Even when Srinagar hogged all the limelight post the September 2014 devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir, areas such as Gund-i-Jehangir in remote Bandipora district, north-west of Srinagar near the Wular Lake, were neglected by media, and to some extent, even by the administration. Media, local, national or international, too did not reach here then.

"Most of the fields/orchards have water since September first week till now. In some, it is even 2-3  feet deep, in some a  few inches above ground," rued Ejaj Ahmed, an apple orchard owner, whose land is submerged under water for over six months now.

Ahmed  and others from Gund-i-Jehangir are worried about the apple crop this season. Most of the trees are about 20-years-old, mature, giving a good yield. But now, the trunks of almost 80-90 per cent of them have been submerged in water for months. The older trees might survive the watery onslaught but others won’t, Ahmed said.

Worst affected

Gund-i-Jehangir and its neighbouring Naid Khai are the worst affected villages due to water logging since the 2014 floods. And these are just two of 123 such villages in Bandipora district that were ravaged by floods in September 2014 and hence declared "flood affected" by the administration. Most of these villages, and the apple/paddy fields, continue to be waterlogged even now.

It had been raining for almost entire September and the soil was saturated with water up to a point that it could no longer take any more. The first week of March, heavy snowfall and rain again led to floods and thus added to the inundation of large number of villages. "Continuous water holding in the soil has meant the roots too have been damaged," said Shubir Bhat, another apple grower.

The village has about 500-odd houses. Prosperous farmers have a turnover of up to Rs 50 lakh per year. But most are those who have about or less than Rs 5 lakh per annum turnover. Mohammad Imin complained of not receiving proper compensation as yet, more than six months later. For Kashmir, apples and saffron (kesar) are the two main sources of income (apart from tourism). Apple and saffron (not in this tehsil) both have suffered due to excessive rains and subsequent water logging in the valley.

On the one hand it is the fields/apple orchards that are submerged while on the other it is the rows and rows of houses that are still surrounded by water, stagnant for months now. "Summer in the Valley has brought its own set of problems. We suffered then due to floods and now too we are set to suffer due to waterlogging," Bashir Ahmed Lone, leader of the apple growers, said.

Topography culprit

The location of Sonawari tehsil, especially the two villages, too is to be blamed for longer exposure to water. Unlike rest of India, where most rivers flow southwards, eastwards or westwards, the Jhehlum basin is unique in the sense, the river travels in the valley from southeast to northwest direction filling one big reservoir after another en route before reaching, and passing, Wular Lake. The entire basin&’s slope is very gradual and hence water takes longer time to drain. Gund-i-Jehangir and Naid Khai happen to be the last of the areas, touching the southeastern edges of the Wular&’s catchment, the largest lake of the valley.

The problem was only aggravated by another round of heavy rains in March in the Kashmir Valley. Unless remedial measures are not taken immediately, the villages are sitting on a health epidemic, especially in view of the rising temperatures. These include gastro-enteritis and other water borne diseases.

"Warming up (rise in temperature) has more impact in mountain regions, especially in the lower Himalayas. There is lot of biological degradation. But more than that, there is increased transmission of diseases. In fact, sometimes, changed weather conditions may lead to mutation of new diseases," said Dr Tej Pratap, vice-chancellor, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology.

Allaying fears about health hazard, Nazir Ahmad Baba, additional deputy commissioner of Bandipora district, blamed the generally low-lying area of Sonawari tensil for the long duration of water retention. "But now, as the temperature rises, Jhelum&’s level is decreasing steadily. Plus we are also de-watering continuously. Further, as the temperature increases, land&’s retention capacity will increase. So the problem arising out of water borne diseases will be less."

Nazir Baba said assessment survey for loss of cattle, apple orchards and paddy land is ongoing and is in the final stages of completion. "By the end of the first quarter of this financial year, we should be able to pay full compensation as per National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) norms. For now, we had already started paying compensation to those whose turnover is less than Rs 5 lakh but recently we also started paying those who have more than Rs 5 lakh turnover," he said.

