Flood in the desert
How did Rajasthan, India’s driest state, end up being inundated?
Shatakshi Gawade Delhi
In Rajasthan, being a desert state, everybody’s perpetually prepared for drought, not floods. Just before the absurdly heavy rains hit Rajasthan in the second week of July, people were actually wondering whether the monsoon would arrive at all. When it did, it brought the worst with it. Heavy, incessant rain caused flooding in Jalor, Pali, Sirohi and Barmer. Jodhpur and Jaisalmer too received excess rainfall. Road connectivity snapped, schools closed, homes were destroyed, and lives were lost, of people as well as cattle. Although the rains reached their peak in the last week of July, the waters had not receded even in mid-August in several areas.
Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) observations show that the rainfall deviated from its normal patterns in Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jalor, Jodhpur, Pali and Sirohi districts. Between June 1 and August 21, Jalor received 185% more rain than normal, Sirohi 167%, Barmer 129%, Pali 116%, Jodhpur 69% and Jaisalmer 67%. Mount Abu received a startling 1,400 mm of rain in just two days. Overall, Rajasthan received 25% excess rainfall.
This anomaly was caused by separate low-pressure areas that formed simultaneously over the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and led to torrential rainfall in the east and west of India. “Low-pressure systems developed over Rajasthan and Gujarat. These two systems combined to bring a deluge to south Rajasthan and north Gujarat,” said G.S. Nagrale, Director of the Meteorological Centre, Jaipur. The last instance of floods in Rajasthan was in 2006.
Once the rains came, dams filled quickly and water began flowing in dry, long-forgotten waterways that had been converted to settlements. “Several dams and check dams were damaged,” said Ratan Dewasi, ex-MLA of Raniwara, Jalor district. The flooding was centred in the Luni river basin, which extends over parts of Barmer, Jalor, Jodhpur, Pali and Sirohi districts. Eleven of the 13 gates of the Jawai dam in Pali district had to be opened to release excess water on July 28. The main Narmada canal in Jalor was reportedly breached at several points. The canal breached where the Narmada crosses the Banas river, which brought floodwaters from Gujarat into Rajasthan, according to Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Meanwhile, incessant rainfall in Mount Abu inundated low-lying areas in and around Abu Road in Sirohi. “Water entered and cut off villages, broke roads and houses, and carried people away,” said Richa Audichya, Director of Jan Chetna Sansthan, Abu Road. Sharmi Bai Garasiya, a tribal sarpanch from Nichlagarh panchayat, Abu Road block, said she had never seen so much rain in her 40 years. Bridges over the local Battisa river were washed way, leaving her village cut off. “There was so much water, we couldn’t even reach our neighbours. We had limited food for 15-20 days, we couldn’t get medicines for our children, and two people died because they couldn’t be taken to the hospital,” Garasiya said.
No prior warnings
Although newspapers reported heavy rainfall warnings, Audichya said no warning was otherwise given in Abu Road. Some civil society organisations visited flood-affected areas in Barmer district on August 1-2. Jaipur ActionAid team member Navin Narayan said there were no warnings at all in Barmer. Dewasi too confirmed that no warnings were given in Jalor.
A performance audit of India’s flood management schemes by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that though flood forecasting and flood warning began in 1958, Rajasthan is among the 15 states and Union Territories without a flood forecasting station (FFS). These stations observe water levels in major rivers and help in deciding mitigation measures like evacuating people to safety. An FFS also assists in the operation of reservoirs for safe passage of floodwaters downstream. The audit found that none of the 201 completed dams in Rajasthan have emergency action plans to help mitigate loss of life and property downstream in case a dam is breached.
Curiously, Rajasthan is one of the three states that have enacted the Flood Plain Zoning Act. The Act aims at demarcating areas likely to be affected by floods so that when a flood occurs, the damage can be mitigated.
Why it happened
“There is no doubt there was unusually heavy rainfall in the area. Canals and dams were breached, which caused flooding. But the main cause is the disruption of the natural drainage system,” said Thakkar. If the requirements of the drainage system are not kept in mind while constructing the canal’s command area, there is bound to be drainage congestion and water will not reach the rivers or be drained. “The natural drainage system has to be compensated when canals and linked structures cross it. We typically don’t do this,” he said. Reversing the damage caused to the natural drainage will require extensive assessment, planning and significant finances. To add to this, the impervious layer below the topsoil stops rainwater from percolating.
Rajasthan’s waterways usually have little or no water, so people have begun to settle closer and closer to the river systems. “Settlements reduce the width of the river, and garbage dumped in it reduces the depth. There is no demarcation to identify the river boundary. Even if demarcation is done by authorities, people remove it,” said G.P. Soni, a retired superintending engineer of the irrigation department in Udaipur.
Narayan has observed that land near the dams is mostly owned by powerful communities in Rajasthan who want to store rainwater for themselves. “They didn’t allow the gates to be opened, and parts of the dam cracked and water rushed out,” he said. There have also been reports of sand mining upstream of the Luni river basin, said Thakkar. “Sand in the riverbed stores water. When this is removed, water will flow down faster.”
Despite this, Soni believes the calamity wasn’t manufactured. “Since 2004-05, south Rajasthan has received high rainfall. There are unprecedented changes in the rainfall pattern. Design parameters for bridges, dams and canals need to be changed, based on these new patterns. Further, Rajasthan’s water bodies should be restored according to the High Court’s order in the Abdul Rehman vs. State of Rajasthan case,” he said. The order suggests all land marked as drainage channels like nullahs, rivers, tributaries and so on at Independence should be declared government land and guidelines provided for demarcation of catchment areas and drainage areas.
“Mitigation measures in the future will have to keep global warming in mind,” said Hemant Gera, Secretary in the Relief Department of the Rajasthan government. “Planting trees is necessary to avoid soil inundation. Finally, the administration should clear flow channels that have been occupied by settlers in urban areas.”
Just before the rains hit Rajasthan, people were fretting about the absence of rains. Three days after Independence Day, the Jaipur Meteorological Centre saw a deficit in rainfall. “Heavy rainfall in a few days, and then no rain, will destroy the crops. The rain has disappeared, and we are very worried right now,” said Nagrale.