Disasters in the making

Recent incidents of 'natural' disasters and their impact can be traced to negligence of environmental concerns

Updated - November 28, 2021 09:29 pm IST

Published - November 02, 2014 12:42 am IST


Zahid Rafiq from Srinagar

On September 6, when the floodwaters first started appearing in the Rambagh neighbourhood of Srinagar, Shakeel Ahmad and a dozen of his neighbours stood under a ceaseless downpour, shouting at each other for sandbags. In surprise, they stared at the small cement drain that meandered through their neighbourhood. Torrents of waters came rushing through it, inches away from overflowing its small embankments and pouring into their low-lying houses on both sides. The drain, they rued, would be the one to drown them. It did drown them later that evening. But the drain, Ahmad’s father, Mohammad Subhan, later said, was not always a narrow drain.

An aerial view of the buildings submerged in floodwaters in Srinagar recently. File Photo: Nissar Ahmad

“It used to be a big stream when I was young, carrying water from the Doodh-Ganga (flood channel) to the paddy lands deep inside and it was several times the size of what is left of it today. But we shrunk it so much with our mindless constructions that we only thought of it as a drain only now,” Mr. Subhan said.

But the water reclaimed its territory, he said, and it included my house too. In the September floods, the worst that the valley saw in more than a century, the water temporarily reclaimed its former spaces that, over the decades, have been occupied with relentless illegal construction of houses and shops and businesses.

“While we can’t say that the floods were a manmade disaster because it was caused by the enormous rain, we can say for sure that that the devastation it caused was manmade,” Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Head of Department at the Earth Sciences Department in Kashmir University, told The Hindu .

Dr. Romshoo has over the years written ceaselessly about the loss of waterbodies and wetlands in the State and the threat they hold for the valley. “We are a low-lying valley and the problem is that there is only one way for the water to leave; on the other three sides, we are bound by tall mountains,” he says. “But nature has a balance and that is why we have had an abundance of lakes and wetlands and if they were in their former condition they would have saved us from this devastation.”

Wetlands function like a sponge, absorbing water when there is too much of it and releasing it during the lean period. According to scientists in Kashmir, the wetlands are slowly disappearing and those left are increasingly losing their ability to absorb water.

According to research by two Kashmiri scientists, Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem, who compared the maps of 1911 and 2004, several wetlands such as Batmalun Nambal, Rekh-i-Gandakshah, Rakh-i-Khan, Rakhi-Arat have been lost.

“Wetlands are not waste lands to be filled and constructed over. The government should never have let any constructions happen on the wetlands, along the flood channel, in the flood basins. This devastation had to happen one day,” Dr. Romshoo says. The State government had never taken environmental and ecological concerns seriously and now the people were paying the price for it, he adds.

According to the study by Rashid and Naseem, in 1911, more than 13,000 hectares of marshy land existed in the valley while the open water surfaces came to more than 4,000 hectares. And in 2004, according to the story, more than 9,000 hectares of open water surfaces and wetlands have already been lost.

Another big reason that contributed toward the floods was siltation. Experts cite deforestation as another major cause. “When the Jhelum reaches Srinagar, its capacity of holding water almost decreases by half that it can hold in Sangam in south Kashmir. The river is much narrower in Srinagar and its capacity over the years has decreased even further because of the massive siltation which is caused by deforestation and several other human-caused reasons,” says a senior official at Kashmir’s Department of Irrigation and Flood Control.

“We have been dredging the river consistently but there is too much silt and unless the State makes flood control a priority and checks illegal construction, landfilling and several other things, we really are an easy prey to floods again,” he said.

In their report, Rashid and Naseem also dwell on the siltation and hold encroachments and illegal constructions responsible for the ruptured water system in the city.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said that there was no possibility of removing illegal constructions, as he had no land to offer as replacement. “I have been CM for six years and the illegal constructions have been going on for decades. It was in the 1990s when everyone was focusing on militancy that people built houses wherever they liked. While I can’t dismantle those colonies, we will take very serious measures to prevent the floods.”


Kavita Upadhyay from Dehradun

In Uttarakhand, flash floods in the Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Gori Ganga, Pindar and Kali rivers caused the death of thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local people across the State in July 2013. An expert body appointed on the directions of the Supreme Court in August 2013, in its report, gives an elaborate account of the role of hydroelectric power projects in worsening the disaster. The expert body, in its recommendations in the report, rejected 23 projects with an installed capacity of 2,870 MW.

This 2013 file photo of PTI shows Army personnel rescuing stranded pilgrims from flood-hit Govind Ghat in Chamoli, Uttarakhand.

The report was submitted to the Union Environment and Forests Ministry in April. Ravi Chopra, Chairman of the expert body, says months after the submission of the report, the Ministry has been reluctant to act on it.

The State is facing the impact of the 1,000-MW Tehri dam, which raises questions on the feasibility of large dams in the fragile area. However, soon after the new government took charge at the Centre, work on the stalled 5,600-MW Pancheshwar multipurpose project on the Indo-Nepal border was started.

