Before it Rains Again

  • Prof Shakil A Romshoo
  • Publish Date: Apr 29 2017 9:14PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 29 2017 9:14PM
Before it Rains Again

                                                    Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI

How Kashmir can be saved from destructive floods  

Few disasters in recent history have scarred Kashmir’s public memory as badly as the 2014 flood. The floodwater submerged over 600 square km of land, rising up to 25 feet at some places. In Srinagar, vast areas remained, on an average, under eight feet of water for over a week. The Jhelum overflowed by 3-5 feet, breaching its embankments. As a result, great loss was caused to life and property. The damage was made worse by the state’s inept disaster management. 

Ideally, in the aftermath of the disaster, introspection should have been done at every level -- government, public, individual – about what went wrong in 2014 so as to develop a mitigation plan for future. 

But nothing of the sort happened. Such a process has not even been initiated at the level of the state in the past two and a half years. And save for a few measures aimed at increasing the drainage capacity of the Jhelum, no concerted effort has been made to devise a strategy for minimising flood risk to people and infrastructure, especially in the Jhelum basin.

A blueprint for such a strategy is ready, but the government has shown no interest in following it up. Soon after the 2014 flood, a distinguished group of 40 experts and professionals drawn from various state and central agencies, academia and civil society met and deliberated the “flood problem” in Kashmir over two days. The fruit of the group’s labour was a comprehensive strategy for flood risk reduction. 

One of the key recommendations was dredging of the Jhelum and its flood spill channel. The river’s tributaries in the south have high basin relief and high stream gradients, which means that they swell up quickly and almost simultaneously discharge their excess water into the Jhelum at Sangam. Any flood control and mitigation measures targeted at these tributaries -- Vishav, Rambiara, Lidder – will thus ameliorate the flood threat at Sangam and downstream. 

The reach of the Jhelum downstream from Sangam to the Wular lake is quite flat. As a result, the floodwater inundates large tracks of the river’s floodplain along this stretch. Siltation, reclamation of the floodplain for urbanisation and the resultant destruction of wetlands only exacerbates the problem. The capacity of the flood channel has decreased because of siltation by material eroded from soft Karewa sediments and deforested mountainous landscapes in the catchment area. Combined with the state’s lack of institutional capacity for control and management of heavy floods, and this spells disaster.

Reduction in the drainage capacity of the Jhelum and its tributaries because of the siltation caused by the 2014 deluge and lack of proper flood protection infrastructure has left the valley ever more vulnerable to heavy flooding. Indeed, four major flood alerts have been sounded since 2014, three in 2015 and one as recently as last month. Fortunately, none turned into a deluge.

 Although the deluge of 2014 has become the reference for extreme flooding in public imagination in Kashmir, we must understand that every future flood won’t necessarily be as monstrous, both in terms of discharge and damage. This will help ensure that panic doesn’t set in every time there’s a flood warning as seems to be the case currently. Although the geomorphic set up of Kashmir means that the Jhelum is prone to flooding, a deluge like that of 2014 is a rare event that may occur once in 50 years, as the flood history of Kashmir shows. 

Further, inundation of settlements that have come up on wetlands in and around Srinagar cannot be categorised as flooding because wetlands are natural storages for floodwater. 

A rumour is being spread that the heavy snowfall in the winter of 2017 has made the Jhelum basin more vulnerable to flooding later in the year. Utter nonsense. Kashmir had more or less similar snowfall in 2006 and 2011, but that didn’t result in flooding. 

Let’s make this clear: the key trigger for flooding is always an extreme rainfall event, which can’t be predicted in advance. The 2014 flood was brought on by a complex interplay of atmospheric disturbances that caused widespread and extreme rainfall across the valley, with South Kashmir recording 620 mm rainfall over the week before the flooding started.

Only if an extreme rainfall event occurs in May-July does the snowfall of the preceding winter come into the equation because it is during this period that snowmelt is significant and may lead to heavier flow in the rivers. 

