Rework flood control strategies | HT Editorial
Floods have once again inundated Assam and Bihar. The deluge has displaced thousands of people, destroyed infrastructure, and wiped out rich, generations-old biodiversity. The two states have moved people and livestock out to temporary shelters (the death toll is low till now), and provided them with food and medical help. In Assam, the government has the additional responsibility of rescuing and providing food and veterinary services to the wild animals of the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, 85% of which is submerged. When the waters finally recede, the official procedure will follow a predictable script: Blame the monsoons, assess the extent of damage, demand financial and material help from the Centre, and announce compensation for the flood-affected people.
But it cannot be business-as-usual anymore. A study by the Asian Development Bank says that floods already account for at least half of all climate-related disasters in the country. The trend of extreme rainfall and erratic monsoon patterns will only exacerbate this challenge. India must rethink its flood-control strategies. The first flaw is in the official understanding and assessment of floods as destructive, which require construction-led solutions. Historically, floods have been part of the lives of riverine people because they bring silt, vegetation, sediment, and fish into the water systems of an area. They only became a “menace” when engineers, starting from the British era, designed engineering solutions — embankments and barrages and dams — to control them. These steps restricted the free flow of rivers; the silt, which would typically spill over a vast area to form the flood plains, is now confined to a much smaller area, raising the river bed. People also started encroaching on floodplains, choking urban drainage systems, paving green spaces, and destroying ponds and lakes. The states’ pro-embankment policy is easy to understand: It helps perpetuate the well-oiled politician-technocrat-contractor nexus.
In a paper, academic Rohan D’Souza has written that floods in South Asia are now acknowledged as an ecological force mediated by social, cultural and political interventions rather than exclusively borne out as an effect of nature. India’s policymakers must do away with the pro-embankment strategy; restore agricultural practices that make best use of floods; ensure re-vegetation of catchments to control rapid soil loss; revive dry springs; and ensure greater percolation of rainwater.