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Last Updated : Aug 14, 2019 07:42 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Digging Deeper podcast | India's tryst with floods

In this podcast, we look at the flood situation in 2019, and attempt to explain why a country on the move can’t seem to solve the persistent issue of regular flooding.

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The monsoon is back in full vigor this year, and we all heaved a sigh of relief because we didn’t want another year of droughts. But we always knew there was a flip side - we’re never prepared for the excess rain. And since excess rains in India seem to correlate with flooding, none of us were really surprised when news of the floods came.

What is surprising is how many states are experiencing floods. At last count, 9 states have some form of flooding - Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh. In addition to those states, Goa, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have also received flood warnings. That means 40% of India has been grappling with floods in 2019. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, an average of 75 lakh hectare of land is affected every year, 1,600 lives are lost and the damage caused to crops, houses and public utilities due to floods is worth Rs 1,805 crore.

We’ve seen the follow up question asked time and again - considering our history with floods right down to last year, why are we never prepared? One would think the newsprint and columns dedicated to Mumbai’s annual flooding jamboree would ensure we got our act together.

Close

In this podcast, we look at the flood situation in 2019, and attempt to explain why a country on the move can’t seem to solve the persistent issue of regular flooding.

The floods are here again

It seems like it was just a few months ago that Kerala was flooded, and the subsequent outrage and confusion over aid played out. But that was exactly a year ago, on 16 August 2018. One year later, we’re back to square one. Fortunately though, this year’s flooding was less severe. Well, relatively. The flooding was devastating nonetheless. Heavy monsoon rains led to flooding in 14 districts across north and central Kerala. The rains caused 83 landslides in the state. More than 2.5 lakh people have been evacuated to 1,332 relief camps. Transportation services were also affected - Cochin’s airport, and rail services in flood-affected areas were temporarily shut.

Tragically, there was substantial loss of life as well. Times of India estimated that 90 people have died in Kerala’s floods. Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi wrote to PM Modi requesting early warning systems be installed in his constituency.

But Kerala isn’t the only state suffering. Let’s take a quick look at the widespread havoc that the floods have wrought. Gujarat is reeling under the heavy rains. Central Gujarat, and the Saurashtra region, received heavy downpours, with Vadodara recording a stunning 50cm of rain in just 24 hours! 31 people have perished in the rain so far and rescue operations are underway. Uttarakhand received heavy rain as well, and landslides have cost six people their lives. Maharashtra and Karnataka have received an unusual amount of rain, and have reported flooding in 10 and 17 districts respectively. Kolhapur and Sangli districts were the worst affected in Maharashtra, with 4.5 lakh people evacuated to 372 relief camps. NH 4, which connects Mumbai to Bengaluru, was shut, leaving thousands of vehicles stranded. In Karnataka, 17 coastal and northern districts were hit by floods, and many videos have gone viral on social media. Around 50 people have died while five lakh people were evacuated to 1,168 relief camps. Around 2000 villages have been affected in Karnataka, and some estimates claim approximately 4.2 lakh hectares of cropland was damaged. There’s also the funny side to the Karnataka story - one priest jumped into an overflowing river in Nanjangud near Mysore, saying he was thrilled to see the gushing water, according to India Today The priest returned home two days later.

That brief levity aside, the situation is fairly grim. India Today has claimed that as many as 225 people across India have lost their lives across in the latest round of floods. And we’re nowhere near finished. In MP, two gates of Bhadbhada Dam were opened even as the Met department sounded the warning for 28 districts of the state. Rains are picking up in Himachal and Odisha; there was heavy downpour in Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Over 5300 personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (or NDRF) have been pressed into rescue missions across India along with several Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in addition to teams of local police and SDRFs. A few days ago, the NDRF released a statement that said it had rescued over 42,000 people in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The most devastating effects of the floods this year have been felt in Assam and Bihar. Do a Google search for “Assam floods“ and the first result is a bright red banner warning that there is a severe flood situation with the Brahmaputra at Neamatighat. While 127 people died in flooding in Bihar this year, 88 people died in Assam. This is separate from the floods in other states. On August 2, Assam State Disaster Management Authority released a statement that said, “...12 districts still (remain) submerged...the toll...88. A population of 1,65,763 in 268 villages...are affected by floods.” The official estimate was that over 1.06 crore people were affected by the deluge in the two states - 21.6 lakh people in Assam and a staggering 85 lakh people in Bihar. Food and other relief material had to be air dropped.

That is a lot of chaos and destruction that didn’t make it to the front pages of our news.

Why do we end up here again and again?

