoon. A close look at the seasonal rainfall levels in recent decades across districts in coastal Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reveals that the northeast monsoon has become progressively more bountiful. A 2012 study in Theoretical and Applied Climatology makes use of homogenous rain gauge data maintained by IITM to show that winter rains in peninsular India have exhibited a positive rainfall trend of 0.4 mm per day per decade between 1979 and 2010. At the same time, an increase in the number of extreme rainfall days and a decrease of normal rain days have also been observed in several parts of south India. According to George, this trend is similar to what has been observed during the summer monsoon. “We have observed that with the warming of the atmosphere, the moisture carrying capacity of the air also increases. Hence, with warming we can expect to see an increase in the magnitude of rain events and the frequency of extreme rain events. Normal rain days will become fewer and less frequent,” says George. Experts warn that rainfall during northeast monsoon is likely to increase in the future, another reason the state administration should get its act together.
Concrete proof of a disaster
A 2014 analysis by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, shows that the rate of urbanisation in Chennai has increased by 20 times in the past four decades—and this came at the cost of its green spaces. Experts say that unplanned urbanisation increases the chances and intensity of flooding in two ways. Firstly, concrete jungles obstruct and encroach upon the natural flow of waterbodies and create pockets that trap water, which increases the flood intensity. Secondly, the sewerage generated by the people gets mixed with the water and clogs the natural channels and storm water drains.
Chennai suffers from both the problems. The three rivers in the city—Cooum, Adyar and Kosathalaiyar—are highly encroached upon and that has reduced the amount of water runoff into the Bay of Bengal. The city has four sewerage treatment plants at four centres, but the treated water that flows through natural channels, often gets mixed with untreated wastewater from colonies and industries on the way.
Even the city’s numerous waterbodies and marshlands that should have acted as sponges are either encroached upon or over polluted. For example, in 2011, the Pallikarni marshland, the city’s biggest flood sink, was reduced to just 12 per cent of its size before Independence. The marshland, which was once spread over 5,000 ha, now houses government buildings and research institutes and a dumpyard that is gradually growing in size. The area of the Perungudi dump yard, located on the north-eastern part of the marsh, doubled—from 32 ha in 2002-03 to 75 ha in 2013, according to Tamil Nadu State Land Use Research Board. The areas affected by sewage and solid waste dumping doubled between 2003 and 2005, says a research by Care Earth, a Chennai-based research institute.
M Sakthivel of the department of geography, University of Madras, says that the groundwater in the marshland is highly polluted due to garbage dumping. Experts also say groundwater recharge, which is essential for flood mitigation, has reduced substantially because of urbanisation.
Sitting on a flood bomb
India is urbanising at an alarming rate, which is a cause for worry. According to the Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), 31 per cent of the country was urbanised in 2011. The ministry says almost 50 per cent of the country will be urbanised by 2050. MoUD data also suggests a 54 per cent increase in the number of cities and towns between 2001 and 2011. And this rapid urbanisation has happened without proper planning, say hydrologists. “There is a complete disconnect between geological and hydrogeological cycle and urban planning,” says Saswat Bandyopadhyay, head, department of environmental planning, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Gujarat.
The problem of floods in urban areas became so acute that in 2010, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) recognised urban floods as different from riverine floods. It said urban floods “happen in a relatively short period of time and can inundate an area with several feet of water”. It also said that urbnanisation creates artificial catchments which increase the flood intensity by six times as opposed to riverine floods. Consequently, flooding occurs quickly in urban areas. Delhi-based hydrogeologist Partha Sarathi Datta says, “Studying topography, drainage, rainfall and soil lithology of catchments plays an important role in urban planning, but sadly good detailed studies are not available.”
The effects of unplanned urbanisation are already visible (see ‘Losing base’). The mangrove cover in Mumbai reduced from 28 per cent to 18 per cent between 1925 and 1994. In the same period, the city’s built-up area increased from 12 to 52 per cent. Srinagar lost almost 50 per cent of its waterbodies between 1911 and 2004. This was the major reason for the 2014 floods in the city. Bengaluru, which had 262 lakes in the 1960s, has only 10 lakes that can be called healthy.
Apathy of government departments is the main reason for the degradation of urban wetlands and channels. The 2010 Wetland Rules, for example, do not have enough teeth to protect waterbodies. To protect a wetland under the rules, the state government needs to identify the waterbodies and then prepare a document. This document gets reviewed by the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority and finally the comments are sent to the Union government, which then notifies a wetalnd to be protected. Hence if a state misses any polluted lake, it will be neglected—unless citizens approach the court. “Since urban lakes have unique ecosystem, there is a need for strong protection laws,” says Jasveen Jairath, convener of Save Our Urban Lakes, a citizens’ initiative for saving waterbodies in Hyderabad.
So what should be done? According to Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, urban planners should undertake a detailed mapping of waterbodies, natural drainage and flood-prone areas in cities using remote sensing. And then integrate the drainage system of the city including rivers, rivulets, ponds, lakes and other natural drainage systems. The non-profit also suggests policymakers to relook the development plans approved by city authorities and find out whether they violate the hydrological cycle of the city. Finally, it calls for stronger laws to protect urban lakes and the setting up of a single authority for the management and restoration of waterbodies.