Talks are under way to restart work on the 600-MW Loharinag Pala project on the Bhagirathi in Uttarkashi district. The project was scrapped in 2010. Moreover, it lies in the 100-km eco-sensitive zone between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi where no hydel project of more than 2-MW capacity can be built. The State government, however, is not keen on proper implementation of the eco-sensitive zone notification and is lobbying to get the notification modified to accommodate more hydel projects, including Loharinag Pala in the region.


G. Narasimha Rao from Visakhapatnam

Cyclone Hudhud with wind speed above 200 kmph exposed how badly the government has messed up the Andhra coast. Post the Diviseema tidal wave in 1977, casuarina plantations were raised along the coast and mangrove forest cover was increased. Creeper plants that spread over the beach sand were raised. But during the course of time, they made way to construction in the name of development. Coastal erosion is now being witnessed at many places. Wetlands are being used for thermal plants and practically all the measures to protect the coast have been withdrawn. The mangrove forest cover has come down drastically.

Visakhapatnam : 13/10/2014: Uprooted trees at VUDA Park after the devastating impact of Hudhud cyclone in Visakhapatnam on Monday, October 13, 2014. --- Photo: K.R. Deepak

Visakhapatnam : 13/10/2014: Uprooted trees at VUDA Park after the devastating impact of Hudhud cyclone in Visakhapatnam on Monday, October 13, 2014. --- Photo: K.R. Deepak

Trees unrooted at VUDA Park due to the devastating impact of Hudhud cyclone in Visakhapatnam on Monday. Photo: K.R. Deepak

The government must prepare and implement the Indian Wetland Policy to protect the mangroves and wetlands, feels J.V. Ratnam of Green Climate, an NGO working on environmental issues.

E.A.S. Sarma, retired IAS officer and convenor of Forum for Better Visakha said: Mangrove forests growing naturally in wetlands provide multiple ecological benefits. They provide valuable biomass for the local communities, serve as a shelter of a wide range of flora and fauna, act as a buffer against cyclones and tsunamis and act as an absorbent for carbon emissions. They have come under serious threat because of indiscriminate industrialisation. Considering their importance, the National Environment Policy approved by the Union Cabinet in 2006 emphasised the need to conserve them.

In Andhra Pradesh, mangrove forests are largely found in the estuaries of Krishna and Godavari Rivers in East Godavari, Krishna and Guntur districts. The mangroves occupy 58,263 ha in the Krishna-Godavari estuaries but, out of it, only 24,347 ha consists of dense mangrove cover. They are also found in Visakhapatnam, West Godavari and Prakasam districts and near Pulicat Lake. The areas under mangroves are depleting fast.

As a petroleum, chemical and petrochemicals investment region is being set up between Visakhapatnam and Kakinada and numerous industrial units are coming up along the coastline, the mangrove cover will shrink rapidly.

In 2004, it was the mangroves that shielded several villages near the mouth of the Krishna river from the havoc created by the tsunami. To ward off the dangers arising from Hudhud-like cyclones in the future, shelter plantations comprising mangroves, casuarinas, mogali (a kind of cactus native to the east coast of India) and the like need to be raised, among other long-term plans.


Shiv Sahay Singh

The inhabited islands of Sunderbans are a prime example of environmental negligence. The Indian part of the Sunderbans delta comprises 102 islands (of which only 54 are inhabited) in 19 blocks of West Bengal. The inhabited islands are home to millions of people.

“Before the deltas could mature, people have settled on the island. An island matures when the high tides flood it and deposit silt, but here embankments were made and habitation was allowed to settle on the unstable islands,” said Anurag Danda, Head of Climate Adaptation and Sundarbans Landscape, World Wildlife Fund For Nature (WWF) India.

“Indian Sundarbans Delta: A Vision,” a report prepared by the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, and the WWF in 2012, estimates that nearly one million people will become climate change refugees by 2050. The report suggests a planned retreat from vulnerable areas and planting of mangroves in those areas.

A study also reveals that that annual sea level rise from 3.14 millimetres recorded till 2000 has increased to about 8 mm in 2010, making the islands more vulnerable.

Tuhin Ghosh of the School of Oceanographic Studies said the Sunderbans were vulnerable to coastal erosion, rising salinity of soil and climate change, which has a severe impact on the socio-economic condition of the people.

While an inhabited island, Lohachara, was lost to the sea in 1990, the uninhabited New Moore island was submerged by 2000. Islands such as Ghoramara and Mousuni, where thousands reside, are fast shrinking.

Experts like Dr. Ghosh point out that while the desired focus on scientific management to mitigate the effects of climate change is missing, there is also no stress on evolving adaptation strategies for the people of the sinking islands. Thus any major climatic event in near future may turn to be a humanitarian crisis involving a huge economic cost.

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