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India must tackle floods better

Shreya Challagalla |

Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, floods in Nepal, Bangladesh and India are wreaking havoc. In the past few months, five Indian states experienced flooding – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar and Assam.

While the exact number is unknown, the death toll is expected to have easily crossed 1,000. It’s important to note that of the five states, Bihar and Assam are flood prone, while Rajasthan and Gujarat, although dry states, have experienced inundation in recent years.

Despite a clear history of flooding, why is India so underprepared?

While there’s nothing we can do about excessive rain, we can certainly mitigate flooding to a large extent. A good place to look to understand the problem is the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) Report 10 of 2017 that examines the effectiveness of flood control and flood forecast performance of projects sanctioned by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD&GR).

The report examined Flood Management Programme projects, flood forecasting stations, River Management Activities and large dams across 17 States and Union Territories in India. Thus, the report is clearly not reflective of India as a whole, but certainly sheds light on the status of flood control management in the country. A couple of observations from the report were striking.

Firstly, of 517 works approved between 2007-2016, only 57 per cent were completed.

The non-completion could be due to multiple reasons – delay in release or shortfall of sanctioned funds, or delays in submitting project proposals.

In addition, in some cases funds were diverted towards works that were not approved. For example, in the three states of Assam, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu alone, Rs.36.50 crore was diverted towards works that lacked approval.

Secondly, projects such as the canalisation of Sakki Nallah in Punjab and the embankment of Adyar River near Nandambakkam in Tamil Nadu were delayed, implying that the states are now less likely to be able to effectively cope with flooding. In Bihar for example, of the 24 projects scrutinised by the CAG, 10 were delayed by 10-75 months.

Moreover, as river topography constantly changes it is important for projects to be completed in time for the fear of them becoming redundant otherwise. Lastly, it was found that project objectives were not met due to inadequate planning.

The report highlights examples of projects such as the strengthening of embankments of Longai river in Assam and bank protection along Bhagirathi river in West Bengal, where despite completion of projects, flooding was still a common phenomenon as the developers did not account for prevention of backflow of the river, “non-establishment of embankment near the sluice gate of the river” and errors in the benefit-cost ratio.

What is even more striking is that majority of Indian dams lack Emergency Action Plans. Has India not learnt from the horrible 1979 Morbi dam disaster in Gujarat? These are serious problems that need to be looked into.

Obviously, the first step is to complete sanctioned projects on time, but more importantly, there should be no scope of errors in project planning, especially in data collection. The CAG report points to instances where data was based on “probable damage” and not actual damage, where data was considered for one year instead of a longer range of say 10 or more years and where only a single survey was used rather than multiple surveys for a more accurate picture.

Flood control in India is complicated and to a large extent neglected for the simple reason that “flood control” as a subject is absent from the Union, State and Concurrent Lists of the Constitution of India. This is surprising considering the fact that flooding is a periodic event in India and the resulting death toll has increased from 3300 in 2007 to 6500 in 2013 according to a UN report “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters”.

The same report reveals that children in rural households exposed to recurrent flooding are more stunted and underweight than those in non-flood villages.

The only mention of any subject related to flood control is drainage, water and embankment, all of which fall under the State List. We can infer from this that the onus of flood control largely falls on the state government, while the role of the central government, according to the CAG report, is limited to providing assistance in the form of technical, advisory, policy formulation, scrutiny, clearance and monitoring of flood control to state governments.

So, what is the way forward? To begin with, both prevention and emergency preparedness along with recovery should be emphasized.

This includes, but is not limited to upgrading drainage systems and improving surface water drainage, putting into place superior flood warning systems and focusing on wetlands, greening of embankments and other greening measures along with the construction of reservoirs and floodways. Furthermore, buildings should be constructed above prescribed flood levels, and flood control projects need to be built in such a way that they can be easily upgraded later at low cost. Moreover, timely completion of projects will not only avoid cost escalation due to delays but will also prevent flooding to a large extent.

It is however unfair and incorrect to always blame the state. The role of the citizen must be recognised especially in urban flooding. Improper disposal of garbage leads to the clogging of drainage systems, flooding roads even with the slightest of rain.

Moreover, due to urbanisation, concrete has rapidly replaced permeable soil which cannot absorb excess water. Illegal construction in low lying and flood prone areas also adds to the problem. Besides, despite the civic authorities issuing notices to residents in dilapidated buildings in Mumbai, they refuse to vacate, perhaps due to the measly rent they currently pay. What does one do in such a situation? India can learn from The Netherlands, a country that is prone to flooding and one that has effectively managed its water.

Through a complex system of dikes, dams, dunes, canals, tough land use laws, seawalls and sluices it has managed to keep unwanted water out.

Moreover, the country gives its four major rivers enough room to flow and drain, even increasing the depth of flood channels and desilting when needed. While such a system is definitely expensive and time-consuming, India can benefit from improved systems and technology in place as it will be better geared to combat flooding, eventually saving the lives and homes of thousands.

This is not to say that India lacks flood control systems – they exist but need to be improved. The much talked about mammoth river linking project is a good and welcome step in this direction.

(The writer is associated with the Observer Research Foundation.)