Jammu and Kashmir floods: caught unawares
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.
|CHRONOLOGY OF A DISASTER
A cyclonic circulation coupled with a fresh Western disturbance moves towards J&K
Rainfall starts in J&K
Landslides claim 10 lives across the state. The Jhelum flows a metre above the danger mark
The Jhelum rises to 5.43 metre above the danger level. Flash floods in Rajouri claim 50 lives
Cloudburst in the catchment area of Doodh Ganga. Jhelum breaches embankment
Water level reaches 7-8 metres in parts of Srinagar. Rescue operations start
Prime Minister NarendraModi calls the flood a `national calamity'
Death toll stands at 215
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
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.
Why wetlands and lakes are necessary to prevent floods
In flood-ravaged Jammu and Kashmir, the streets of the state’s summer capital, Srinagar, resemble surging streams. The drainage channels of the city have been blocked. The links connecting the lakes have been cut off due to unplanned urbanisation and encroachment. As a result, the lakes have lost their capacity to absorb water the way they used to a century ago, scientists say.
Wetlands and lakes act as sponges during floods. Kashmir Valley is dotted with wetlands. Apart from natural ponds and lakes, the valley has other types of wetlands, such as rivers, streams, riverine wetlands, human-made ponds and tanks. According to a report by the Department of Environment and Remote Sensing, there are 1,230 lakes and water bodies in the state—150 in Jammu, 415 in Kashmir and 665 in Ladakh. Dal Lake, Anchar Lake, Manasbal Lake and Wular Lake are some of the larger wetlands in the region which are today threatened by urbanisation. Dal Lake in Srinagar, one of the world’s largest natural lakes, covered an area of 75 square kilometre in 1,200 AD, says Nadeem Qadri, executive director of the non-profit, Centre for Environment and Law. The lake area almost reduced to one-third in the 1980s and has further reduced to one-sixth of its original size in the recent past. It has lost almost 12 metres of depth. Srinagar’s natural drainage system has collapsed making it prone to urban floods.
Half of water bodies lost
Last month, continuous rain for two to three days flooded Srinagar with water from the Jhelum. This would not have happened a few decades ago, say Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem of the Directorate of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing, who have studied the loss of lakes and wetlands in Srinagar and its effect on the city.
They explain that deforestation in the Jhelum basin has led to excessive siltation in most of the lakes and water bodies of Srinagar. They compare two maps of the city—one of 1911 and another of 2004 (see ‘Srinagar’s lost saviours’). Their analysis shows that wetlands like Batamaloo Nambal, Rekh-i-Gandakshah, Rakh-i-Arat and Rakh-i-Khan and the streams of the Doodh Ganga and Mar Nalla have been completely lost to urbanisation, while other lakes and wetlands have experienced considerable shrinkage in the past century.
The study involved mapping of nearly 69,677 hectares (ha) in and around Srinagar. The analysis of the changes that have taken place in the spatial extent of lakes and wetlands from 1911-2004 reveals that the city has lost more than 50 per cent of its water bodies.
What went wrong
When some low-lying areas in Srinagar go under water during heavy rains, people blame the drainage system. What they don’t realise is that they have constructed their houses in those low-lying areas that were previously used as drainage basins for the disposal of storm water, says Mehrajudin Bhat, executive engineer of the J&K Urban Environment Engineering Department. “People in the city have connected their sewage lines directly to drains that are meant for the disposal of storm water. This leads to choking of drains,” he explains.
In 1971, Srinagar’s municipal limits covered only 83 square kilometres (sq km). In 1981, the area went up to 103.3 sq km. At present, urban agglomeration of Srinagar covers more than 230 sq km. This has resulted in the encroachment of wetlands and natural drainage channels, Bhat says.
Just like Srinagar, many urban centres of India have failed to manage their drainage channels and storm water drains. Mumbai learnt its lesson in July 2005. The six basins of streams that criss-crossed the city, meant to carry its monsoon runoff, had been converted into roads, buildings and slums, just like Srinagar. Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Chennai and several other cities have been falling prey to frequent urban floods due to the degradation of their drainage network.
A few cities like Guwahati and Kolkata have taken steps to preserve their water bodies. In Guwahati, the state government passed the Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act, 2008. The aim was to preserve wetlands and to reacquire land in the periphery of the water bodies. In 2006, the East Kolkata Wetland Conservation and Management Bill was passed to protect 12,000 ha of wetland.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a rule for conservation and management of wetlands in December 2010, under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, called the Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2010. But the law has no teeth until a wetland is notified under it, says leading environmental lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay.
He adds that the Town and Country Planning Act should take care of the wetlands, but the municipal bodies that implement this Act do not have the technical expertise to even identify a wetland. These loopholes add to the problem of floods in urban India.
Uttarakhand: after the deluge
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