Lessons from a disaster

September 18, 2014 12:52 am | Updated November 16, 2021 05:48 pm IST

As life slowly acquires a semblance of normalcy in >Jammu and Kashmir , the extent of damage caused by the floods is unfolding. People who had abandoned their marooned houses or were evacuated are slowly getting back and >assessing the damage as the water level recedes. A long haul is ahead. According to industry body Assocham, the loss in terms of damage to trade establishments, hotels and restaurants, horticulture, the handicrafts sector, transport infrastructure and communications facilities may add up to Rs.5,700 crore. While traffic on the arterial Jammu-Srinagar highway has been restored partially, most other road systems are still in limbo. The ambitious Jammu-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line project has suffered setbacks. The death toll cannot be reliably determined as yet, given the number of persons who have been listed as missing. A major source of worry pertains to the possibility of spread of diseases after the water recedes. Livelihoods, including in the tourism and farming sectors, need to be restored. The number of people rescued by the armed forces and the National Disaster Response Force is close to 2.5 lakh. The armed forces and the NDRF have played a stellar role here. The Army alone deployed around 30,000 troops. Some questions have been raised about the level of coordination among different agencies, but overall it has been a creditable effort so far.

While looking at the challenges of relief and reconstruction that lie ahead, this is also the time to consider the lessons for the State from the extreme event. While there is agreement over the fact that the level of rainfall was unprecedented, intense and rather sudden, leaving little room for timely warnings, the environmental factors that underlie the tragedy need to be given a hard look. Ecological degradation caused by unplanned development and urbanisation, and failure to preserve wetlands, has played a role. Wetlands act as a sponge, and their loss is bound to have serious repercussions. A report by the Bombay Natural History Society has mentioned that the Wular lake, once spread over 20,200 ha, has shrunk to 2,400 ha. The Dal lake in Srinagar has been reduced to almost half its earlier size, to 1,200 ha. 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. 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. This, then, has been a costly environmental wake-up call for Jammu and Kashmir — as it was for Uttarakhand a year ago.

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