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Before the waters rise…

In many flood-affected areas, ponds and tanks which earlier absorbed a lot of flood water do not exist.

BHARAT DOGRA | New Delhi |

As widespread distress is reported due to floods in many parts of the country, the immediate concern is of course for better rescue and relief. However, on a long-term basis questions also need to be raised regarding the policies that could lead to better protection from floods.

In fact, such questions are increasingly being asked not just in India but in many countries. There is also a growing feeling that there is need for serious introspection with a view to learning from past mistakes. A common point for such thinking is to ask in the context of several regions why floods have increased despite a lot of money having been spent on flood-control.

If flood-control projects are taken up and still damage from floods goes on increasing, then people are bound to ask if more of the same projects will ever bring real protection to them.

Clearly, we can learn much from an honest and unbiased review of how billions of rupees were spent at a national level on flood-control and yet the area exposed to floods as well as the damage caused by floods also increased, even after providing for inflation. If we can conduct such an honest review and incorporate this learning into a new policy for flood protection it will be very useful.

But the chances of this happening are not very bright as governments and authorities are generally reluctant to admit past mistakes and in addition powerful vested interests are associated with the existing approach to flood-control.

Despite all the associated controversies, some aspects of obtaining better flood protection are becoming clearer. It is for instance clear that much more attention needs to be given to protection of hilly catchments, particularly in ecologically crucial areas like the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats. It is unfortunate that lip sympathy is often readily extended to this cause and yet this is violated all the time with very tragic results. Forests should be protected, greenery enhanced, mining and large-scale constructions should be very carefully regulated.

Water conservation efforts should be increased at all levels, particularly in hills and plateaus. This will help to protect from droughts as well as from floods. Governments and officials often claim that they are already achieving a lot in this area, but the quality of the works taken up must be evaluated closely and carefully to understand why this enhanced work on paper is not reflected in actual results.

Much needs to be done to improve drainage of water. With roads and embankments being constructed rapidly in more remote areas as well, drainage often gets neglected. So, flood waters do not get drained quickly and people suffer more due to prolonged floods and waterlogging. Obstruction of drains by garbage – particularly polythene – is another increasing problem.

In cities and even small towns the construction of new buildings on old drainage paths or even water bodies has increased susceptibility to floods greatly even as this has led to more shortages of water in dry season. In many urban areas with all the new construction activity, the landscape can change drastically in a short time without adequate attention being given to drainage aspects.

In many flood-affected areas, ponds and tanks which earlier absorbed a lot of flood water do not exist. Hence better attention to drainage and building regulations will help to reduce flood damage while being beneficial in other ways. An important area of attention should be that flood water should be drained quickly.

The entire issue of flood control based on embankments needs to be resolved on the basis of the actual experience of dams and embankments as flood control devices. What cannot be denied is that many heavily embanked areas could not be protected from floods and the damage from breached embankments was much more than in the case of normal floods. It is equally clear that heavy water discharges from dams have sometimes led to the most destructive floods. All these experiences should be examined in a completely unbiased manner to learn from them so that a more balanced and better flood protection policy can be formulated.

The flood plains should be identified properly and kept free from cement and concrete to the maximum extent so that flood waters can be absorbed to enhance groundwater. Orchards of trees which have a good ability to tolerate waterlogging and floods is a good option for such areas. Traditional wisdom of people living in flood-prone areas should be used to enhance their adaptability. Water, sanitation and health policies specially suited to the needs of areas vulnerable to floods and waterlogging should get attention so that the more specific needs of these areas can be addressed.