Sep 14, 2014

Kashmir floods: Don't blame the climate. It's a man-made disaster

Kashmir valley looked like an ocean, says Indian Air Force officials. 
Pic from 

No one cares for warnings anymore. In our madness to achieve a high economic growth, natural disasters come in handy. After the death toll has been estimated, the floods have receded and the city slowly limps back to normalcy, it's again business as usual. Wait for Srinagar to return back to normalcy, and the same people who were hit by the unprecedented tragedy, will be back to their normal routine recklessly exploiting the fragile environment.

I saw this happening when Mumbai was hit with flash floods in 2005. While 5,000 people were killed across Maharashtra, the deluge of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, donned the headlines. Many blamed the 18-km long Mithi river, which runs through densely populated and industrial areas of Mumbai and carries the overflow discharges of Powai and Vihar lakes to the Arabian Sea at Mahim Creek, responsible for the floods. Even the Mithi River Development Authority (MRDA) acknowledges: "The Mithi river used to serve as an important storm water drain but has been reduced to a sewer over the years."  

Before Mumbai, Hyderabad was hit by devastating floods in 2000. In 2009, again Hyderabad (and Kunool city) faced the fury of incessant rains flooding large parts of the city.  But interestingly, in 2000, the Geological Survey of India admitted "the August 2000 flood of Hyderabad cannot be considered as a result of the Nature's fury. It starkly exposes the deficiencies in planning of urban habitats in growing cities. Paradoxically, when Hyderabad was lashed by 24 cm of rain in 24 hours in August 2000, the adjacent districts of Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda were under the grip of drought-like or dry weather conditions due to scanty rainfall." (Read the full report here: August 2000 Flood in Hyderabad city. Causative factors and suggestions to avoid recurrence. 

Just to give you an idea of how unplanned urbanisation is taking a heavy toll. The Geological Survey report states, and I quote: "One such blatant violation of the urban development norms is conversion of a water tank known as Masab Tank, situated at the southern foothill limit of Banjara Hills, into currently a thickly populated residential-cum-commercial area. Further, the downstream side of the tank has been totally converted to residential areas such as Vijaya Nagar colony and Shanti Nagar ..Thus the active channels of streams that existed on the downstream side of these areas and colonies have disappeared." In the absence of any natural drainage, flooding is natural.  

Bangalore, New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati ,... the story is same everywhere. 

It is however very convenient to shift the blame to climate change. At a time when people have become so used to climate aberrations, and have begun to club everything under the broader head of climate change, that I find the blame game shifting to reasons beyond your immediate control to be escapism and self-defeating. If the temperature goes up, blame it on climate; if the rains are late, blame it on climate, if the heat season prolongs, blame it on climate. In fact, Climate Change has been accepted as something beyond our control. Like for all the ills in our society we blame the politicians, similarly for all the development-induced disasters we don't want to take the blame on ourselves. Why blame yourself when you can easily pass on the buck. 

In case of Hyderabad, let's not forget the city had faced a major flood disaster about 100 years back, in 1908, when Musi river had gone on a rampage. Some reports say 15,000 were killed in the flood fury. In case of Srinagar also, the city had faced a big flood in 1893 itself. You'll agree we can't blame the climate change for those disasters.

After the Uttarakhand disaster of July 2013, which again was blamed on Climate Change by many experts, I had thought that the nation would sit back and draw some lessons. But nothing like that happened. In fact, the moment you raise the issue of unplanned urbanisation, a chorus rises accusing you of being anti-development. This is a class of people who remain unmoved by the catastrophic consequences of epic disasters like the Himalayan Tsunami that struck Uttarakhand and Kashmir. They are only interested in exploiting the natural resources to the hilt. As long as they make money, who cares if thousands (and millions who survive) have to pay the consequences with their lives.

In an aptly titled report: A threat everyone knew, but refuses to believe (The Tribune. Sept 14, 2014, the authors say: "The bowl-shaped lay of the land in Srinagar is such that once the Jhelum waters breach, there is nowhere for the floodwater to drain. this is a well-known fact that everyone has chosen to ignore." In an accompanying report, The Tribune states that the State Government officials admit that 50 per cent lakes, ponds and the wetlands in Srinagar have been converted into residential and commercial places. Wular lake, Asia's largest freshwater lake in Bandipora district, has shrunk by 87.58 sq kms. The famed Dal lake in Srinagar has shrunk to 12 sq kms (from 24 sq kms) and rapid siltation has reduced the average depth to 3 mts. The 165-kms long Jhelum river was pushed to the brink, and it obviously was waiting to retaliate one day.  

