At Nature’s Mercy
Flood waters may have begun to recede in Kerala, but 11 states and 15 cities are in danger of Kerala-life floods. BW Businessworld takes stock of the national preparedness for such disasters
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On August 21 the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said flood waters had begun to recede from most parts of inundated Kerala. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast respite from heavy rainfall in the ensuing days. By then 370 lives had been lost (not to speak of homes, roads and bridges) in the heavy floods that followed torrential rain. The flood waters had destroyed 45,000 hectares of farmland, including 2,000 hectares of paddy fields and plantations of spices like cardamom.
“I have been asking for flood avoidance and recovery mechanism since 1973,” laments agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan, fondly dubbed the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’. Globally damage from floods, he points out, had been more devastating than that of other natural calamities.
To be fair to the IMD, its rainfall deviation data did warn that the seasonal downpour was considerably higher than usual. “Rainfall over Kerala during southwest monsoon season 2018 (1 June to 19 August, 2018) has been exceptionally high,” an IMD Press release had warned. “Due to the above, rainfall scenario prevailed till end of July, 2018 over Kerala,” it said. It pointed out that since 10 August, storage at all the 35 odd major reservoirs of the dam, was close to the full reservoir level (FRL), which then had “no buffer storage to accommodate the heavy inflows”.
M.K. Srinivas, Director General of the National Water Development Agency too points out that Kerala was not entirely unprepared for the floods as rainfall is habitually heavy in the state at this time of the year. Srinivas says that dams cannot be held responsible for the loss from floods either. Reservoirs of the dams have their own limitations. Kerala he believes, has a natural disadvantage in the short length of its rivers, which could have otherwise naturally drained out the rain water. “A heavy rainfall even of a short duration can make things worse and that is what happened in Kerala,” says Srinivas.
Floods have wreaked havoc in other states too in other years. In 2017 a deluge devastated Gujarat and the year before floods caused damage in Jammu and Kashmir. Hem Pande, Former Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, blames the drainage system in urban India for floods, including the ones that recently devastated Kerala. Pande says that all infrastructure development must take a natural drainage system into account.
“Any of the cities with fading biodiversity can become soft targets for the next catastrophe,” believes M. S. Swaminathan. An International Water Management Institute (IWMI) report published in 2017 puts 15 populous Indian cities across 11 states on the radar for climate risks, of which floods are the foremost evil (please see map).
The IWMI report points out that some cities like Srinagar and Guwahati were extremely flood prone. It expresses most concern about the most populous cities, in the light of the risks such disasters pose to life and property. Imagine cities like Patna, Lucknow or Rajkot in the grip of floods.
Climate risk hotspots
Hem Pande blames “unsustainable practices” for floods. “It’s all because of unauthorised human interference,” says he. Regions with massive unauthorised constructions like the Yamuna basin of Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) is a perfect example of such man-made disasters. Madhav Gadgil a renowned environment scientist predicts that Goa would be the next “hot spot” for a flood. Goa has been in the limelight for a long while for illegal mining - another incident of “human interference” on nature’s turf.
The climate hazard hot spots have already witnessed many catastrophes. Even though floods do top the list, Indian cities are vulnerable to many other climate change risks too. “Uncontrollable rise in population is the core reason for such catastrophes,” says Pande.
A World Bank report says millions of people in India live in climate change hotspots, that range from “severe” to “mild” (Please see chart)
The way forward
India has begun developing mechanisms to combat natural calamities, but it is not easy to predict floods. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), for instance, conducted a pilot study in the Godavari basin of Andhra Pradesh in 2017 in collaboration with the Central Water Commission (CWC), Hyderabad and the IMD. The ISRO’s warning system for Northeastern states, where floods occur frequently, is already functional.
The river linking project
The National Water Development Agency of India has already commenced the river linking project, which when complete, could thwart floods. The ambit of the project will span across river basins vulnerable to floods and droughts. The project envisages linking river basins prone to floods with river basins in regions which traditionally experience a deficit in rainfall. (Please see map.)
The river linking project will touch the Brahmaputra basin along with its major tributary, the Teesta. It will then involve the Ganga basin in the northern plains. It will encompass the rivers Damodar and Subarnarekha and subsequently Mahanadi. The project will link the Mahanadi to the Godavari, the Godavari to Krishna, Krishna to the Pennar, the Pennar to the Kaveri and then the Kaveri to the Vaighai.
“It will be very difficult to either predict or avoid the severity of a calamity,” says M. S. Swaminathan. “All that we can do is to prepare ourselves for recovery from such extreme weather events as soon as possible.” Kerala obviously, was only an alarm bell. Man has toyed too much with the ecology and is a long way from taming nature’s fury.