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Improved understanding essential to avoid destructive floods

As floods and rain-induced landslides batter the country, Bharat Dogra examines some of the reasons why India is under increasing threat from devastation during the monsoons

Several parts of India, including the capital Delhi, are in the grip of unusually heavy flooding during the time of writing. This has happened very early in the monsoons this year, which means a lot of caution is warranted in regard to natural water sources and dams, as their capacity to handle heavy water inflow has been eroded due to avoidable factors.

Of course, providing immediate relief to people is a priority, but at the same time there should be high alertness in issues relating to dam-management and water inflow in order to prevent catastrophic damage under all circumstances. Downstream areas should be kept well-informed on water release plans and the necessary cautionary measures.

As we are living in times of climate change, the authorities should be prepared to handle situations which are unlike those encountered in the past. The hilly areas, particularly in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, have become very vulnerable to damage from floods and landslides due to a mix of climate change-related factors and local issues resulting from flawed development policies and projects. This has made the task of dam managers more difficult. Faulty dam construction and planning have added to the problem.

India is not alone in experiencing floods in more areas, even as expenditure on flood protection increases. Clearly, we need a review of basic thinking related to flood protection. Some floods are highly destructive and/or prolonged. We obviously need to give more attention to check such floods or reduce the harm from them. Some of the most destructive floods in recent years have been those caused by embankment breaches and sudden release of huge quantities of water from dams. These can be checked to a significant extent by adopting appropriate policies, in the short-run and in the longer term. Some of the most prolonged floods or water-logging cases are those caused by the obstruction of natural drainage. These can also be checked to a significant extent by adopting appropriate steps in the short and long term.

However, while checking the more destructive and prolonged floods, we must also learn to co-exist with the natural process of rivers spilling over their banks when there are heavy rains. There are ways of making this co-existence much more bearable and even turning the flood-flows to benefit.

Firstly, forests and green cover in the catchment areas should be very well-protected. There is a lot of difference between natural dense mixed forests and man-made plantations. It is natural mixed forests with their good share of dense, broad leaf species that we need, as well as plenty of other indigenous plant species that can protect soil and conserve water effectively. We need well-planned soil and water conservation efforts in catchment areas, taken up with close participation of local communities. Costly infrastructure and crops which can be destroyed easily by floods should not be planned in areas near rivers, as these places should be devoted to conserving water and planting fruit orchards and other trees capable of absorbing as well as tolerating excessive water.

If we take these precautions, by the time floods reach the wider plains, their intensity will be reduced. More flood-tolerant crops can also be grown, based on indigenous biodiversity which has been neglected. The drainage paths should be kept free of obstruction, for flood waters to find their path easily to natural depressions, lakes, ponds and tanks, filling them up to provide water in the rain-scarce months. This will also ensure that fertile silt will be deposited in the flood plains, helping farmers to get good crops without chemical fertilisers.

Dam and embankment constructions should not be undertaken without a comprehensive understanding of various impacts. Changing the location of floods from one place to another should not be confused with protection from floods. All this requires very good understanding of local conditions and a highly decentralised approach, with communities empowered and made resourceful to take and implement decisions, resolve differences and work for common good. Implementation of plans must be as per local conditions and realities, and for this, decentralisation and empowerment as well as harmony of local communities are very important.

To bring such changes in flood policy, the perception about rivers and floods should change in very basic ways. A narrow engineering- and dominance-based perception should give way to one based on understanding Nature and living with it in harmony, as well as a vision of largely free-flowing rivers. Such a vision also involves giving adequate importance to all life forms which thrive in and around rivers. It needs wider and longer-term thinking.

Unfortunately, various authorities have been increasingly functioning on the basis of short-term benefits which can fetch votes at election times while ignoring wider issues of ecologically protective development, in rural as well as urban areas, and this is leading to increasing vulnerability to disasters like floods and landslides. Hence, long-term democratic reforms are needed to avoid catastrophic destruction.  

(The writer, a journalist and author, is honorary convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His latest books include Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.)