Okay, now that you’re apprised of the prevailing circumstances in the country, we need to examine why we end up in the same situation year after year.

There are different reasons for these floods in different areas but they all circle back to one common thing - ecological depredation. Take, for instance, Kerala. According to one analysis in Mint, besides the extremely heavy rain, the large number of deaths in the floods could be linked to the rampant destruction of the Western Ghats, the biodiversity hotspot that covers about half the state. Experts have warned, more than once, that if the destruction goes on unchecked, future floods could bring even bigger disasters to our doorstep. Last year’s floods may have been described as a once-in-a-century calamity but this year was an ecological disaster waiting to happen. Generally, wherever landslides occurred in Kerala, there were granite quarries on the other side of the hill, according to government data on damages and a recent mapping of Kerala’s granite quarries by TV Sajeev, the principal scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute. Though legal, these quarries were allowed to run despite the risk of landslides -  10 out of the 11 pockets which witnessed major landslides, and where 91 quarries operated, were classified as ecologically sensitive zones and asked to be banned from mining and quarrying by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, also known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee, in its report back in 2011. Kerala has a total 5,924 quarries, an average of six quarries per panchayat, of which 3,332 are in the ecologically sensitive zones identified by Gadgil, as per a report in Mint. 56% of the quarries are on fragile spots in the Western Ghats, making them prone to landslides.

The Gadgil report was criticized as biased against development and the government constituted another committee - the Kasturirangan committee, which recommended a reduced zone of protection. But even by the Kasturirangan committee report, five out of the 11 landslide areas should have been banned from mining and quarrying. That didn’t happen. In Malappuram district’s Kavalappara, a landslide smashed down a hill submerging hundreds of houses in the valley. Estimates indicate as many as 27 quarries within a five-kilometre radius. That could even be a conservative estimate when you consider that one quarry showing up in satellite imagery could actually be five or six on the ground. Viju B, author of a book on the 2018 floods Flood and Fury, says existing regulations largely demand that these quarries be located 50m away from residential zones, no matter what kind of land it is— forest, hills, or rivers. In Wayanad’s Meppadi, where 100 acres of a hilly tea estate were washed away in a landslide, estimates show at least one quarry was operating on the other side of the hill. Reports indicate more than half of the state’s 44 rivers are in spate and many of its reservoirs swollen.

Next, we come to Assam, a state that suffers damage on account of floods nearly every year. One reason the state sees floods every year is the high percentage of flood prone region. According to the Rastriya Barh Ayog, or the National Flood Commission, 31.05 lakh hectares of the total 78.523 lakh hectare-area of the state is prone to frequent floods. The reasons behind this high flood prone area? Both man-made and natural.

The Brahmaputra, a trans-boundary river, is unstable in its entire reach in Assam except for a few places. The Brahmaputra board is a central government body tasked with carrying out surveys and investigations in the Brahmaputra Valley, and preparing a master plan for the control of floods, bank erosion and improvement of drainage.

As per the Brahmaputra board’s latest annual report, the primary reasons behind the instability of the river are high sedimentation and steep slopes. According to Dhrubajyoti Borgohain, a retired chief engineer of the Brahmaputra Board, the vast amount of sediment comes from Tibet, where the river originates. He explained, “That region is cold, arid and lacks plantation. Glaciers melt, soil erodes and all of it results in a highly sedimented river.” Additionally, the entire area falls in an earthquake-prone zone and experiences high rainfall. Landslides and earthquakes send in a lot of debris in the rivers, causing the river bed to rise. Assam also suffers river bank erosion. That problem is more serious than its name suggests. It is estimated that nearly 8000 hectares of land are lost to erosion annually. Bank erosion has also affected the width of the Brahmaputra river, which has increased up to 15 kms! The damage is estimated to be worth several hundred crore rupees every year. Then there are the dams. One India Today report went so far as to claim, “...the key cause of floods in Assam region is the release...of water from dams situated uphill. Unregulated release of water floods the Assam plains, leaving thousands of people homeless every year.”

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said in 2017, “(The) topography of Assam and…(high rainfall) are the obvious reason(s) behind Assam(‘s) floods every year. Also, Brahmaputra is the largest water carrying river of India and the second-largest silt carrying river in the world. But the way we deal with rivers is further accentuating the disaster faced by the region.”

Because of widespread opposition to dams, the government building embankments on the river in its attempts to mitigate the effects of floods.

So how do the powers that be plan to address the challenge of floods?

