Monday Musings: Monsoon disasters more man-made than natural

If the rains broke all the records, the disaster unfolding on the ground was partially man-made, as management of water and a flurry of constructions along the riverside – some of it unauthorised – has come under the scanner once again
Chiplun flooded with water overflowing from the Vashishti river on Friday, July 23. (HT PHOTO)
Chiplun flooded with water overflowing from the Vashishti river on Friday, July 23. (HT PHOTO)
Published on Jul 26, 2021 04:14 PM IST
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Cities and rural areas inundated by flood waters. Landslides. Human casualties. All this is, by now, usual for Maharashtra every monsoon season. This year was no different as most of us saw how Taliye, a hamlet in Raigad, was flattened, as a portion of a hillock gave way burying most houses – and villagers living inside.

The heavy rain brought two-thirds of Chiplun, a commercial hub of Ratnagiri on the Mumbai-Goa highway, under water.

Next we heard of Mahad, another Konkan town, where Babasaheb Ambedkar had carried out a satyagraha to asserts the rights of Dalits over water in public places.

The water flowing through the Vashishti and Savitri rivers ravaged these towns and nearby areas. Unprecedented (60cm) rains within 24 hours in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani belt of the Western ghats, contributed to the flood situation in neighbouring Ratnagiri and Raigad districts as the Vashisthi and Savitri rivers originate in the same area.

If the rains broke all the records, the disaster unfolding on the ground was partially man-made, as management of water and a flurry of constructions along the riverside – some of it unauthorised – has come under the scanner once again.

On Sunday, when chief minister Uddhav Thackeray visited Chiplun, locals were angry because they were not alerted of a possible flood. An early warning, as locals said, would have helped them shift their belongings, some of it washed away, and the rest drenched in water.

A large number of constructions along the river, the voluminous release of water from the Kolkewadi dam and torrential rains flooded Chiplun city, and citizens had no prior warning.

Once the flood waters recede, a probe will be ordered into the illegal constructions, according to district collector BR Patil.

Similar scenes are being witnessed in Kolhapur and Sangli, where most parts are submerged, with a stretch on the Mumbai-Bangaluru national highway still inundated on the third consecutive day.

Going by local accounts, the water levels in the Panchaganga and Krishna rivers are higher than 2019, when floods wreaked havoc in these two districts. The only difference this time is there is no major discharge of water from dams on the upstream, while Almatti, located downstream, was also discharging water to avoid any swelling in its backwaters.

The answer to frequent flooding in Kolhapur and Sangli perhaps lies in how the flood lines of the Panchganga river there were “redefined” to provide benefits to the construction sector. Post the 2019 flood, Pune-based environmentalist environmentalist Sarang Yadwadkar had accessed some documents of the irrigation department through RTI. The documents showed around 500 hectares along the Panchganga river, which should have been in the flood-affected area (prohibited zone), marked as a residential zone in Kolhapur’s development plan (DP), by “redefining” the flood lines.

The irrigation department marks two flood lines - blue and red, demarcating the river area on the floodline. The red line is decided on the maximum water level possibly once in a century and the blue line is for the average maximum flood discharge in 25 years.

According to Yadwadkar, the irrigation department issued a circular in 1989 to mark the flood lines for all rivers in Maharashtra, though it was ignored. The government agencies, mostly convenient to the real estate lobby, marked flood levels in place of flood lines. These levels, according to Yadwadkar, were later superimposed on the Development Plan maps of Kolhapur, making it possible for constriction activity near the Panchaganga, Krishna and other rivers.

Encroachment on riverbeds always reduces the carrying capacity of floodwaters, something Pune also witnessed during its September 25, 2019 flash floods, when the Ambil Odha turned killer. Heavy rainfall often results in swollen rivers rupturing their banks and floodwater gushing through houses built on the floodplains, leading to major devastation.

Even as there was discharge of water from the Radhanagari dam this year, the Panchaganga was swelling in Kolhapur city.

Every disaster brings lessons which the government can either learn from, or chose to ignore at its own peril. The price, of course, will be paid by common citizens.

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Thursday, October 28, 2021