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Uttarakhand to Kashmir: We are a disaster when it comes to disasters

Many hoped that the Uttarakhand tragedy would be a valuable lesson to the states and government-funded institutions that tackle such disasters. But regrettably, as we see in Jammu and Kashmir, no lessons were learnt, writes KumKum Dasgupta.Let-up in rains, army airlifts engineers to set up wireless units | VOTE: Should India treat disaster management as a priority?

india Updated: Sep 09, 2014 15:33 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

The headline-grabbing event of the last couple of days — the mammoth floods in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) — confirms once again that disaster preparedness is just not there in our DNA. It was only a year ago that the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand was ravaged by rains and floods that killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed property worth crores.

Many hoped that the tragedy would be a valuable lesson to the states and government-funded institutions that tackle such disasters. But regrettably, as we see in J-K, no lessons were learnt.

As I watched on TV the swirling river water ransack everything that came in its way, I remembered a quote I read somewhere: “Disasters happen. We still have no way to eliminate earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, floods or droughts. We cope as best we can by fortifying ourselves against danger with building codes and levees, and by setting aside money to clean up afterwards”.

Take for example, the issue of flood alerts: The India Meteorology Department’s season rainfall map as on September 6, 2014, shows that J-K received 558 mm rainfall till that date, progressing to excess rainfall category from deficit season rainfall of 308 mm as on September 3, in just three days.

Despite this warning, the Central Water Commission (CWC), which is responsible for flood forecasting and providing advisory to the states for tackling floods, had no flood forecasts for the state.

“The CWC’s flood forecast list on September 6, 2014, has 18 level forecasts and eight inflow forecasts, but NONE from J-K,” Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People told HT. “The CWC’s flood forecast site has another option that provides hydrographs for various rivers and location. Again for J-K it provides no hydrographs. The options on CWC’s Flood Forecast site for list-based selection and map-based selection again has no information about Jammu and Kashmir.”

When Down to Earth’s (DTE) correspondent confronted VD Roy, director of flood forecasting, CWC, about the floods, he said that state has a hydrological observatory which shares data with the state government but it does not have a flood forecasting network, adding that to date “CWC has established 175 stations for flood forecasting, but none of them is in J-K.

We plan to extend the centres and soon J-K will have additional flood forecast station.” When DTE asked why the state did not have a single station till date, Roy said, in a typical babu style, there are some pre-requisite requirements and since J-K could not provide that, stations could not be established! So now, after the floods have ripped open the state, J-K will probably get a flood forecast station. A sure shot case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

If the central departments were caught napping, the state government was in a Rip Van Winkle mode: it approved a Disaster Management Policy in 2012 for proper mechanism for rescue, relief and rehabilitation of disaster victims.

But it is yet to create a separate department to deal with disasters.

Such lackadaisical attitude is unacceptable since the state is vulnerable to disaster risks due to floods, landslides, earthquakes and Glacial Lake Outburst Flood. Such risks will only increase in the coming years due to climate change not only in J-K but across India.

While it is not possible to avoid disasters, governments could minimise the effects by taking into account the interventions we do in nature and also know the full risks of what we do. We need to assess the disaster potential of the area and understand how the interventions are going to change it.

Moreover, the level of disaster preparedness at the central level and in the states is uneven and requires considerable strengthening.

Last but not the least, India needs much better rainfall prediction, flood forecasting, disaster preparedness and disaster management plans and accountable mechanisms to ensure that all these are functional.

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