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Essay on Kashmir Flash Floods
Floods in the state are linked to the Jhelum River and its history of crossing the danger mark and thereby inundating the ‘Valley’.
Floods in Jammu and Kashmir aren’t exactly an uncommon phenomenon, if history and indeed its geography is to be believed. Starting last week, the state has seen an unprecedented amount of rainfall, resulting in its worst floods since 1959. Floods in the state are invariably linked to the Jhelum River and its history of crossing the danger mark, its streams and rivulets overflowing and thereby inundating the “Valley” (south Kashmir) in the process.
While the scale of devastation caused by these floods is nothing short of massive, with over 200 people having lost their lives so far, the Valley, along with the Jammu region has, over time witnessed floods occurring at regular intervals.
According to Sir Walter Roper Lawrence in his book, The Valley of Kashmir (1895), “Many disastrous floods are noticed in vernacular histories, but the greatest was the terrible inundation which followed the slipping of the Khadanyar mountains below Baramula in AD 879. The channel of the Jhelum River was blocked and a large part of the valley was submerged.”
The other major flood to affect Kashmir happened in 1841, which Lawrence notes, “caused much damage to life and property.” However, the first flood of devastating proportions to hit the state came half a century later in 1893, when 52 hours of continuous and warm rainfall, beginning 18 July, caused what Lawrence describes as “a great calamity”.
In 1893, he notes, “the flood cost the state Rs. 64,804 in land revenue alone, 25,426 acres of crops were submerged, 2,225 houses were wrecked and 329 cattle killed.” In the aftermath of the 1893 floods, Lawrence noted an interesting practice, where he wrote, “Marvellous tales were told of the efficacy of the flags of saints which had been set up to arrest the floods, and people believe that the rice fields of Tulamula and the bridge of Sumbal were saved by the presence of these flags, which were taken from the shrines as a last resort”.
The Valley also recorded major floods at the turn of the century, with the most devastating one coming 10 years after the 1893 disaster. The floods, which in the day were classified as the “greatest flood ever known”, came down the Valley and Srinagar on 23 July 1903, converting the city into “a whole lake”.
According to Saligram Bhatt in his 2004-book “Kashmir Ecology and Environment: New Concerns and Strategies”, the water level in the 1903 floods were higher by 3 points as compared to the one that had hit the state a decade earlier. Bhatt wrote, “7,000 dwellings went down in the neighbourhood of the city, including 773 on the Dal Lake.”
For the next quarter of a century, the Valley did not record major floods in the valley, largely thanks to lessons learnt and reparative measures which were put in place. However, in 1929, the Valley grappled with yet another major flood, which mainly affected parts of what is today Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Jammu and Kashmir Hit by Devastating Floods:
About 22 air force helicopters and four aircraft were deployed to evacuate stranded people and to deliver relief.
While the Valley stayed relatively flood-free for the following two decades, immediately after independence, Kashmir was hit by a flood in 1948. Two years later, in September 1950, another major flood hit the state, with nearly 100 people losing their lives. The flood was, rather unsurprisingly, caused by the Jhelum’s overflow.
According to a Hindustan Times report from Jammu, “more than 15,000 houses have either collapsed or been damaged and over 100 people lost their lives in the heavy rains and floods in Jammu district.” The then Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, donated a sum of Rs. 24,000 for the relief of flood victims, while the Maharani donated Rs. 10,000.
In August-September of 1957, another major flood was recorded in Jammu and Kashmir, with the Valley feeling its devastating impact. The floods almost submerged the entire valley. In a Hindustan Times dispatch from Jammu (Sep 2), the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was quoted as saying that, “the floods recorded in Jammu and Kashmir were the highest ever recorded in the state, and that the damage caused by them was colossal.”
Two years later, in July 1959, the state witnessed yet another massive “glacial” flood, perhaps its worst ever at the time, when four days of incessant rains lashed the valley and Srinagar, triggering the Jhelum. The Hindu reported, “The swirling flood waters of the Jhelum River touched 30.25 feet on 5 July, over six points above the danger level.”
The rainfall that lashed the state was so severe that then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was enroute to a survey of the damage caused by the floods, had to return to Delhi less than five hours after take-off from Palam. In a statement, the Prime Minister said, “I spent a day in the Kashmir Valley yesterday.
There can be no doubt about the calamity that has descended upon the Jammu and Kashmir state because of these floods and the tremendous damage they have done. What is distressing is that many of the development works which have been built up in recent years have been washed away and we have to start anew. Both the state and the central government will give help.”
While the state did witness floods thereafter in the following three decades, the one in 1992 was unprecedented in terms of its fury. Recording its heaviest rainfall since 1959, the 1992 floods were most devastating, purely in terms of casualties.
