Rains, floods and looming deluge

Rains, floods and looming deluge

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

If only the monsoons were to follow the script read out every evening by the Indian Meteorological Department and the new entrant Skymat, things would have been much better. But that does not seem to be happening. The monsoon no longer arrives at the Kerala coast on a certain day and progresses along the Konkan coast and takes a turn east after reaching Gujarat, spreads to Rajasthan and goes north to the hills.

Despite the sophisticated tracking systems and Western monitoring organisations that keep a close watch of the region, the rains and floods do not seem to follow their forecasts. There is a torrential rain in some Punjab towns and there are landslides in Solan and Manali two days later, stranding tourists and holding up vehicular traffic. There are heavy rains in Western UP and loss of lives a couple of later. Gurugram, on the outskirts of Delhi, is flooded due to a heavy downpour that lasts just a few hours.

As if waiting for the election campaign to conclude, Karnataka had rains even before the new chief minister had formed his cabinet. Then it was the turn of Kerala that had just recovered from last year’s unprecedented floods and landslides that had created much havoc. Despite the resilience of the people and the way civil society organisations had risen to the occasion these have left their scars. As soon as Kochi airport resumed operations after five days of shut down because of the flooded runway, it was the turn of Maharashtra to face the flood fury. Sangli and Aurangabad and Koyna were inundated there was the touching picture of a woman rescued from the flood tying a rakhi to the soldier engaged in the salvage operations.

The railways announced waiver of freight charges for transportation of relief materials to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala, where over 10 lakh people had to be shifted from their homes to escape inundation. ‘Government organisations across the country can book relief material free to Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra and other organisations, deemed fit by the divisional Railway manager, may also avail of this provision,’ the Deputy Director (Traffic Commercial) of the Railway Board ordained.

Now it is the turn of Madhya Pradesh where several rivers are in spate inundating low lying areas and the Indian Meteorological Department predicting ‘very heavy to extremely heavy showers’ in 18 districts, including Mandsaur, Ratlam, Neemuch and Ujjain. Rain or thundershowers have also been forecast for Gwalior, Chambal, Ujjain, Bhopal, Indore, Hoshangabad and Sagar districts. Many places in Rewa, Shahdol and Jabalpur are also likely to receive showers.

Patan area in Jabalpur district received the maximum 243 mm rainfall in 24 hours and in some places, including Bhopal, the authorities had to open sluice gates of reservoirs to release water after they were filled up to their maximum storage capacity.‘The water level of the Indira Sagar dam, the largest reservoir in the state, in Khandwa district, has reached 260.4 metres, just 1.73 m short of full capacity,’ said an official. The dam has the capacity to hold 8,364 million cubic metres of water. In the first casualties four people drowned in Mandsaur and Betul districts.

Meanwhile all rivers are in spate in Karnataka where the UNESCO’s world heritage site in Hampi, on the banks of the Tungabhadra in Ballari district, has been inundated after over 1.70 lakh cusec water was released. Tourists from there had to be shifted to safer places. In that state the deluge has left 31 people dead and displaced four lakh people in 17 districts. The Union Home Minister Amit Shah undertook an aerial survey of the affected areas of Karnataka and Maharashtra. In Kerala Rahul Gandhi visited his new constituency of Wayanad, one of the worst affected and met with the affected people. After an election tour a disaster damage survey seems to be the order of the day.

Names like Ujjain, Hampi, Khandwa, Solan, Mandsaur and Hoshangabad and Koyna and Sangli are all evocative and remind one of unique associations, of great places of learning or architecture or chess, or where to view the solar eclipse, where once thrived people who were gifted and creative and left their footprints for posterity. How is it that the rivers Thungabadra and Betul that nourished the arid countryside and never posed any danger to the people on the banks have now become menacing?

Erratic rainfall, unprecedented floods, unseasonal rains and landslides, these seem to be happening more frequently of late and all these have once again made experts and environmentalists ponder over the causes and ways to minimise the damage and possibly prevent some. These are also raising questions about the entire planning process and development models that are being employed and the changing patterns of cultivation and water conservation and use.

Unbridled construction activity, large scale mining, dredging of sand and encroachment of forest land, changing crop patterns without thinking of the larger implications and consequences, total unconcern for the indigenous people or those who have been living in these places in harmony for ages, large scale migration have all had their impact on the environment.

