Perennial flood threat

In September last, the Valley witnessed one of the worst floods in the history of Kashmir. History tells us that floods have been a recurring feature of the valley. Even if we go back to early history of Kashmir, we find Kalhana reporting devastation caused to crops by heavy rain and floods. Natural calamities are part of human destiny. But the September 2014 flash flood was very different from most of the floods that are known to us.
The city of Srinagar which is located on both banks of river Jhelum was inundated in that flood. In particular the civil lines and posh areas, the main streets and markets of the city were inundated. Water rose up to second storey of residential houses. Shops were flooded and merchandize destroyed. Thousands of human beings had to be rescued. Police, army, air force and paramilitary forces were deployed to rescue stranded people, men, women and children. The losses estimated by the previous Government in terms of damages to civilian and public property, crops, cattle etc. were estimated to be of the tune of 44 thousand crore rupees.
On 23 June, the Valley again witnessed incessant rains which continued for over 48 hours. People in the valley living close to the banks of the river or tributaries naturally became panicky because the traumatic memories of last year’s flood are still fresh in their memory.  The story of panic gripping the people has been told vividly by the local press.  On seeing the level of water rising sharply, people in vulnerable areas abandoned their homes and ran away to safer localities. In the low lying areas of Srinagar, in Rajbagh, Gandbal, Padshahibagh, Soetang Shivpora, Sonwar, Jawahar Nagar, Gogji Bagh, Mehjoor Nagar and Bemina along the banks of river Jhelum fled their homes as these areas  were worst affected by last year’s floods following dozens of breaches in Jhelum and flood channel banks in these localities. Alarming reports are coming in from the districts of Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag in South Kashmir where breaches happened in the river and several diversions and bridges were washed away. Water entered many areas and localities and even homes that stood close to the water bodies. It was a chaotic situation and millions of people were at the mercy of nature. As rain poured down and water level continued to rise, schools were closed and parents rushed to bring their children back home safe and sound. This caused great traffic jam which added to the difficulties of the people.
Though fortunately, rains stopped after 48 hours and the water in Jhelum began to recede, people heaved a sigh of relief and those who had fled returned to their homes to resume normal life. This makes us re-think the entire situation from new and unprecedented perspective. It is now clear that the city of Srinagar, more particularly its low lying areas, are vulnerable to floods and unsafe for residential purposes. First we tackle the cause of inundation of the city of Srinagar and other areas in South as well as North Kashmir. The foremost reason is man-made obstructions created in free flow of the waters of Jhelum as well as its tributaries. Rivers and nullahs often change their course. When, as a result of this changing of course, dry areas are formed, selfish people vie with one another in grabbing the vacant land as it comes without any cost. They have raised structures on this land unmindful that the river or the tributary stream can change its course any season. And that is precisely what happened. Therefore, the issue that has to be tackled is to remove all these unauthorised structures that are the main cause of obstruction and accumulation of flood water. The Government is soft pedalling on this issue just because of political interference. Even the court orders are flouted and violated. Land grabbers’ mafia is wrecking having to the entire State.
The second issue is de-silting of Hokarsar water body. Owing to huge silting accumulated in this water body, the exit route of the flood channel is blocked. It is the back-flow of this water that makes breaches in the bund and allows water to rush to low lying city and inundate it. Therefore drudging and de-silting of the Hokarsar and the entire flood channel has to be undertaken on war footing if Srinagar city is o be saved. In fact the entire Jhelum river bed and the bed of the feeders should be brought under drudging to let water run down unobstructed. We do not know what the plans of Irrigation and Drudging Department are if it is not the drudging of the silted beds.
Thirdly, raising the bund of the river at all vulnerable sites is of primary importance. Plantation on the bund gives strength to the soil and it does not get eroded ordinarily. This is what should be undertaken immediately.
Lastly, the Government has to understand that the city and all low lying areas of the valley are vulnerable to floods and inundation. This is recurring danger and there is no sense in remaining complacent even after some of the above mentioned measures have been taken. Therefore, the Government has to think of a broad-based mechanism of saving the city from floods. A new department may have to be opened which will manage all the requisite projects like drudging, bund raising, vacating of encroachment, de-silting, de-watering, rehabilitation of affected people and fund raising tasks. The State Disaster Management Authority is too small an organization to cope with the magnitude of the threat posed by floods. It is a travesty that nearly nine months have gone by when the floods struck last year and still the Government has not taken any step to meet the challenge. It is bogged with only one issue and that of rehabilitation of the affected people. No doubt that is an urgent issue but other preventive measures cannot be sacrificed for this one issue. We had a miraculous escape from second flood tragedy this week. Government has to be alive to this danger.