According to newspaper reports from 1992, over 200 people lost their lives and the floods left over 60,000 people marooned in several north-western border districts. However, it is also worth noting that parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir bore the brunt of these floods, with over 2,000 deaths reported in that part.
While flash floods in the region, mainly triggered by a combination of heavy rainfall and landslides are common, the state has also witnessed massive floods caused by a cloudburst in the Leh- Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir.
The cloudburst, which occurred on 6 August 2010, triggered flash floods in the area after a night of heavy downpour. While it only lasted for half an hour, the devastation caused by the cloudburst was enormous. It destroyed many buildings in the city of Leh, including hospitals and several communication lines that connected it with the rest of the state, and indeed the country. Over 250 people were reported dead in the floods triggered by the cloudburst.
The dredging of rivers carried out in the last decade has not helped the situation. In fact, it has made it worse in certain cases — for example, the Doodhganga and Rambiyaar tributaries of the Jhelum. As the floodwaters carried a high sediment load, the sheer force swept away the bridges and roads that embank these turbulent streams.
The state has a specific objective to generate electricity from run-of-the-river projects and has no dams. The construction of large dams is not permitted under the Indus Waters Treaty. As Kashmir is yet to fully exploit its run-of-the-river power generation potential, this was not seen as a limitation. But the state is vulnerable during intense precipitation, the incidence of which is likely to increase if global climate change patterns replicate themselves in the Himalayan region and intensify extreme weather conditions.
Strategically placed, dams could hold large quantities of water from the Jhelum’s tributaries. The confluence of the Veshav, Lidder and Rambiyaar into the Jhelum within a few kilometres of each other in south Kashmir could prove dangerous for Anantnag town and adjacent areas. This is a good example of where a dam could be employed to good effect.
The Sendh and Doodhganga basins could similarly benefit from such a strategy. Wularlake near Sopore also presents a natural water-storage option. Its capacity to hold a large quantity of water could be enhanced, as envisaged by the Wular navigation project, to provide security against the threat of inundation in north Kashmir. But the projects would have to be accommodated by the Indus Waters Treaty first.
Dams upstream on the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus, however, could have helped keep water levels low and prevent breaches. Policy-makers in Pakistan must understand this well. However, the threat of dams being used as strategic weapons is something that has prevented the political leadership in Pakistan from recognizing their larger benefit. The stalling of the Wular project on the Jhelum is a clear example of this mindset.
How can the lack of trust be overcome? The answer lies in the participation of J&K in future negotiations over the Indus waters. The state could wield greater control over the river waters, which should be distributed by the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty to provide Pakistan a guarantee against strategic wartime usage.
Through collective monitoring and the exchange of real-time water discharge data, trust could be further built between water management authorities on each side. And given the fact that dams would be essential to control floods, holding back water would also be detrimental. For India, this would be a win- win situation. Industry and growing metropolises could use the hydropower generated in Kashmir. Power is central to India’s growing economy and hydropower provides an easy option for the country to decrease its reliance on coal.
Cooperation over water is not a new feature of India-Pakistan relations. In fact, it is the sole area where diplomacy between the two countries has been largely successful. Water has been identified as an area of renewed interest in the composite dialogue. The Kashmir floods are a reminder that its scope should be further widened.
Reasons for Floods:
1. Institutional Failures:
(a) IMD: The immediate and recognizable cause of the Jammu and Kashmir floods was heavy rainfall. In the week ending on September 10, Udhampur, Reasi and Kulgam districts received much higher rainfall than the State average rainfall for the week (268 mm), which was evidently going to have disastrous implications. Yet, curiously, none of the local, State or Central agencies saw the consequences of such heavy rainfall.
There was sufficient time before the water from the rainfall reached Srinagar or other upstream areas of the Jhelum basin, and Jammu and other areas of the Chenab basin, but no agency provided any warning to these vulnerable areas.
(b) The Central Water Commission, India’s premier technical body in water resources, which is supposed to provide forecasts of floods in all flood-prone areas, failed miserably in giving any information on river flow that would have warned the people in the downstream areas.
(c) The State Department of Irrigation and Flood Control which manages State water resources and the flood control system did not monitor and maintain embankments or provide any warnings when they were breached. This means even in the State capital, people had absolutely no idea of the impending disaster till the waters entered their houses and colonies.
2. Increasing Interventions:
The encroachment of riverbeds and flood plains and the destruction of the once-abundant lakes, wetlands, marshes, flood channels and other water bodies and areas exacerbated the disaster.
