A City on the brink

The recent rains have blown away the Governments claims of having an efficient flood management system in place. It seems 2014 no one has learnt any lessons.


From the windows of their homes along the banks of the Jhelum River the residents of the Srinagar city watched with growing alarm last week the surging waters of the river fed by the incessant April rains. It was the same river in September 2014 that had overflowed its banks and drowned most parts of the city in as much as twenty-five feet of floodwaters, causing immense economic damage and loss of life. The memory was still fresh and people turned, as they always do in such dire conditions, to each other and to God. The anxiety began to abate when there was a pause in the rains and the river water began to abate. The threat of floods for now had receded.
From the look of it, it seems nothing much has been learnt from the experience of the 2014 floods. The government had with much fanfare begun a campaign to dredge up the slit that had deposited on the riverbed over the years. Two and a half years is a pretty much enough time to do that and it would have created a larger capacity for the river to hold more water.
A study titled ‘A satellite-based rapid assessment on floods in Jammu & Kashmir–September, 2014’ conducted jointly by the Department of Environment & Remote Sensing (DERS) and ISRO has warned that the intensity of rainfall and frequency of rainy days in the Himalayan region may increase in 2030s, leading to another flood in Kashmir if immediate steps are not taken to restore the drainage system of Jhelum. According to a disaster management report, 13 districts in J&K out of 100 districts in India have been identified as 'multi hazard districts'.
“Majority areas of the valley, especially Sonawari, Awantipora and Srinagar, along with parts of Jammu are prone to floods. Upper catchments of all the tributaries of the Jhelum, Indus, Chenab and Tawi rivers are prone to flash floods,” the report says. A senior official of the Irrigation and Flood Control department said Wular Lake, which is the largest flood absorption basin has lost the water carrying capacity due to host of factors. “Several surveys have found that gross human interference, deforestation, encroachments, chocking of water ways and reduction in capacity of wet lands due to heavy siltation posing an imminent threat of floods even by average downpour,” the official said.
In the backdrop of 2014 deluge, the government had claimed that the removal of slit and sand from the river would be completed by December 2016 to prevent floods in the future. Although the dredging work has been underway for some time but it was nowhere near completion. A Kolkata based firm to which dredging work was allotted had to extract 16 lakh cubic meters of silt from Jhelum and its spill channel. However, the government recently said it has dredged-out five lakh cubic meters of soil from the river so far.
“At present, the carrying capacity of the Jhelum River is around 27000 cusecs while that of the flood channel, is around 8000 cusecs,” an official said. The official said once the dredging and de-siltation is completed, the total capacity of the river and spill channel would increase to 45000 cusecs. “Had the project been completed in time, we would not have faced the threat of flood,” he added.
Another project was the reconstruction of the Jhelum River embankments that had crumbled at various places by the 2014 floods. The government has so far failed to reconstruct the Jhelum River embankments. Last week when the water level began to rise, the locals were seen strengthening the Jhelum embankments at several places by placing sand bags to stop water from entering into the residential areas as these bunds were weakened by the floods.
After the 2014 floods, the government had announced the construction of an alternate flood channel to Jhelum in Kashmir. Despite 30 months having passed, the state government has failed to frame a detailed project report (DPR) for the mega project. Now the World Bank has taken over the framing of DRP for a new flood channel. The cost of the new channel is expected to be Rs 18,000 crore.
In July 2015, the first-ever disaster management plan was approved by the cabinet headed by the then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. However, official said there has been no implementation of the disaster management plan. “The government has failed to equip the agencies that could deal with disasters to mitigate sufferings of people at a time when any natural calamity hit the state. No work has been started for its implementation and it has been confined to papers,” an official of Revenue and Rehabilitation department said.
In 2012, two battalions of auxiliary forces were converted into State Disaster Response Force (SDRF). However, the SDRF is still ill-equipped and its forces are not in a position to deal with any emergency at the time of any natural calamity. Its men have also been assigned other duties like security. “We don’t have a proper training centre in Kashmir nor do we have equipment to make rescue operation during any natural calamity,” an official of SDRF said.
A draft has been prepared for the first ever ‘State Water Policy’ by the Irrigation and Flood Control department, which stresses for preparation of a master plan for flood prone areas, and called for various measures to prevent floods in the future. “Measures to establish the extensive networks for flood forecasting to give timely warnings to the people likely to be effected shall also be outlined. A roadmap for determination of the limits of the flood basins and the necessary exercises to be carried out shall be prepared,” it reads.
Further, it has emphasised for measures to protect the natural drainage systems with a view to removing artificial barriers in the path of flow of excess drainage water. “Operating procedures for reservoirs shall be evolved, and implemented in such a manner so as to have flood cushion, and reduce trapping of sediments during flood seasons.”
Professor Shakil Ramshoo, who teaches earth sciences at the Kashmir University, said the valley’s water bodies have lost the carrying capacity over the years. “The Jhelum and other flood channels have lost the carrying capacity due to extensive siltation, encroachments,” he said, stressing for dredging of river Jhelum.
“Due to the closure of a de-siltation unit at Sopore, all silt has got accumulated in river Jhelum. The muddy water is an indication of that,” Aijaz Rasool, an environmentalist and expert on river water management has been quoted by a local daily here. “In Jhelum, the water absorption has decreased tremendously as all the silt that would be cleaned at Sopore till 1986 continued to remain in the river.”
Going by the past records, Kashmir has a very old history of floods. Sir Walter Roper Lawrence in his book, ‘The Valley of Kashmir (1895)’ said, “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 said “caused much damage to life and property”.
The state witnessed major floods in 1900, 1902, 1903, 1905, 1912, 1929, 1948, 1950, 1955, 1957 and 1959. Floods were also witnessed in the years 1976, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997 and in September 2014.
In 1902, when Kashmir witnessed a major flood, the then ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh was concerned about the problems posed by repeated floods. He approached the British engineers and asked them to suggest ways to deal with the problem. The British engineers studied the problem in details and it was on their advice that the construction of flood spill channel was carried out in 1903-1904 and this channel was used as Bye-Pass flood channel. It is on official records that in the devastating floods, the flood channel carried a discharge of 20,000 cusecs flowing through the Gunde Aksha, Hokersar and further carried after addition to Mirgund Jheel, Nowgam Jheel and Haigam Jheel upto the Wullar Lake, which has now got reduced with the passage of time due to various factors.
Minister for Irrigation and Flood Control, Sham Lal Chaudhary, said the government was committed to take measures that could prevent the state from floods. “The government is taking the measures. It will bear results after some time as we have to execute big projects for that,” he added. “We have already framed a State Water Policy where it is clearly mentioned how we can prevent floods.”