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Kerala floods | Nature’s fury or failure of water governance?

To save the common man and the country from massive losses in future, it is time to shift the onus of death and destruction from nature and towards those mandated and responsible for flood management

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

Was the Kerala flood merely a case of nature’s fury or one where organisations of the Central and state government were complicit in the devastation? This question is relevant in the face of regular floods in recent times, such as in Uttarakhand in 2013, Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, Chennai in 2015, Bengaluru in 2016 and Mumbai in 2017.

All these floods caused death and destruction. Thousands of lives and hundreds of crores of rupees of property were lost. But what is common to all these flood calamities is that there has been no accountability despite failure of the flood forecasting and flood management policy of the country.

In all these cases, Central Water Commission, the apex technical body in water resources of Government of India manned by the only organised cadre for water resources in India, ducked responsibility and instead placed the onus on respective State governments.

Ask a farmer of Wayanad district why he built his house and farms close to the hills of Western Ghats and river Kabini and he will say he was not aware of any risk associated with floods nor had anyone informed him about flood zones to avoid danger to his and his family’s life and property.

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Or ask a businessman why he set up his plywood business on the flood plans of the Periyar river and he will be utterly ignorant of the dangers he faces. Several thousand people have made their lives, the lives of their families and their livelihoods vulnerable to natural disasters in this country due to ignorance.

Primarily, there are two agencies of Government of India that are responsible for flood management – the India Meteorological Department and the Central Water Commission. While India Meteorological Department is responsible for atmospheric water (i.e. clouds and rainfall), Central Water Commission is largely responsible for surface water i.e. all the water flowing on the surface of the Indian landmass.

Next in line are the respective water resource departments of states which are technically ill-equipped, lack skilled manpower and are financially starved.
Central Water Commission (CWC) on its website declares that it is responsible for initiating, coordinating and furthering in consultation with State Governments schemes for control and conservation of waters for the purpose of flood management in the entire Indian landmass.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) is the scientific organisation in possession of advanced technology equipped with computer models that can forecast rainfall and floods directly from cloud data using radar images. Such advanced technology should have provided sufficient lead time for the local agencies to warn people, evacuate those living in vulnerable areas such as flood plains and zones prone to landslides.

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But intriguingly, except for the rainfall forecasts, IMD has been lying low in the case of Kerala floods. Did IMD communicate heavy rainfall well in advance to CWC? If so, does it justify CWC keeping quiet against the backdrop of impending flood disaster only because Kerala had not made the request?
But, unlike CWC, IMD does not throw the onus on the state governments when it issues a rainfall forecast. It does not wait for the state to make a request for a monsoon forecast. In fact, CWC does not say – either on its website or in its most recent Standard Operating Procedure (that is in public domain) – that a State should request CWC for initiation and coordinating schemes of water for the purpose of flood management.

Before these floods in Kerala, there has not been a single forecasting site in Kerala. Hardly any major dam in Kerala possesses an inflow forecasting site (according to the Standard Operating Procedure Manual of CWC published in April 2018). This despite the CWC acknowledging that Kerala is located in one of the highest rainfall regions of the country.

This would suggest that CWC, even after 72 years of independence, has failed to initiate, co-ordinate and consult the state of Kerala for schemes to control and conserve water for the purpose of flood management. Had CWC played a pro-active role, nature’s fury of floods due to record rainfall could have been reduced.

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Laymen rarely understand terms such as flood risk, flood vulnerability and flood hazard, say experts. A majority of the people in the country have rarely seen the reservoir operating curves of dams on websites of either the Central Water Commission or State water resource departments.

Similarly, many in Kerala are unaware of the existence of something called a reservoir rule curve (the compilation of operating criteria, guidelines, and specifications that govern the storage and release function of a reservoir.) So, part of the problem also lies with state water resource departments.

The state water resource departments aren’t transparent and rarely reveal the storage positions of dams and anicuts before the onset of monsoons to those stakeholders living at risk of flooding. So, with no flood warning system set up by CWC, no rainfall forecast from IMD disseminated to stakeholders, the release of surplus water from the dams during heavy rainfall left stakeholders downstream to bear the burnt.

Like many, the people in this part of India are neither aware of the Madhav Gadgil report on fragile ecosystem of Western Ghats nor the environmental consequences of development projects in the Western Ghats biome. Everything about the environment remains dark in India.

Even learned professionals fall victim to the crooked and distorted system of flood management prevailing in India, thus exposing themselves to the various flood hazards. Habitations are therefore built across flood plains, water bodies are encroached, and livelihoods are set up close to vulnerable zones prone to landslides.

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The integrated approach and coordination between environment agencies – IMD, CWC and state government – was thus completely missing reflecting a collapse of water governance in the current Kerala floods.

India does not have a credible flood management system. Water organizations that were created to serve the people have turned themselves into self-serving monsters thriving on the loopholes of the current fragmented water governance system, say insiders. When a natural calamity strikes, these agencies have learnt the art of shifting the blame conveniently towards another agency or on nature.

While flood after flood strikes India, taxpayers’ money allotted to flood management gets forgotten in the melee of emotions. Ironically, innocents fall prey to the emotional appeal from the very same governments that failed to protect them from nature’s fury.

With the climate change threat now real and with the looming threat of sea level rise, unless India fixes its system of water governance quicker, it is poised for even more natural calamities in coming years.

To save the common man and the country from massive losses in future, it is time to shift the onus of death and destruction from nature and towards those mandated and responsible for flood management.