Wetlands act as a sponge, and their loss is bound to have serious repercussions. Construction of buildings in such areas have not only made these buildings vulnerable but also reduced the flood absorption capacity of these areas, thus making other areas vulnerable too.
i. A report by the Bombay Natural History Society has mentioned that the Wularlake, once spread over 20,200 ha, has shrunk to 2,400 ha.
ii. The Dal Lake in Srinagar has been reduced to almost half its earlier size, to 1,200 ha.
iii. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, over the last century more than 50 per cent of the lakes, ponds and wetlands of Srinagar have been encroached upon.
iv. The banks of the Jhelum have been overrun, reducing its drainage capacity. The story is the same with the Tawi in Jammu. Flash floods in this river washed away some 400 buildings and inundated scores of colonies, many of them in breach of the Jammu Master Plan.
v. Major interventions are expected to take place in the Chenab and Jhelum basins including about 40 hydropower projects in each basin of various sizes and in various stages of development. Each of these projects involve the construction of dams, water storage, tunnels, blasting, diversion of rivers, deforestation, construction of roads and colonies, and mining of materials on a large scale, and dumping of millions of cubic metres of muck from each large project. The Chenab basin is, in fact, home to the largest capacity of hydropower projects under construction in India compared to any other basin.
3. Climate change footprint:
Such extreme weather events, whose frequency is already on the rise in the Himalayas at a greater rate than global averages, there is an undeniable climate change footprint.
There was a column in the Hindustan Times titled “Kashmir and Uttarakhand: We are a disaster when it comes to disasters” asks why we are not learning lessons from these events, and comes to the conclusion that “disaster preparedness is just not there in our DNA”. Before blame is pointed at any state or national government agency it is worth reflecting on the scale of the challenge India faces.
Climate change is responsible for the increasing trend in the number and intensity of extreme weather events (reiterated again this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their latest report). However, an extreme weather event only becomes a disaster when it hits assets and causes loss of life and livelihood.
Even if climate change was not a factor, scientists tell us that disasters are getting more destructive as people are more exposed to floods and other such events. Preparing for a disaster does not just mean putting in place early warning systems and protocols for evacuations. Preparedness is fundamental to the way we plan and do development.
Environmentalists and journalists are already starting to make claims about why the floods in Jammu and Kashmir have caused so much destruction, among them: deforestation in the catchment areas of rivers, unplanned construction in flood plains, rampant dumping of garbage in the rivers, and overuse of chemical fertilizers by farmers.
Development should protect against the risk of disasters, rather than increasing the risk. This requires understanding and acting upon disaster risk in plans and decisions. India’s 2005 Disaster Management Act calls for exactly this. So is it happening? Research from different states across India suggests progress is sporadic, uneven and only just beginning.
There are many well-documented reasons why planning and development continues to sideline the risks associated with natural disasters. But, there are also opportunities, and examples of when state, district or city governments in India are getting it right. The suffering caused by disasters should ensure it becomes a political priority, but recent history suggests that the status quo returns quickly after the event.
For example, in a district in Sikkim regularly affected by landslides, there is a widespread perception among communities, civil society and government officials, that where and how new roads and dams are being built is increasing the risk of landslides. But, political interest in these construction projects, and failures of the planning process, mean construction continues as usual.
Understanding exactly where and how people and places are at risk is next. In Uttarakhand, a comprehensive process will soon start. This will give the Government the evidence to identify whether to mainstream disaster risk into development initiatives and how to do it. Identifying risk and mitigating it is not always straightforward.
For example, in Leh district in Jammu and Kashmir, the planting of trees on the edge of streams — to tackle climate change — actually exacerbated the impact of the 2010 flash floods, because the trees fell into the streams forming dams which when they broke proved disastrous. This is a classic case of why addressing climate change and disaster risk cannot be separated.
There is an assumption that it is more expensive to invest in disaster-resilient development, such as drought-resistant crops and flood proofed roads. A cost-benefit analysis for the housing sector shows this is not always the case. The cost of building homes that can withstand floods is far lower than the cost of repairing homes that cannot stand when a flood does hit.
Finally, once the why and how has been addressed, then the party responsible for managing disaster risks needs to be established. In Gorakhpur district, in Utter Pradesh, data over the past 100 years show a considerable increase in intensity and frequency of floods, which are now occurring almost every three to four years.
Government departments there now recognize it is their shared responsibility, and are working together to address the risk of flooding. This could be a model for others. Rather than leaving it as theory, there are opportunities now to build the risk of flooding and other natural disasters into future development programs in the Himalayas and throughout India.
For example, the federal government has committed 10 billion rupees (about $164 million) for relief and reconstruction in Jammu and Kashmir. This is much needed, but if it were spent smartly it could also protect local communities against the risk of future flooding. Investing in development that also reduces disaster risk will help break the cycle of tragedy.