Uttarakhand to Kashmir, man's folly compounds nature's fury

  • Krittivas Mukherjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2014 02:59 IST

Four days of torrential rains have unleashed a trail of destruction unseen for six decades in Kashmir, a disaster that is perhaps as much a man-made blunder in the pursuit of greater economic growth as a merciless act of nature.

Although the torrential downpour that triggered the deluge was unusual, the disaster also underlines how man's folly can compound nature's wrath in a region where the ecology is as fragile as the mountains are mighty.

Read: Digvijaya, Azad praise Modi's prompt act on J-K floods

As with two other major disasters to hit India since last year - the massive flooding in Uttarakhand and the landslides near Pune - much of the devastation in Kashmir was compounded by deforestation as well the floodplains being built over indiscriminately.

Deforestation has greatly reduced the water retaining capacity of the land in Kashmir, a problem that worsened during the height of militancy in the state. Over the years, the valley's lifeline, the Jhelum, has turned into a dumping site with dense human settlements, industries and business establishments coming up on its flood channels.

"What we are seeing is increased pressure on land and changes in land use pattern which is affecting the ecology," says K Srinivas, head of environment advocacy group Vasudha Foundation.

"This is a direct result of life style chances. And this is a pattern we are seeing in all the natural disasters."

This time, the majority of damage has been done by streams gushing down from deforested stretches such Sukh-Nag and Rambyar. What has worsened matters is the reduced rainwater-holding capacity of the area's major lakes - Dal, Nagin or Wular, which have been encroached upon and built over.

The rains have sent large parts of Srinagar under water - a city that does not have a proper piped sewerage system with the existing drainage disposing the sewage directly into the Jhelum.

"Two things are happening - one there is intensification of rainfall because of climate change, and this rain becomes deadlier in the Himalayas because of landslides. Second, we are seeing developmental activities undermining the drainage system," says Sunita Narain, head of Centre for Science and Environment.

"Srinagar's inter-linked lakes were designed like a large sponge - as an inlet and outlet for floodwaters. That system has been completely undermined."

It is a trend evident in every major so-called natural disaster in India.

In Uttarakhand, where some 6,000 people were killed in massive flooding and landslides last year, mountain riverbanks got built over with roads, hotels and businesses. Small hydropower dams also took their toll on the fragile ecology.

In Malin village near Pune, where landslides killed more than 100 people in August, experts say the disaster may have been man-made, caused by deforestation to make way for farming.

Last year, a report warned India to stop viewing natural disasters as standalone acts of god or of nature and to recognise that the country's development policies are increasing the number of deaths and amount of devastation in such calamities.

The Kashmir flooding makes the point. Again.

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