Himalayan Blunders at People’s Peril

Oct 12th, 2014 | By | Category: Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, News

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.

Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

The writer is a scientist and founder of the research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign

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