The Lake

Wular Lake&’s total area was 217.8 sq kms, including 58 sq kms of associated marshes, in 1911. By 2007, the actual lake&’s area of 159.74 sq kms had shrunk to 86.71 kms. "Overall there was reduction of the lake area by 45 per cent mainly due to conversion into agriculture (28 per cent) and plantation (17 per cent). Further, associated marshes were reduced by 70 per cent, again due to conversion into agriculture and settlements," M Salim Beg, a conservationist, said quoting the Comprehensive Management Action Plan for Wular Lake (Wetlands International South Asia).

Wular&’s holding capacity, the water retention capacity, had reduced considerably over the decades. Jhelum&’s carrying capacity had similarly decreased over the years, thanks to encroachment of the river floodplains and at times, even the actual river channel.

Club with it the most important reason of unprecedented heavy rainfall and then it is easy to decipher what caused so much devastation. Flooded Jhelum bringing in more than its capacity of water to Wular, which is already saturated and unable to take more water, a surefire recipe for disaster and that&’s what exactly happened in the Kashmir Valley September 2014 onwards. Jhehlum carried much more (almost 1 lakh cusecs) than its capacity (about 65,000 cusec) water during September 2014 floods, claimed Javed Jafar, chief engineer, Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD), Kashmir.

Excessive rains

Sonam Lotus, scientist with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) at Srinagar pointed out, "Climatologically speaking, September is not a rainy season for Kashmir. The average monthly rainfall based on data from 1901 onwards in September is 33 mm. The highest monthly rainfall recorded at Srinagar in September was 180.8 mm in 1909, 141.9 mm in 1928 and then 184.8 mm in 2014."

Explaining the reason behind this unprecedented rainfall, Lotus said, "The heavy rainfall last year in first week of September was due to interaction of monsoon current and western disturbances over the state."

The myth that monsoon does not affect Kashmir and Ladakh due to lofty Pirpanjal ranges and Ladakh mountains, which act as barriers for monsoon clouds, was busted yet again. "Plains of Jammu receive good monsoon rains. But when monsoon winds are strong around north India, it does penetrate into Kashmir and Ladakh and the combination becomes deadly if it interacts with western disturbances," Lotus said. "In September 2014, continuous moisture feeding took place from Arabian Sea due to South-west Wind (western disturbance) supported by additional moisture supplied by South-east Winds (monsoon winds). The combined effect brought continuous heavy rain leading to unprecedented floods."

Climate Change at play?

There is a direct impact of climate change on water. The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned that changes in precipitation in a warming world will not be uniform. The high altitudes and the equatorial Pacific are likely to experience an increase in annual mean precipitation by the end of this century.

Intensified hydrological cycle means fewer rainy days but more intense rainfall on those days. Specifically for Indus basin  applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir  there is a serious uncertainty over long-term annual run off in the rivers of the Indus basin.

"September 2014 received unprecedented rainfall. But our data suggests that frequency of Western Disturbances has increased but the intensity has gone down," Lotus explained extensively during a workshop at Srinagar on Adaptation to Climate Change in the Indian Himalayas, organised by Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and The Third Pole earlier this month.

Echoing the reasons, Dr G M Dar, faculty, Disaster Management at the Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, Jammu and Kashmir (IMPA J and K) sought to link the changes to human behaviour. "There is clear unpredictability of Western Disturbances with unusual distribution of rainfall, changing pattern of precipitation and sustained deficit of snowfall. Water level in all the streams and nullahs has witnessed a decline of two-thirds over the last five decades, prompting the people to encroach floodplains and embankments."

Other manifestations of climate change in the Kashmir Valley include actual time period for snowfall shifting from December-January to February-March, he said, adding, "The inability of the snow to freeze owing to higher temperatures is causing faster meltdown, leading to complete disappearance of small glaciers."