While the two environmental disasters of epic proportion had struck India in quick succession I had thought that the people in power would wake up to all that was going wrong. I had thought that the media, business and industry, the intelligentsia and the planners would be burning a lot of midnight oil, and at the same time holding wide ranging public hearings on how to minimise the environmental damage in the years to come. But on the contrary I hear the media relentlessly blaming the Ministry of Environment and Forests for blocking clearance to industrial projects. Such is the tirade against anything linked to environment that those who stand up to warn are accused of holding India's growth story. Kashmir paid for ignoring the repeated warnings. But the bigger question still remains. Will the government learn from the past mistakes and make appropriate corrections?  

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said when it comes to environmental clearances his Ministry's green light is always on. Reports of pending decisions to withdraw the provisions of allowing tribals to have their say before an industrial project is approved, dilution of the Indian Wildlife Act provisions, dumping of Madhav Gadgil report on Western Ghats are some of the steps that needs to be immediately reconsidered. Instead of protecting the environment to ensure that the disasters of Uttarakhand and Kashmir are not repeated, the powers that be need to understand that no amount of industrial growth can succeed in isolation. Environment is not a price that has to be paid for industrial growth. Environment is a pre-requisite for any development paradigm. Economy cannot grow on a dead planet. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Aug 15 that industrial growth has to come with 'Zero Effect', which means without any accompanying environmental destruction. If this does not happen, and is glossed over, let's be very clear: what happened at Srinagar will not be an isolated event. Every city will sooner or later have to meet the same fate. #  
1. Playing with ecosystems. Deccan Herald. Sept 23, 2014

2. Climate, Catastrophe, Kashmir. Orissa Post. Sept 19, 2014


Anonymous said...

Sir, in my humble opinion, it's better to allow our Corporates to devote a part of their tax monies (and also of the vaunted CSR initiatives) they otherwise pay to the govt. which usually ends up in some votebank-building populist schemes, as an "Environment Tax" to the cleaning up of their own environmental mess they leave behind, an obligation which of course must be strictly monitored as is usually done for fiscal things.

It has become ridiculous to expect the ensuring of compliance to environmental norms by politicians and the authorities under them. Enforcement in this regard has rather become a matter of of "honouring in the breach"!! In pursuit of Jeremy Bentham's "maximum good for maximum number of people", the only thing they know is to "develop" and let the devil(i.e environment) take the hindmost!!! Ultimately it is only "development" and the appearance of having discharged the duty w.r.t. it is what that counts, isn't it? And the ruled, rendered hopelessly irresponsible and consumerist by such a set-up, are only too happy to fulfil their shelter needs/desires with a penny or two lesser (won't a rule-compliant home cost higher ???)

And now, getting wise after the cataclysm they indulge in the usual intellectual hungama - committees, commissions, reports etc. to investigate the matter. Not doing what should be done at the right time and then spending away the time in tracing the consequences!! Nature is indeed providing them with good "time pass business" or employment opportunities just like economist J.K.Galbraith once said w.r.t economics : "Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists" !!!

Let us get it straight - if "development" is desired, then let it be done by protecting nature or strictly complying with environmental/urban development/building construction norms "at any cost" and "non-negotiably" which is perfectly reasonable, otherwise pay the price for it's catastrophic consequences like the Bhopal gas leak, Kumbhakonam school conflagration which claimed the lives of numerous innocent kids, last year's Uttarakhand tragedy and this year's J&K's floods etc. Unfortunately, punishment in the "development game" not always goes to the malefactors but to the unsuspecting participants in it!

Anonymous said...

very true and sad Devinder . One can not have any hope on Modi and his team because they have not understood the land , soil and the relationship with our living . marxists are also like that . I am really worried about china PM's visit and his proposition for infrastructure development. today I met 3 young students who study in one of the chinese universities . They were telling me the environmental disaster that is happening in china in the name of development .

I think we have to start asserting that we are for development and they are for disaster.


Sanjeev Sandal said...

As a Water Management Expert, I think that the disaster in Kashmir and earlier in Uttranchal was probably due to establishment of houses/ buildings along the drainage line of the watershed. When water passed through these drainage lines, it caused the disaster. The watershed approach which aims at safe disposal of water from top of the hills to the bottom of land with more infiltration of water to land and less run off generation periodically needs to taken care of for urban area plannings . Also the safe disposal of run-off is essential since most of the human activities are now concentrated at the bottom of the hills. With ever growing pressure of land use in contributing area of watershed (Hill station), the concept of watershed many a times is ignored which probably are resulting in more losses. The concept of watershed should not be restricted to agricultural watershed but to urbanized watershed also since the extent of accelerated erosion is more in urban watershed. There is a need to identify drainage line at surface as well as sub- surface level and the construction of houses and establishment of colonies may be approved accordingly away from these drainage points. With the disaster in Kashmir,there a lesson to us that the exit point of watershed need to taken care of through out the year otherwise water will make its own exit point.