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It is necessary to heed the missing beats

Come months of June to September, our country witnesses either hell or high water, literally, as happened this year. Either far too little or far too high, water flows under the bridges, sometimes over them, inundating and washing them away. Both extremes have been causes for worry and misery of gigantic proportions.

This year, NASA provided estimates of monsoon rainfall that affected India from Aug. 13 to 20 that showed two bands of heavy rain across the expanse. The first band extended across the northern part of the peninsula with weekly rainfall totals ranging from over 120 mm towards the western half of the peninsula to as much as 350 mm over parts of the eastern half towards the Bay of Bengal. The second band, more intense, closely aligned with the southwest coast of India and the Western Ghats where the rainfall was over 250 mm to 400 mm. The above average monsoon rains resulted in severe flooding in parts of Kerala and Karnataka former being the hardest hit, where at least 350 fatalities are reported and as many as 800,000 people displaced, as a result of the extreme flooding and ensuing mudslides. Was this avoidable with such information available? A typical Indian response often steeped in religious beliefs and a “who cares” and “will happen if it is destined to happen” attitude combine, letting the tragedy happen, almost as a matter of fact. Can the future be secured against such disasters? The solution lies within the problem and there lies the catch. Consequently, people pay for the greed of so called development.

What then causes floods? Heavy and long periods of rainfall, tsunamis, snowmelt, steep slopes, impermeable rock that doesn’t allow water through, very wet, saturated soils or compacted dry soil, all of these can cause floods. These may look natural causes to the uninitiated. A deeper understanding and a read between the lines, would reveal a story that may be otherwise. Inadequate capacity within riverbanks to contain high flows, riverbank erosion, silting of riverbeds, landslides leading to obstruction of flow and change in the river course, retardation of flow due to tidal and backwater effects, poor natural drainage in the flood prone area, cyclone and associated heavy rainstorms, cloud bursts, and dam break flows, all cause flooding. These do not appear natural, for effects are couched within the causes. It is a fact that floods do bring misery in their wake. However, there are benefits of flooding too. For farmers and those in the agricultural sector, it helps in the long run, by providing nutrients to the soil that were lacking.  Flooding deposits, fine silt or alluvium onto the floodplain that makes the soil more fertile and increases agricultural production.

Floods are the most recurring of the natural disasters and classified in zones of flooding. Brahmaputra river basin, Ganga River basin, North-West rivers basin, and Central India and Deccan rivers basin. This division provides pointers that the mitigation methods are not similar. The annual precipitation, in India, including snowfall is estimated at 4,000 billion Cubic Meter (BCM). A seasonal rainfall in monsoon is of the order of 3,000 BCM. The Central Water Commission (CWC) under Ministry of Water Resources reports that the annual average area affected by floods is in the excess of 8000 million ha. The National Flood Commission has reported that the total flood prone area of India was more than 40 million ha. Based on data collected by the Centre on actual areas flooded since 1950, among the top 10 most vulnerable states, Punjab is followed by West Bengal, Bihar, UP, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Assam, Gujarat and Odisha, in that order. Bihar last year saw 500 deaths due to floods. A prime finding for the tragedy by NDMA was primitive embankment management and reluctance of villagers to evacuate even when flood waters crossed the danger level. Torrential rains, which caused floods in South India in November and early-December in 2015, has led to economic losses to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore. Aon, a global professional services firm headquartered in London that provides risk, retirement and health consulting, revealed, “Total economic losses in India were estimated to reach as high as Rs 200 billion, and India’s General Insurance Corporation claims possibly reaching up to Rs 20 billion,”. The Assam floods in 2016 had affected over 9,000 people, with nearly 29 villages being inundated. The 100-year rainfall event in Chennai exposed the inherent weakness of the one-dimensional nature of the economic pursuit and highlighted the need for serious introspection, implementation of mitigation measures and the redesign of urban landscapes.

TOI reported in 2016 that, every year around three crore people are affected by floods. At inflation-adjusted 2016 prices, the average annual loss because of floods, heavy rains, works out to 11,000 crore. Apart from that, more than a thousand lives are lost. So far floods have killed more than one lakh people in the country. Risk assessment can play a major role in awareness and insurance in mitigating the financial and other hardships.

India’s newest state capital Amravati, is being built on a 217 Sq km, on the southern banks of the river Krishna flood plains, which floods thrice in an average year, often, it also suffers from droughts and consequent water shortage. Though designed to have 51% of green spaces and 10% of water bodies, the river front urban settlement is a real concern. Is there a price that future generations have to pay?

Flood mitigation involves management and control of flood water movement, such as redirecting flood run-off through the use of floodwalls and flood gates, rather than trying to prevent floods altogether. It also involves the management of people, through measures such as evacuation and dry or wet proofing properties. The most effective way of reducing the risk to people and property, is through flood risk maps and proactively evacuating people to higher reaches. Prevention is better than cure as they say. Some methods must be inexorable, such as better flood warning systems, modifying homes and businesses to help withstand floods, constructing buildings above flood levels, tackling climate change, increasing spending on flood defences, protecting wetlands, planting trees strategically, restoring rivers to their natural courses, creating water storage areas, improving soil conditions and creating more flood barriers. Some age old wisdom, would also help with imperatives like reforestation, and construction of reservoirs and channels diverting floodwater.

The question However, is, when are the flood gates opened? Since most of these devices operate by controlling the water surface elevation being stored or routed, they are also known as crest gates. In case of flood bypass systems, floodgates sometimes are used to lower the water levels in a main river or canal channel by allowing more water to flow into a flood bypass or detention basin, when the main river or canal is approaching a flood stage. Detention basins are then, critical. The flow of water must be unhindered, smoothly flowing from higher plains into the lower ones. The timing is extremely important and must be attempted only when the evacuation is complete lest the damage that accrues can be catastrophic, if the crest gates are opened as a matter of exigency than any plan.  At a time when the Government thrust is on creating smart cities where water supply or the sewage systems are controlled, amongst controlling many other utilities, understand when water is flowing or if there is a leak or if a flood is building and putting in place a command-and-control system, where the entire water flow situation can be monitored and controlled, can we afford the periodic floods that wash away even the basic utilities? Our priorities must be equally smart in times to come and must heed the missing beats.

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