When all the boards did shrink

Floods in Kashmir could have been managed better if there was a reliable early warning system

Himanshu Upadhya Bengaluru 

The first fortnight of September saw Jammu and Kashmir being ravaged by severe flash floods. But, according to the snatches of news we got, the monsoon was below average in the state until the last week of August. Thereafter, four days of incessant rain in the Valley and in Jammu made almost all the rivers and streams rise above the danger mark. However, the value of this ‘danger mark’ remains questionable since the Central Water Commission (CWC) flood forecasting mechanism does not have a single inflow forecasting or level forecasting station in the state. So we don’t quite know if the ‘danger mark’ refers to the highest flood level reached in 1992 or in 1959, when the two worst floods in recent recorded history occurred in the state.

The Central Water Commission’s flood forecast bulletins do not include a single one authored either by the state’s flood control department or by the CWC. On the J&K Irrigation and Flood Control Department website, the ‘news’ section has ‘latest’ news from 2011! A map from the Indian Meteorological Department on rainfall statistics shows the entire state having received deficit rainfall (20-59 per cent below normal) for the period from June to September 3.

We merely had a list of emergency helpline numbers and media coverage that went into overdrive with focus on rescue and relief. However, as a nation that has put in place the Disaster Management Act in 2005, we must be looking at disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction measures.

 

Action Plan on Flood Management

In its performance audit report on “Disaster Preparedness in India”, released on April 23, 2013, the CAG of India had noted that, “as per guidelines issued by National Disaster Management Authority in January 2008, Union Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) was to prepare a detailed action plan” but even four years later the MoWR had not formulated an actionable plan for flood management. The Crisis Management Plan of 2009 had identified the CWC as the authority responsible for sending the first information relating to flood forecasts. How much the CWC has achieved on this front since 2009 can be gauged by looking at its flood forecasting website and focusing on Jammu and Kashmir!

The ministry-specific Crisis Management Plan, prepared by the MoWR in March 2011 to handle crises related to flood forecasting and dam failures, required each state to establish a Dam Safety Organisation. However, the CAG’s performance audit report noted that as of July 2012, only 14 states had prepared such Dam Safety Organisations. It would have helped hapless citizens a great deal if the CAG’s performance audit report could have named the defaulting states.

Similarly, as per guidelines issued by the CWC in May 2006, each state was required to develop and implement an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) for large dams. The CAG performance audit report observed that, as of September 2011, only eight states had prepared an EAP for 192 large dams out of 4,728 dams in 29 states. Here also the CAG of India failed to provide the citizens with actionable and analysable information by withholding the names of 192 large dams and the eight states that had complied. When the rate of non-compliance is so high, it would make sense to not be content with merely stating the statistics and it is to be hoped the CAG auditors start putting out names.

Writing on the recent floods, Dinesh Mishra, a noted researcher on rivers and floods, states, “In 1987, 5.14 lakh hectares land was identified to be under the risk of flood and we were told that the state had provided flood control measures on 2.17 lakh hectares of it.” A working group of the 12th Five Year Plan had recommended `3,698 crore for J&K towards flood control work, which would make the state the second largest recipient of flood control funds. What were the flood control and flood management measures that the state had proposed for the 12th Five Year Plan and how did it spend Central funds under the Natural Calamity Fund and other such grants needs to be probed in detail.

 

Failure in Lake Management

The CAG audit report on J&K for the year ended March 31, 2011, had highlighted the environment management issues of the Dal lake. The report observed that “all the lakes in J&K are being subjected to forces of degradation by anthropogenic activities” and, among other problems, it cited land reclamation as resulting in lake shrinkage! The audit also remarked that although the state is endowed with 38 major water bodies that together cover 743 square km, it had formulated no comprehensive policy for lakes other than the Dal. Thus, the CAG’s performance audit of environment management of lakes in J&K was confined to the Dal. 

Absence of Flood Monitoring

The performance audit report had indicted the CWC for having a mechanism to provide inflow forecasts to only 28 reservoirs and barrages out of 4,728 reservoirs and barrages in the country. Even for the 28 reservoirs, where the CWC provides flood forecasts based on inflow and water level, it has a policy to issue forecasts once the water level in a river touches a pre-defined warning level. The CAG’s performance audit also reported that in an evaluation study of flood control schemes conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Administration in November 2009, three deficiencies were highlighted: non-functional telemetry stations, temporary gauge sites during the flood period, and flood forecasting stations sans dedicated communication facilities and so on.

The CAG, during the course of the performance audit in July 2012, asked the MoWR whether these shortcomings were rectified and reported that the CWC could only state that “necessary directions had been issued to address these issues”! The CAG performance audit noted that identification and marking of flood-prone areas was to be done by states and, as per the Flood Forecast Monitoring Directorate, not much was done in this regard.

The disasters in two consecutive years — the landslide-triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand in 2013 and the floods in J&K this year — also bring back concerns over dam operations during flash floods. As per media reports, even as the flash flood threat had become visible, the authorities at the Dulhasti hydropower project took the decision to open the flood gates on September 5. This had the potential to worsen the flood situation and create a further vortex by forcing the downstream Baglihar hydropower project to discharge and make the Chenab downstream swell to unprecedented proportions.

The CWC and MoWR should tell citizens what lessons it has learned with regard to each of these issues.

The writer is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2014