Environmental experts like Madhav Gadgil had cautioned about the large scale encroachments of the Western Ghats and the need to check these. That report was diluted due to the pressure of the powerful lobbies and amended by the Kakodkar committee and though the chief minister had assured that the water levels in the major dams need not cause any worry these have not assuaged the fears of the concerned people. So when there is a slight change in the rain pattern or arrival date of the monsoon that has consequences. Two successive floods have again made climate change advocates ponder and find ways of mitigating the disasters these might cause.

Already the state of the major rivers have been a cause for concern, the pollution and silting and shrinking of most of them, some regarded as the most sacred, have not helped them retain their pristine state. There are examples, as the Ghaggra, a tributary of the Yamuna, that is still unspoilt. It has ghariyals and turtles and remains pristine because of the care the people on the banks, or the fear of the dacoits who prowl the area. It has been pointed out that during Iraqi ruler Saddam Husain’s regime the Euphrates that ran through Damascus was so clean that none dare pollute it.

Despite the heavy and erratic rainfall being one of the reasons for floods in several states, this also has often coincided with dams being brim full due to poor management. The Kerala floods have been described as dam-induced, despite the chief minister’s refutation. The three states that were ravaged have also raised the question of flood management system. When waters are released from overflowing dams and that coincides with torrential rains it aggravates the situation and this seems to have happened in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala, all linked to the Krishna basin.

Interestingly, an assessment of the Krishna basin done by an expert group has come to the conclusion that mismanagement on releasing the waters has worsened the flood situation in the downstream areas like Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara districts and the three dams in the region, Koyna, Radhanagari and Warna, were already hundred per cent full by August 5 when the current floods started, but no waters were released before that date. Had that been done there would have been space for the water to flow. Instead, the dams that were supposed to help moderate the flood situation ended up by aggravating it.

Similarly, delaying the release of water from the Hidkal dam in Belagavi district had a huge influence on worsening the flood situation as operators waited for the dam to be almost full. According to experts, uncertainty in rainfall and fear of dry conditions in future had made dam operators think of storing as soon as water is available but that had proved costly during the flood fury as there is no alternative but to release all the inflow.

The management of operations of reservoirs has also been found wanting due to the lack of coordination both at both the reservoir and basin levels.

At the beginning of the monsoon, Maharashtra and Karnataka reservoirs were filled up, but those in charge of operations ‘work in silos and do not work with the IMD’ to understand the pattern of rainfall, according to one expert.

‘Hence, they thought of maximising the levels, thinking about the uncertainty of rain during the later monsoon. There is no accountability of the officials in charge of maintaining the reservoirs and hence they fail to communicate with IMD. There should be a clear-cut protocol for maintaining the reservoir levels,’ he added.

During the British era also despite some pioneering work done by engineers like Sir Arthur Cotton on linking the Godavari canals, the rulers were none too interested in providing much help. Though the ravages of rivers in Bengal were also caused by large-scale sandstone mining in the Meghalaya foothills that changed the pattern of the river flow nothing was done to check the havoc. The 'Willocks Irrigation Scheme' that would have checked the floods and also prevented the recurrence of malaria in the region and ‘would have given Bengal its ancient fertility’ was not taken up and his pamphlet where he said he was ‘determined never to have another famine in Bengal’ was submitted to the Viceroy Lord Wavell  but he showed no interest. Sir William Willcocks was the ‘great English engineer who had done the Nile irrigation scheme and all others in Egypt.’  and checked the floods  in the Nile delta and the Aswan dam area in Egypt.

In these times of erratic climate behaviour, a moot question that needs to be asked is whether the dams across the country are resilient to climate change. These are ageing and there is an urgent need to assess their safety, carry out repairs, or dismantle them to prevent dam failure-linked disasters. This quality assurance of dams has once again been again brought to the fore after the Tiware Dam breach in Ratnagiri that cost 19 lives.

According to the environment minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat there are 5,745 reservoirs in the country, of which, 293 are more than 100 years old and the age of 25 per cent of dams is between 50 and 100 years and 80 per cent are over 25 years old.

All these pose a serious risk due to their ageing and structural deterioration and casual management. This also presents an alarming scenario, as the country approaches 2025 and 2050: 64 large dams will turn 125 years of age, 301 will turn 75 years, 237 large dams will turn 65 years and an additional 496 large dams will cross a minimum age of 50. In all, 1,115 large dams would have aged at least 54 years.

Along with preparing for eventualities linked to climate change and the population migration patterns, there is also need to reckon with the condition of the ageing water bodies. Perhaps there is also the need to look back in history and find some clues as to how these were managed in ancient times when also there might have been fluctuations in climate and floods and drought. Pralaya, the great deluge, possibly, must have been more than a metaphor.