With the problems being so specific to different locations, a one-size-fits-all solution may not be entirely possible. That said, the Centre has planned to manage rivers by adopting basin approach under a law which may help all interstate and central agencies work in a coordinated manner. The water resources (Jal Shakti) ministry has prepared a draft legislation which seeks to manage all 13 river basins in India by setting up exclusive umbrella authorities for each of them. The inter-state river basins include Ganga, Indus, Godavari, Mahanadi, Mahi, Narmada, Pennar, Cauvery, Krishna, Tapi, Subarnrekha, Brahmani-Baitarini and Brahamaputra-Barak inter-state rivers of the Northeast. Officials in the ministry told the Times of India that the River Basin Management Bill, once enacted, will replace the River Board Act, 1956. Each of the 13 river basin authorities will have a two-tier system, consisting of a governing council and an executive board. The Board will have power to formulate a river basin master plan, conduct comprehensive scientific survey, maintain relevant databases for managing river basins and lay down operation rules for reservoirs. The governing councils will include the chief ministers of the states that are part of the river basin.

What about preparedness?

Since the last few years, monsoon rains have followed a pattern: A few days of intense rainfall between dry spells. Take this year, for example. on August 8, Karnataka received nearly five times the rainfall the state receives in a day. Kodagu, Karnataka’s worst flood-hit district, received 460 percent above normal rainfall between August 5 and 11. Kerala recorded a more than 25 percent deficit in rainfall between June 1 and August 7. But it nearly made up the deficit in the past week, with Palakkad district receiving 80 percent excess rainfall after August 8, and Wayanad and Thrissur receiving 40 percent excess rainfall.

According to a report in the Indian Express, “...questions must also be asked about the ways states prepare for, and deal with, floods. The vagaries of weather...demand cooperation between states that share a river basin. This year, Maharashtra and Karnataka bickered over opening the gates of the Almatti dam on the river Krishna. By the time the two states agreed over the amount of water to be discharged from the dam’s reservoirs, the damage was already done. The floods also drive home the urgency of focusing on nature’s mechanisms of resilience against extreme weather events. Policymakers and planners have shown little inclination to place wetlands, natural sponges that soak up the rainwaters, at the centre of flood control projects. Flood governance in the country has placed inordinate emphasis on embankments. But the floods in Bihar and Assam showed — for the umpteenth time — that these structures are no security against swollen rivers. Of course, what is true for the Western Ghats states may not hold for Assam and Bihar. But the message from the floods this year is clear: There is a need to revisit the understanding of the monsoon and find ways to deal with its fury.”

One analysis in The Asian Age recommends that the “...best way forward would be to trust science and prepare mitigation plans that may involve numerous small check dams to control river flows, than big dams whose environmental impact tends to fall more in the negative category...The annual budgetary allocation for water management and civil works along river stretches are vital towards creating a masterplan in trying to handle events without their having to affect the lives of millions in catastrophic ways.”

PG Dhar Chakrabarti, former executive director, National Institute of Disaster Management, told the Hindustan Times that many people don’t realise…flooding is not just about rainfall. He explained, “The rainfall+ factors include: Sudden release of large quantities of water from dams/ water reservoirs; breach/damage in major reservoirs/ dams; limited holding capacity and urbanisation.” These factors are not considered for flood risk mapping, which still remains an unaccomplished task of disaster risk management experts in India.

A Comptroller and Auditor General report said a majority of India’s flood forecast systems have either been washed away or their parts have been stolen! It explained, “Nearly 60% of the 375 telemetry stations set up between 1997 and 2016 are non-operational which defeats the purpose of investing in the modernisation of flood forecast network.” A 2017 CAG report found that of the 219 planned telemetry stations, used to forecast floods, only 56 were set up and 60% of existing stations didn’t work.

Water policy expert and former plan panel member Mihir Shah submitted a report to the government that said, “In addressing the problem of floods, the central focus over the years has been on engineering/structural solutions. Apart from the massive investments in large dams, India has already constructed over 35,000 km of embankments. But these are rapidly reaching their limits... Instead, [India needs better weather and flood forecasting is required, along with flood insurance and possibly the designation of flood diversion areas…”

Interestingly, experts also point out that Bangladesh has better forecasting capabilities than India. Its Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre website gives a good idea about the rivers and the forecasting sites. It provides information on the sites where water level is currently on the rise or above the danger mark. So the choice for India is fairly obvious. But the painfully slow progress in setting up critical forecasting systems is only leaving the administration at the local level without any advance warning to prepare for the deluge.

So there you have it. That short answer is that rampant mining, quarrying, and slow progress on infrastructure are leading to massive problems and frequent floods. The main solution, from what we’ve seen, is systemic change and implementing existing plans effectively.

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First Published on Aug 14, 2019 07:42 pm
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