Kashmir Floods -Lessons to be learnt
The deluge and its aftermath
As the flood waters recede in Kashmir, the cataclysmic devastation is us slowly unraveling. The affected people are picking up the pieces, trying to make do with whatever they can salvage. Hard times are ahead. Getting back to their feet is going to be an uphill task.
Initial rough estimates of the flood’s fury that ravaged shops, homes, restaurants, offices, warehouses, orchards, handicraft units, buses and trucks, roads, communication towers etc. runs to some Rs. 5700 crores. This is the figure given by Assocham.
Vehicular traffic on the arterial Jammu-Srinagar highway has began to lumber along again. Most of the other road networks are in too dilapidated condition to be restored soon. The flagship Jammu-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line project has also been hit.
It might takes before the number of people to perish in the flood is accurately determined. The uncertainty is due to the fact that people trapped in different places are slowly making their way home.
The danger that looms large over the valley is the possibility of epidemics breaking out in large scale. Rotting dead bodies, carcasses, un-cleared filth and squalor, and scarcity of drinking water can trigger a massive proliferation of infectious water-borne diseases. The most daunting of the tasks is to ensure a quick return to conditions where people can earn their livelihood without waiting for government doles. Tourism and the orchards are the mainstay of the people of Kashmir. Restoring these two sectors is going to take months and need huge government support.
The men in uniform belonging to the army and the National Disaster Response Force have done a commendable job. They have rescued some 2.5 lakh people. There are nearly 30,000 army jawans in the area working round-the-clock to reach succor to people. Co-ordination between different agencies has been patchy, but this is understandable given the ferocity and scale of the flood. But, no one will deny that the army and other agencies have done a highly laudable job.
Conducting relief and reconstruction in such massive scale poses formidable challenges. It would be wise now to pause and ponder what the state government did right and what it got wrong. That the rain gushed down from the sky unexpectedly and overwhelmed everyone on the ground is undeniable. But, did poor environmental management precipitate the crisis? This is the question that begs an answer. Avaricious encroachment of wetlands, unplanned urbanization and deforestation – all man-made factors — aggravated the crisis. Wetlands are nature’s buffers. They hold excess water flowing into them during heavy downpours. With wetlands converted to housing estates, the buffer was gone. Excess water accumulated and flooded human habitation areas.
An example of how encroachments brought about the crisis is the shrunk Wulfar Lake. It was 20,200 hectares some decades ago. Now it is reduced to one tenth its size, measuring just 2400 hectares. This alarming fact has been revealed in a report prepared by the Bombay Natural History Society. Similar sad fate has befallen the world famous Dal Lake. This picturesque water body is down to half its size. It measures a little more than 1,200 ha now. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, encroachment on water bodies is rife in Kashmir. Half of the valley’s lakes, ponds and wetlands have fallen victim to illegal encroachment. The banks of the Jhelum are now clogged by buildings and similar structures. As a result, excess water can’t flow into it, or through it, un-hindered. Tawi in Jammu is stifled in the same way. No wonder, flash floods in this river swept away some 400 buildings and flooded large colonies illegally built in its banks.
The Jammu Master Plan has been flouted with impunity by powerful land grabbers and builders. Now, Nature took its revenge. Like Uttarakhand, Kashmir has paid the price of fiddling with environment. Efforts must be made to reverse the trend.