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Floods in India: is it weather or maladaptation to climate change?

Steps need to be taken for river and watershed management through an integrated approach. Often these approaches involve both hard engineering solutions and ecologically sustainable soft solutions.

analysis Updated: Aug 23, 2018 15:19 IST
Prasoon Singh
Prasoon Singh
A view of a submerged petrol pump at Alappuzha district, Kerala, August 22(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

The south-west monsoon has led to floods across India. More than 700 people have died, with Kerala topping the list. The estimated initial loss is around Rs 8,316 crore alone in Kerala. Rainfall data suggest that Kerala received 20% more rainfall than its normal between June 1 and August 12. Idukki and Palakkad districts received 55% and 45% more rainfall respectively during this period and are the two worst flood-affected districts in the state.

India is highly vulnerable to floods with 12% geographical area is prone to annual flooding. The country stands fifth in the world in the number of deaths due to floods and things may become more difficult if the necessary action for flood management is not taken seriously in the near future.

The occurrence probability of rainfall intensity, duration and frequency are going to increase in the future in all emission scenarios developed by the International Panel for Climate Change. Thus, the high intensity and longer duration of rainfall is the likely hydrological future of India. Apart from weather extremes; unplanned development, encroachments in riparian zones, failure of flood control structures, unplanned reservoir operations, poor drainage infrastructure, land use change and sedimentation in river beds are exacerbating floods.

The high losses and damages due to floods show the poor adaptation and mitigation status of India and inadequacy in disaster management and preparedness. The situation is such that many river basins do not have enough gauging stations for measurement of flood level, which is the principal component for flood prediction and forecast.

At present, the entire focus of disaster management: post-flood recovery and relief. But what we actually need is a comprehensive flood management plan, which includes forecast and prediction, flood hotspot mapping at local and regional scale so that the help can be effectively provided to those who are going to be affected in such incidences, development of flood early warning system (key for saving lives and property), management and regulation of riparian zones to prevent spilling and erosion, river flood modelling due to reservoir breach and water release from dams to identify flood-prone areas and disseminate flood warning to the downstream communities. We haven’t improved or worked towards making communities flood neutral. The continued maladaptation is the primary cause of chaos and loss of lives and properties due to floods in India.

Steps need to be taken for river and watershed management through an integrated approach. Often these approaches involve both hard engineering solutions and ecologically sustainable soft solutions. Hard solutions involve civil engineering construction such as dams, culverts and dykes, widening and deepening of river channels and diversion channels to store and divert water to increase the lag time of water reaching to downstream.

Early warning systems for floods need to be developed for each river basin to improve the evacuation. The soft solution such as restoration and management of riparian zones, afforestation along the river channels which led to retention of rainwater and reduces the river discharge. However, several initiatives have been taken at the state and national level to curb floods in India. But at the moment floods cannot be curbed due to various technical, financial and social issues and we need to more focus upon the management aspect of flood-related disasters at all level.

Also, we have to overcome the existing challenges in methodology for hydrological analysis and weather services, spatiotemporal uncertainties in forecast and meteorological observations. We have a long way to go and hope that in near future the country will work towards comprehensive and integrated flood management plan to make India flood proof.

Prasoon Singh is associate fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 23, 2018 15:17 IST