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Water under the bridge

India has officially been ‘battling’ floods in its rivers since 1954. Instead of ‘waging war’ against floods, we must focus on preparation. Manoj Misra writes.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2011 22:52 IST
Manoj Misra
Manoj Misra
Hindustan Times

India has officially been ‘battling’ floods in its rivers since 1954. This is manifested in the construction of multipurpose dams over rivers with flood control as one of their ‘multiple’ roles.

The raising of embankments to keep flood waters away along some 33,000 km of India’s river banks is also a prime example of this ongoing ‘battle’.

And yet, according to the World Bank, over the past 50 years, flood-affected areas in India have almost doubled from a mere 5% to about 12%. Is there an explanation for this progressively ‘losing’ war?

Nature doesn’t indulge in wars. Humans do. Our rivers flood every monsoon, especially during a good monsoon, something every farmer prays for.

High rainfall naturally results in flooded streams and rivers spreading over their plains as flood waters race downstream to the seas. Can there be anything more natural than this?

This is akin to a ‘cold wave’ during winter or a ‘hot wave’ in summer. If a cold wave or a hot wave is endured by humans and never spoken of in terms of their being ‘natural disasters’, why are river floods thought of in those terms and grand plans made to ‘combat’ them?

That we continue — and shall continue — to fail in this meaningless combat has once again been brought home in a telling manner by the recent Mahanadi floods in Odisha. The ‘multipurpose’ dam over river Mahanadi at Hirakud stands as one of the first such dams created in independent India. Many experts now wonder if the dam has actually worsened, rather than helped, the flood situation in the state.

In monsoonal India, we must first understand floods in rivers and then prepare ourselves through non-structural ways and methods to remain safe.

The first of these measures is improved and state-of-the-art flood forecasting. Monitoring methods through the use of technological props like satellite imageries and climate watch techniques are necessary.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is quite up-to-date on these technologies.

Second, legislative measures can secure the flood plains against rampant encroachment by vested interests of all kinds. The River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification by the ministry of environment and forests is yet to see the light of day.

Third, the natural drainage systems in different parts of the country — badly truncated or mutilated by the building of roads, highways and railways with little regard to the natural path that flood waters have traced over the ages — must be restored. The situation is further confounded by the relentless urbanisation seen in recent times.

For example, the manner in which the city of Delhi is flooded by a few hours of rainfall is a testimony to the results of an utter disregard by the city planners for the city’s natural drainage system.

Can any Mumbaikar forget July 25, 2005, when almost the entire city went under floodwaters with natural drains built upon or lost?

So, shall we let our rivers and their flood plains be? Shall we let the natural drainage systems created by the flowing water over the years be respected and restored?

Shall we utilise the advantages of the latest advancements in climate prediction and flood forecasting, communicating them far and wide for people in vulnerable sites to move to safe locations?

An affirmative on all those questions would make for less misery during the monsoons.

(Manoj Misra, is the convener of the Delhi-based Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Sep 25, 2011 22:50 IST