The widespread floods across parts of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra come as a distressing reminder of the continuing lack of intelligent water management policies as well as disaster preparedness. Thousands of villages and some cities in these States have been inundated resulting in huge loss of lives and property. While it is true that the monsoon is unpredictable, and prognoses linked with global warming suggest that the pattern of the monsoon will be more uneven, the possibility of unexpected and heavy precipitation must be factored into water management planning. Floods are not inevitable; they are man-made and often the consequence of poor water management. They also bring into question the efficacy of dams, which are built ostensibly to control floods and alleviate drought. But, as has been evident in this last week, much of the flooding, particularly in Maharashtra, has been the consequence of huge releases of water from dams. This was done to relieve the pressure of impounded water on the dam wall as a dam burst could have led to far greater devastation. Yet, the irony cannot be missed. The areas affected most are not necessarily those that received the highest rainfall. They were inundated because they lay downstream of a dam. In Maharashtra, for instance, as many as 10 dams had to release large quantities of water within 24 hours after four days of incessant rains. As a result, over 2,000 villages in 104 taluks spread over 19 districts were affected and more than two lakh hectares of agricultural land were damaged. The State government has been forced to call in the army to help evacuate over one lakh people and has appealed to the Centre for funds to tackle the emergency. At the beginning of this week, of the 1,651 small and big dams in Maharashtra, over 500 were overflowing. The story is not dissimilar in Gujarat, where apart from the unexpectedly heavy rain, the release of water from the Ukai dam submerged 60 per cent of the bustling city of Surat, known for its diamond cutting industry.
While the safety of dams is important and excessive impoundment cannot be risked, there are other aspects, apart from heavy rainfall, that put dams at risk. Overflowing dams suggest that the forests in the catchment areas are not able to absorb the excessive runoff. Despite decades of efforts to promote afforestation in catchment areas, it is evident that this has not worked and forests continue to be decimated. Conserving catchment areas is one of the most crucial aspects of water management. More dams, or the inter-linking of rivers, will not control floods when nature turns overly generous. Technological solutions cannot work in isolation and have to go hand in hand with conserving natural safeguards, such as forests, and preparing for the unexpected. Without such an overall approach, India will continue to deal with floods and droughts as annual disasters that require relief and rehabilitation.