Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why India Was Not Prepared For Uttarakhand Floods?

By Jagan Shah (Guest Writer)

The headlines three years ago were similar: ‘flash floods leave North India in deep trouble’ and ‘flood, rain, wreak havoc in North India’. Then, the worst hit districts were Almora, Chamauli, Uttarkashi and Nainital. Now, it is Rudraprayag. As we watch the escalating devastation of lives, homes, livelihoods and public utilities, we shrug about how helpless we are before the wrath of Mother Nature.

But we aren’t helpless: we’ve failed because, though we’ve done our homework on how not to fail, we haven’t actually turned these lessons into practice.

India accounts for one fifth of the deaths caused due to flooding across the world. Twenty-four out of the 35 States and Union Territories are vulnerable to disasters and over 5 percent of our landmass is vulnerable to floods. Annually, an average of about 18.6 million hectares of land area and 3.7 million hectares crop area are affected by flooding.

This has led to a great amount of concern—but not a whole load of action.
The Government of Uttarakhand supports a Disaster Mitigation And Management Center (DMMC), which is located in the Secretariat complex in Dehradun and is dedicated to “the protection of the community and the environment from the over whelming obliteration caused by disasters.” The DMMC undertakes an extensive range of training programs, provides advance information, maintains a network of experts and trains communities for disaster mitigation. There are operational guidelines for the State Emergency Operation Group and the Disaster Management Information System.

Finally, it iterates a basic wisdom: “No matter what loss-reduction strategy is used, major reductions in losses of life and property come only when the emphasis shifts from reaction to anticipation.”

The report of the 12th Five-Year Plan working group on ‘Flood Management and Region Specific Issues’, shows Uttarakhand’s flood vulnerabilities. Until March 2011, it included the coverage of 2000 hectares, compared to 18000 hectares in Himachal Pradesh. The state has created 9 km of embankment, a fraction of the 159.16 kms completed in Himachal Pradesh; it has no drainage channels, whereas Himachal has constructed 11 kms. While 82 Himachal villages were protected through the raising of the ground level, none of the villages in Uttarakhand received such protection.

Part of this is historical: Uttarakhand was created only in 1999, and the fact that Uttar Pradesh constructed 3995 kms of embankment in the same period might simply indicate that this has been a long-neglected region.

The 350 crores it requisitioned under the Flood Management Programme paid for such modest needs as new forecast stations for five towns, so that all of the eight cities near rivers would be covered.

The National Flood Control Programme was launched in 1954. The Central Water Commission started flood-forecasting services in 1958. It maintains a Flood Atlas for the country and collects hydrological and hydro-meteorological data from 878 sites, transmitting the data using the latest means of telecommunication.

It supports a network of 175 Flood Forecasting Stations in nine major river basins and 71 sub basins of the country. It issues on average of 6000 flood forecasts with an accuracy of more than 96 percent every year. Till date, the Ministry of Water Resources has strengthened 34397.61 kms of flood embankments, constructed 51317.50 kms of drainage channels, undertaken 2400 ‘town protection works’ and has raised the level of 4721 villages.

While there is no direct correlation between flood data and spending on mitigation, it is significant that the amount of spending on irrigation and flood control within the larger rural economy was as high as 68.5 percent in 1950-51. After the 1970s – a decade that saw the worst floods – this spending gradually declined to a low of 5.5 percent in the decade between 2000-2010.

In 1976, the Government of India set up the National Flood Commission (Rashtriya Barh Ayog) “to evolve a coordinated, integrated and scientific approach to the flood control problems in the country and to draw out a national plan fixing priorities for implementation in the future.” Though the RBA report was submitted in 1980 and accepted by Government, not much progress seems to have been made in the implementation of its recommendations.

