“What suddenly caused Jammu and Kashmir to be ravaged by floods?” is now the raging question. As families of victims struggle to come to terms with the large-scale impact of the tragedy and as people all over the country attempt to understand the reasons for it, it remains to be seen how deep this concern really is and if it can translate into affirmative action that will prevent such disasters from recurring.
The immediate and recognisable cause of the Jammu and Kashmir floods was heavy rainfall. According to data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), in the week ending on September 3, 2014, Jammu and Kashmir received 55 per cent of rainfall above the normal level. In the following three days, average rainfall in the State was 250 mm, of which 106 mm lashed the State on September 6 alone. State-level averages mask the location and time-specific intensity of rainfall. For example, in the week ending on September 10, Udhampur, Reasi and Kulgam districts received much higher rainfall than the State average rainfall for the week (268mm), which was evidently going to have disastrous implications. Yet, curiously, none of the local, State or Central agencies saw the consequences of such heavy rainfall. There was sufficient time before the water from the rainfall reached Srinagar or other upstream areas of the Jhelum basin, and Jammu and other areas of the Chenab basin, but no agency provided any warning to these vulnerable areas. Thus the first institutional failure was of the IMD.
Second, the Central Water Commission, India’s premier technical body in water resources, which is supposed to provide forecasts of floods in all flood-prone areas, failed miserably in giving any information on river flow that would have warned the people in the downstream areas.
Third, the State Department of Irrigation and Flood Control which manages State water resources and the flood control system did not monitor and maintain embankments or provide any warnings when they were breached. This means even in the State capital, people had absolutely no idea of the impending disaster till the waters entered their houses and colonies. Further, this department’s website (www.jkirfc.com), except the tender section, has not been updated since 2011.
India is supposed to have elaborate disaster management institutions starting from the National Disaster Management Authority to the State Disaster Management Authority to the Divisional (in the case of Jammu and Kashmir) and District Disaster Management Authorities. However, except the National Disaster Response Force, which in any case is manned by paramilitary personnel, we see no impact made by these institutions in this disaster. The local administration and disaster management apparatus seemed to be generally absent during the floods. This means that even if information was available with the State and local administration before the deluge, (as was the case in Uttarakhand in June 2013, where in spite of specific forecasts from the Dehradun office of the IMD, the State failed to use the information to take necessary action), it may not have helped manage the disaster in a significantly better manner.
It is also apparent that the encroachment of riverbeds and flood plains and the destruction of the once-abundant lakes, wetlands, marshes, flood channels and other water bodies and areas exacerbated the disaster. Jammu and Kashmir has such remarkable flood management structures that it seems that the people of the 11th century had better management wisdom than the engineers of today with their straitjacketed mindset. Even government agencies (local, State and Central) have been found guilty of constructing buildings in such areas, which have not only made these buildings vulnerable but also reduced the flood absorption capacity of these areas, thus making other areas vulnerable too.
Major interventions are expected to take place in the Chenab and Jhelum basins including about 40 hydropower projects in each basin of various sizes and in various stages of development. Each of these projects involve the construction of dams, water storage, tunnels, blasting, diversion of rivers, deforestation, construction of roads and colonies, and mining of materials on a large scale, and dumping of millions of cubic metres of muck from each large project. The Chenab basin is, in fact, home to the largest capacity of hydropower projects under construction in India compared to any other basin.
Each of these projects will increase the disaster potential of the basins, but we do not have credible Environmental Impact Assessment, Environmental Appraisal, Environmental Management Plan or credible monitoring and compliance mechanisms, not to speak of the lack of Cumulative Impact Assessment or Disaster Risk Assessment. This is not to say that such projects should not be undertaken, but we are only inviting greater disasters given the manner in which we are going about these major interventions. Repeated representations on these issues to the Ministry of Environment and Forests have fallen on deaf ears.
Climate change footprint
Scientists are telling us that in the case of such extreme weather events, whose frequency is already on the rise in the Himalayas at a greater rate than global averages, there is an undeniable climate change footprint. Although we hear a lot about climate change issues in general, there is little action taken. The least the government can do is to recognise the link between climate change and disasters and demand justice for the victims. It also needs to identify populations vulnerable to disasters arising from climate change and change its development plans and policies accordingly. We see little progress in any of these directions.
Fifteen months after the devastating Uttarakhand floods, we still do not have a report that tells us what happened there, who played (or did not play) what role and what lessons are to be learnt from that experience. For example, several of us wrote to the MoEF in July 2013, asking it to institute an enquiry into the role played by hydropower projects in increasing the proportions of the disaster. In the absence of any government action, it was left to the Supreme Court to order such an enquiry through its order of August 13, 2013.
A subsequent report by the Ravi Chopra Committee showed how the existing and under-construction hydropower projects had increased the scale of the disaster. The way the government is pushing ahead with the massive Lakhwar and Vyasi hydropower projects on the Yamuna river in Uttarakhand, without even proper environment and social impact assessment and public consultation, it is clear that it has not learnt any lessons from the Uttarakhand tragedy.
In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the Supreme Court has already sought a report from the Central government. We hope that the court will order an elaborate enquiry into the reasons for and management of the current disaster.
In the meantime, the dimensions of the Jammu and Kashmir floods are still unfolding before us. We hope there is greater urgency in rescuing people and providing relief and rehabilitation — efforts that will give the people of the State and elsewhere a glimmer of hope.
(Himanshu Thakkar is coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Even in Srinagar, people had absolutely no idea of the impending disaster till the waters entered their houses and colonies