Floods are a regular feature in India. Every year with varying severity, floods leave behind huge property damage and human lives. On an average, every year floods affect about 75 lakh hectares of land, take about 1,600 lives, and Rs 1,805 crores in damage to public facilities, residences and agriculture. In the period June–September 2022, India witnessed a series of severe floods which led to loss of 1,282 lives and US$ 3.1 billion in economic damage. The need to mitigate flood disasters in sustainable ways is, therefore, crucial.
By Pintu Kumar Mahla
The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is quite vulnerable to floods, particularly the low-lying portions of the Kashmir Valley, including Sonawari, Awantipora, Srinagar, and some parts of Jammu. The upper catchments of the mainstream rivers—Jhelum, Indus, Chenab, and Tawi—witness widespread flooding. The floods of 2014 in J&K affected around five million people—“around 4.5 million in Kashmir valley and half a million in the Jammu region. In addition, it caused an estimated loss of Rs. 5,400-5,700 crore to the state’s economy.” About 7,405 deaths in India were registered due to natural disasters in 2020, of which 959 deaths were caused by floods; J&K alone accounted for 48 deaths.
More recently, on 8 July 2022, flash floods caused by a cloudburst close to Amarnath in southern Kashmir led to 16 deaths and 40 people went missing. Around 13,041 pilgrims were relocated to safer locations. These flood disasters create huge panic among the public which brings into focus the state of disaster management in J&K.
Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Systems
In 2005, the Government of India passed the Disaster Management Act. It provided for the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), under the leadership of the Prime Minister, and State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs), under the leadership of the corresponding Chief Ministers, with the mission of leading and implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach to disaster management in the country.
J&K was one of the first few states then to pass legislation for natural disasters. In 1955, the Natural Calamities Destroyed Areas Improvement Act was passed for the improvement of towns, villages, and other areas that were ravaged by natural calamities. However, the Act’s accessibility did not yield great benefits. Since the enactment of the NDMA 2005, J&K has implemented a number of steps to reduce the loss of life and property caused by natural disasters. The SDMA, the State Executive Committee (SEC), and the District Disaster Management Authorities have been established in accordance with the terms of the NDMA Act.
Issues, however, remain over their effectiveness. The framework, as noted above, deals more with the management of water resources. The topography and terrain of J&K requires a widespread and efficient engineering system. For instance, the state’s topography results in frequent cloudbursts. As meteorologists observe, the high altitude and steep gradient encourage the development of cumulonimbus clouds. As a result, more water is shed in larger droplets faster. In the 12th five-year plan (2012–17), the NITI Aayog cautioned that “hydro-power projects on the Himalayan Rivers may not be viable” because the young mountains, i.e., the Himalayas, are eroding at a very high rate. There is little vegetation in the upper catchment to bind the soil. The management of excess water quite clearly becomes challenging in the difficult terrains of the Himalayas.
The frequent floods in J&K raise questions on the administrative ability and engineering response. The death toll, after enacting a disaster management policy 2011 and State Disaster Management Plan (SDMP) 2017, has increased. Moreover, in 2019, out of the total 8,145 accidental deaths due to natural disasters, 63 deaths were reported in J&K (excluding Ladakh).
J&K is one of India’s most flood-affected regions. After the devastating floods of 2014, the central government devised a detailed plan for managing floods along the Jhelum river and its tributaries. The plan was to be implemented in two phases. While the construction on the second phase will begin soon, the first phase is almost finished. The central government had also established a committee to make recommendations for ways to manage floods in the future. In its final report, the committee suggested a few long-term solutions, such as adding more flood spillways, building storage facilities on Jhelum tributaries, zoning floodplains, and expanding the capacity of Wular Lake. In addition, a detailed study on flood risks is also being conducted by the Jal Shakti Department in J&K. An Integrated Forecasting System (IFS) with a robust decision support system will also be developed for quick and efficient response to any flood-related calamity in the Union Territory.
However, the imprints of natural disasters on lives and livelihoods demand a more effective disaster risk reduction approach. For instance, it requires a robust early warning system to mitigate the impact of disasters. It is also important to adopt sustainable practices like land management and afforestation with a view to increasing the water retention capacity of the soil and decreasing the intensity of flood flows. Every river has clearly defined banks and floodplains. The floodplains play a critical role not only in nutrient replenishment but also in controlling overflowing rivers naturally. Most of the states have poor regulations over unabated encroachment of floodplains. The Union Territory of J&K is no exception, hence there is an urgent need to frame legislations as per the geological and civil engineering guidelines so as to lessen the impact of floods on the infrastructure.
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