On the part of the government, it must urgently set up a Flood Early Warning System, or FEWS, for the Jhelum because merely relaying water discharge levels at Sangam, Ram Munshi Bagh and Ashim during flood alerts isn’t enough for a common man to assess her flood risk. Installation of FEWS instrumentation across the river basin must be undertaken now, without waiting for the World Bank. 

Also, the government must assess the flood hazard zonation of every parcel of land in the Jhelum basin and publicise it so that every citizen knows her vulnerability to flooding. Together with an operational FEWS, zonation will help end the mischief of making “guesstimates” of flood risk based on discharge levels. It will also help restore the public’s trust in the government machinery. 

                                                              Photo Habib Naqash/KI

Since 2014, the government has taken some engineering measures -- patch dredging of the Jhelum and its flood channel, restoration of the breached embankments, repair of damaged irrigation infrastructure in the basin -- but other than marginally raise the drainage capacity of the Jhelum, they won’t do much good when it comes to reducing the flood risk. 

One work the government needs to undertake and that would greatly reduce the flood threat, especially to the capital, is massive systematic dredging of the Jhelum downstream from Srinagar. This, though, has to be based on bathymetric data of the river because any amount of dredging done without regard to the depth profiles is certain to be unscientific and unlikely to yield the desired results.  

The carrying capacity of the Jhelum is about 35,000 cusecs and that of its flood channel nearly 5,000 cusecs. Even if the entire Jhelum and the flood channel were dredged, their combined capacity may only increase to about 55,000 cusecs. To increase their water holding and drainage capacity significantly, it’s imperative to identify wetlands in the basin and dredge them in a way that restores their storage capacity without damaging their ecological functionality. 

Simultaneously, massive dredging of the Wular is required. Its storage capacity diminished because of siltation, the lake pushes back incoming water in the event of flooding, raising the Jhelum’s level upstream all the way back till Srinagar as we saw in 2014, 2015 and even last month. 

Scientific dredging of the Jhelum downstream from Srinagar as well as the Wular and river basin wetlands will significantly reduce Kashmir’s vulnerability to moderate floods discharging up to 60,000 cusecs. 

Against high-magnitude flooding of the scale of 2014, however, extraordinary measures need to be taken. An analysis of the 2014 flood hydrographs at Sangam, Ram Munshi Bagh and Ashim provide a deep insight into Kashmir’s “flood problem”. The high gradient streams in the south pour huge volumes of floodwater in the Jhelum around Sangam, leading to widespread flooding there. The role of mega infrastructure projects such as the railway and four-laning of the national highway in exacerbating the flooding of 2014 is also evident from the hydrograph analysis, and this needs to be investigated further to initiate corrective measures.

                                                       Photo Habib Naqash/KI

The much-talked about “alternate option” of a flood channel from Dogripora in South Kashmir to the Wular in the north needs to be evaluated as well, keeping in view the flat topography of the terrain, holding capacity of the Wular and feasibility of draining some 50,000 cusecs into an alternate channel. 

The other “alternative plan” for long-term flood risk reduction that merits consideration is of staggering the flood peaks of the Jhelum’s high gradient tributaries such as Vishu, Rambiara, Romshi, Ladder and Bringi. The proposal is to store 0.75 million acre feet of floodwater in these tributaries as granted under the Indus Water Treaty. This plan, if found technically feasible, might have a multiplier economic effect on agriculture, horticulture, energy production and tourism. It goes without saying that a thorough scientific analysis of all proposed “alternative options” is needed so as to choose the one that comes with least social, economic and environmental costs. 

Kashmir’s geography and climate being what it is, we can’t just wish away extreme flooding. But we can certainly work on devising ways to minimise its potential for destruction -- and we must. 

Prof Shakil A Romshoo heads the Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University. He specialises in glaciology, hydrology and integrated environmental analysis.