ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Beyond Embankments

Uttarakhand and Kashmir Floods

Aprajita Singh (aprajita.rs.singh@gmail.com) is at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 

The recent floods in Kashmir and Uttarakhand are an eye-opener—short term preventive measures like embankments should be replaced by strengthening of the institutional mechanism and improvement in forecasting and information disseminating systems. 

A few months back, a friend and I were trying to encourage our colleagues to donate for the relief activities of the India-Pakistan flood of September 2014. Barring few, the general response was “Why now? The floods are over”. They were not an insensitive group of people. They were just victims of a short attention span that natural disasters typically receive from both the governments and the general public. Our memory is short lived, empathies and sympathies limited to the few days that the media chooses to cover the event. Once that phase is over, we go back to the mayhem of our usual lives till we have another flood that throws us off our usual cacophony and compels us to pause.

Therefore it is not surprising that even though the relief and rehabilitation work is still underway in Kashmir and far from complete in the aftermath of the September 2014 floods there is no reporting on this issue. To add to its woes, Kashmir currently finds itself drowning in another deluge.

Risk from Floods in India

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Inter Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in February-March 2015 suggests an increasing vulnerability to natural disasters like floods in the coming years. It estimates one million people in the flood risk zone in South and South East Asia due to expected increase in sea level. Further, poor urban planning with blatant infrastructure development without paying heed to its environmental consequences and land encroachment will increase the risks of natural disasters manifold. The consequences of natural disasters on perpetuating poverty, high government expenditure on relief and rehabilitation would be a grave challenge that nations will face.

The National Flood Commission of India states that 40 million hectares of land in India is flood prone which makes India one of the highly flood prone nations of the world. Clearly, there is an urgent need for the government to rethink its flood management approach and practices. A three pronged strategy needs to be followed to evolve a disaster management policy. First, there is a need to revise flood policies from a “preventive” to “management” approach. Second, a call to build a regional support network body of aid providers and last, but most important, keeping the political will for flood management sustained and alive.

Thinking Beyond Embankments

India's flood policy history dates back to the National Flood Program launched in 1953. India's key focus on flood prevention and targeted structural controls, especially embankments, has remained unchanged over the years. Experts have highlighted the risks of embankments unless they are of adequate quality and can withstand the peak period of the flood. Embankments also increase the destructive power of the floods causing sudden flash floods.

Nonetheless, they do remain an important element of the flood management infrastructure and their constructions need to be well thought and monitored for quality assurances.  Additionally, they need to be complemented by non-structural measures like better forecasting techniques and dissemination. There is a need for a holistic approach anchored in micro management of the small water sheds in various flood risk and catchment zones.

A Regional Network of Relief Providers

The floods in Kashmir and in the North East highlight that we should be sharing knowledge and expertise across geographical boundaries. A joint response may be a good way forward both from the views of effectiveness and for strengthening diplomatic ties with the neighbors. The Indian Prime Minister's extension for flood relief to Pakistan administered Kashmir last year has to be applauded for its diplomatic tact. It is a good step in this direction. There is a need for a more permanent relief action network in the region. A South Asian network of government panels, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and international aid agencies to work towards increasing aid effectiveness for disasters. It should work out a clearly chalked out guideline to help support aid delivery across the region. At present, for every international remittance towards relief, there is a bank processing fee of US$ 200. Such transaction costs can be substantially reduced by harmonising cross transnational regulations for aid. Owing to its dominant status in the region, India should rightfully lead such an initiative.

Role of the Media

The media also has a crucial role to play here. It can both facilitate and hurt the success of such an initiative. For instance, the attention that the Indian media gave to stories of a section of Kashmiris and their attitude to the army’s role in flood relief was irresponsible. It posed dangers of fuelling conflict in the disaster torn region.

In India, floods are often seen from the lens of being the wrath of gods and beyond man's control to manage. The media often gives space to these archaic views and reinforces prejudices. For a regional network to address floods to flourish; there is a need to disassociate flood from religion and associate it closely to climate change. Only then can we have a common understanding of vulnerability across nations with diverse contexts. The media clearly has a crucial role to play here.

Conclusion

None of this would work unless there is sustained political interest towards managing our responses to disasters better. The Uttarakhand floods in June 2013 and the successive Jammu and Kashmir floods have been perhaps the worst disasters of our times. They should be seen as an eye opener to look beyond our standard knee jerk responses that have yielded only marginal benefits. The ad hoc responses of setting up commissions with large mandates and little authorities and one-off relief packages need to be done away with. These should be replaced by a more long term focus on strengthening of the institutional mechanism and improvement in forecasting and information disseminating systems.

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