The impact was massive, result unimaginable. Jammu and Kashmir witnessed one of the worst floods in recent decades with all rivers in the region in spate due to almost a weeklong spell of excessive rainfall. More than 170 people died and thousands were displaced due to floods. There was huge loss of property and goods as flood waters failed to recede for more than a week, especially in high-density urbanised Srinagar.

Breached homes

One such area was Jawahar Nagar, beside a flood channel. Hundreds of houses suffered damage after the flood channel breached and water level rose to even the first floor level. People huddled together on safe floors and spent days without electricity, limited water and shared food. Army boats came to rescue people. Water started receding only after a whole month.

When this correspondent visited the Jawahar Nagar colony, Mohammad Muzaffar, 69, was picking up pieces of his life from the rubble that was once his home.  He retired from a private firm long ago and now carries out petty jobs to sustain himself and his ailing wife. The couple had bought the plot in 1963 and brick by brick built their home. "Water level rose to the first floor and the house remained submerged for more than 28 days. The government paid me Rs 75,000. It all went into just removing the debris. Labour cost is Rs 500 per day. How do I re-build my house? And what about the household items that I lost in floods? How will I buy that, where is the money?" Muzaffar said, almost in tears.

At the other end of the colony is a three-storey house with its entire ground floor and first floor damaged as it had remained submerged under water for almost a month. Jasbir Kaur, her daughter-in-law Hardeep Kaur and son Manmohan Singh are still pulling together their lives. "I vividly remember that dreaded 7 September day. Water rose till the first floor in just 20 minutes. Most shocking was the sight of my I10 car floating up due to force of water and then it slowly sank," Singh recalled.

Hardeep ran a boutique on the ground floor and employed four tailors. Her tailoring machines, clothes and other material was so severely damaged, she has not been able to reopen the boutique, rendering herself and four tailors unemployed. "And all we got was a mere Rs 3,800 in the name of compensation," Hardeep said.

Most people complained about pittance of compensation offered by the state government, ranging from a mere Rs 3,800 for partial damage to houses, Rs 12,500 for houses that were severely damaged to a tad better Rs 75,000 for houses those were fully damaged due to floods.

"The new government has promised to chip in with more compensation amount, but don’t know when we’ll get it," said Shaheena Firdaus, another resident of Jawahar Nagar.

This is a massive rebuilding exercise that the community and the government has taken up. Urban areas are better off but interior areas still suffer due to neglect.

Rebuilding Precautions

Environmental experts have warned of not repeating the mistake of unplanned haphazard urbanisation eating into natural water bodies that acted as sponge for water. Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an environmental think tank, had pointed out more than 50 per cent of lakes, ponds and wetlands in and around Srinagar have been encroached upon over the last century. Banks of Jhelum were overrun. reducing its drainage capacity. The same is the case with Tawi in Jammu area, the CSE had said in its analysis of factors leading to Kashmir floods.

"Natural disasters such as this bring home lessons and substantial knowledge. We need to change and tune our strategies and policies, especially in the area of urbanisation and building technologies. The strategies must address the issue of drainage, land use, water shed management (removal of siltation) and of course, urban planning," Beg said elaborating on the topic Floods through History and Community Response at the same workshop. The building bye laws, enforced with sufficient legal and executive backup, need to be introduced but these need to be linked with architecture, construction technology and material used, he added.

Iftikhar Hakim, chief town planner, Srinagar, had a word of caution: "There is no evidence to suggest that tourism sustains Kashmir&’s economy. But in the garb of tourism activity, there is a cartel, which promotes unauthorised colonies encroaching the floodplains and even river embankments. While rebuilding, we need to stop this."

 

Preparing district level and state level disaster management plans was an important step in that direction. But there was a catch. The ongoing exercise  or the plans that were have been prepared earlier at the district level  have failed to make a connection with the local level officials, usually the first to respond to disasters. "The need is for a simplified version of district disaster management plan. The existing plan is too complex and bulky to read and understand, forget about its implementation," said an officer from one of the districts. Following the BBB method was always better, Dar summed up: "Building back better".