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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Business Standard

A man-made disaster

August 29, 2007

Floods may be an annual feature at monsoon time, but the havoc wreaked by the gushing waters this year has been the worst in living memory. By official reckoning, over 1,500 people have lost their lives and over 31 million people have been displaced from their homes.

This is quite apart from the loss of crops on over 2 million hectares, the death of at least 70,000 farm animals, and colossal damage to property and the physical infrastructure.

Horrific as these numbers are, what sets this year's floods apart from the usual annual visitation is that they have occurred in areas where the rainfall has been only slightly about normal, and certainly not excessive; the floods have also occurred in river basins where stream flows have been tamed to a considerable degree by building reservoirs and downstream canal systems.

Logically speaking, these should not be the areas to be ravaged by floods; yet, they are.

What this suggests, therefore, is that it is the mismanagement of water stocks in the reservoirs that has caused the floods, not unexpected cloudbursts.

If the reservoirs were emptied adequately prior to the monsoon season, so as to create room for holding the anticipated rainwater inflows, the waters would not have gone across the embankments to inundate such vast tracts.

At the same time, the flood forecasting network of the Central Water Commission, which comprises over 170 stations dotted all over the country, seems to have failed to do its assigned job of sounding timely alerts.

This network is supposed to issue both river stage forecasts and water inflow forecasts. Clearly, the required information was not made available, or not done in time. As yet, however, there has been little public recognition of the possibility (and certainly no official acknowledgement) that the country's worst-ever floods may have been largely man-made.

This has the makings of a scandal of tragic proportions; the government should do a proper inquiry and make the findings public, so that recurrence is avoided.

What is needed most of all is an efficient and effective flood control system. While complete prevention of floods is not possible, especially considering their close association with untamable natural phenomena like rains, squalls, cyclones, cloud bursts and the like, the intensity of the floods and the damage they cause can be limited through structural and non-structural flood management measures.

This is especially so because, by now, the flood-prone areas have been clearly demarcated and what needs to be done to prevent floods there lucidly spelt out.

Besides, a national programme of flood management has existed since 1954. Despite that, only about 17 million hectares of the estimated 45.64 million hectares of flood-prone areas have been given some degree of protection against floods.

This apart, not much has been done to restore the eroded green cover of the catchment areas of rivers to regulate water flows. Such a measure is needed also for alleviating the problem of silt accumulation in river beds and reservoirs, which curtails their water-holding capacity, making them more flood-prone.

What is also unfortunate is that a reliable model for long-term monsoon prediction has not been developed till now, to assist in the proper management of water stocks in reservoirs.

The India Meteorological Department releases its long-range monsoon rainfall forecast only a few days prior to the actual onset of the monsoon, serving little purpose. The reliability of these projections, too, is low.

Flood control apart, even flood management fails to ensure adequate rescue and relief measures, and prevention of the usual post-flood disease outbreaks. Little attention is being paid even to a basic measure like dissuading people from occupying river flood plains.

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