The Barh Ayog had compiled, for the first time, the devastation caused by floods over two decades. From 1953 to 1980, 7644.8 lakhs population was affected, 2,76,00,457 houses were damaged, a yearly average of 9,85,731 houses. The peak damage, of 35,07,243 houses and 11,316 lives, took place in 1977-78. An average of 1382 human lives and 96815 cattle were lost per annum. Total damage to crops and public utilities stood at 91537.59 crores. The nature and extent of devastation supports the insight that “a disaster wipes out the gains achieved in decades of development in the affected area.”

In 1997, the Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council created a ‘Vulnerability Atlas’ that mapped the extents of the disaster prone areas of the country. In light of fresh census data after 2001, it called for greater public awareness and the need for legislation that affected town planning, ‘techno-legal regimes’ for land use zoning in vulnerable areas, protection of critical buildings used by the public and, most significantly, the empowerment of local bodies to exercise control.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the supreme disaster management agency in the country set up through the Disaster Management Act of 2005, published guidelines for Management of Floods in 2008. In its thorough assessment of measures required in the short and long term, it highlighted the ‘Immediate’ requirement for (i) identification of flood prone villages, blocks, tehsils and districts on national, state and district level maps, (ii) amendment of building bylaws to make future buildings in flood prone areas flood-safe, and (iii) “notification of regulation for prohibiting reclamation of wetlands and natural depressions”.

The immediacy of its recommendations has been consigned to the scrapheap, although they form the bedrock of most recommendations about disaster mitigation.

The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), in its report on ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ reminds us that from 1970 to 2008, over 95 percent of the deaths due to natural disasters occurred in developing countries.

Informal settlements and inadequate land management increase the exposure and vulnerability of socio-economically weaker sections. The unexpected intensity of rains in Uttarakhand are graphic illustrations of the IPCC’s basic finding that, with continued global warming, it is ‘likely’ that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the tropical regions. That a large number of agencies in our country are still mentioning the Barh Ayog’s data in their diagnostic statements is an ominous reminder that our level of preparedness is somewhat low.

Given that climate behaviour and flooding patterns and extents are changing every year, there are three key imperatives. The first is the accelerated use and wider application of geospatial mapping technology. The capacity of the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) at the Indian Space Research Organization and the work of its Disaster Management Support Programme and Decision Support Centre must be linked with all planning efforts in the country.

The enhancement of the Bhuvan platform – our own version of Google Earth – and the preparation of Flood Hazard Atlases for all vulnerable states should be urgently completed. We need to rapidly expand the use of the geospatial National Urban Information System as a mandatory basis for planning.

In the context of disaster management, the distinction between rural and urban serves little purpose. Since the objective is to save life and property, the hazards linked with densely populated areas, which are chronically flood-affected, need to be addressed.

The developments around the Kedarnath shrine may not be considered ‘urban’, but they have typically urban characteristics: density, haphazard construction with lightweight materials and large paved areas. In its Guidelines for Management of Urban Flooding, 2010, the NDMA observes that “urbanisation leads to developed catchments, which increases the flood peaks from 1.8 to 8 times and flood volumes by up to 6 times.”

So what should we do?

Strict regulation of land use – critically, the avoidance of occupancy for agriculture and human settlement in river beds, drains and canals and prevention of siltation of river channels, mostly due to dumping of solid waste – has been talked about by most agencies over the last few decades.

This is a pipe dream unless it is enabled by, and enforced through, spatial and physical planning. While de-siltation is a mantra sung by most local bodies, careful analysis will reveal that the surface levels of streets, to which the heights of building plinths are related, have lost all relation to topography and natural drainage patterns. Improper road-surfacing practices, through which the levels of roads keep rising, are another notorious reason for the ineffective drainage and water logging.

Lastly, the public needs to be better informed about their seminal role in mitigating disaster. No amount of measures from the government – and we have argued that these have been prodigious – can substitute the involvement of the public and, most critically, their demanding of more effective spatial planning. Public open spaces, which are presently the most abused due to encroachment and haphazard usage, will be the only safe areas during disaster, as buildings become death traps during disasters.

However, these are precisely the areas that are given short shrift in planning. Let us hope that regrettable disaster inspires, instead, the self-respecting admission that we are responsible for the collective future.

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