Above Average Monsoon Likely: Centre Needs to Wake Up Before Low Lying Areas Are Flooded

Even though the monsoon forecast is good news for the country, it might not be the same for low lying areas prone to flooding.

Chennai Floods. Credit: Reuters

A file photo of the floods in Chennai in December last year. Credit: Reuters

In May, the Supreme Court pulled up the Centre for “washing its hands of” a national disaster like the drought even though affected one-fourth of the country severely. It also pulled up state governments of Haryana, Gujarat and Bihar for not declaring drought, and adopting an “ostrich like attitude”. Barely a month later, it is time for the apex court to issue a wake up call to the Centre and states alike, for another disaster is in the making – floods.

With the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecasting an above average monsoon at 106% of the ‘long period average’ this year, in comparison to 14% deficiency in 2015 and 12% deficiency in 2014, it is quite obvious that the country would receive heavier rains than last year.

This may be good news to some extent, as three years of successive droughts had taken the water level in the 91 major reservoirs across the country to just 15% of their total live storage capacity, and surplus rains are expected to fill the reservoirs up. The country may be able to handle the prolonged dry period after the monsoon well, but it does not portend well for low lying areas near rivers that are prone to flooding.

This fact has been acknowledged even by the government. “India is highly vulnerable to floods. Out of the total geographical area of 329 million hectares (mha), more than 40 mha – or around 12% – is flood prone. Floods are a recurrent phenomenon, which cause huge loss of lives and damage to livelihood systems, property, infrastructure and public utilities. It is a cause of concern that flood related damages show an increasing trend,” the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has said.

Eighty percent rain in June-September

A major reason for these floods is that about 80% of the precipitation takes place in the monsoon months from June-September. “The rivers bring heavy sediment load from catchments. These, coupled with inadequate carrying capacity of rivers are responsible for causing floods, drainage congestion and erosion of river-banks,” the NDMA said.

As per the government data, during 2015-16 (till February), 1,541 lives were lost in cyclonic storms, flash floods, landslides, cloudburst and earthquakes in the country. These natural disasters also led to loss of 64,035 cattle head, damaged over 1.6 million houses and devastated over 33.25 lakh hectares of cropped area.

Despite the floods and natural disasters causing so much devastation, the Centre has been playing politics on this issue and has, in the case of drought, said that the primary responsibility in tackling drought lay with the states. Minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, told the Lok Sabha on March 6, “The primary responsibility for disaster management rests with the states. The concerned state governments undertake relief operations in the wake of natural disasters from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), already placed at their disposal, in accordance with the government of India approved items and norms of assistance.”

Adopting a response, which the Supreme Court found objectionable for dealing with droughts, Rijiju also said, “The status of the relief and rehabilitation measures taken by the state government is not maintained centrally.”

Clearly such an approach has not helped. On an average, over a thousand people get swept away in the floods every year. And dying in floods is usually slow and painful as the victims see the water levels rise gradually around them, often also threatening to wash away their loved ones before their eyes. 

La Nina tales over from El Nino

The threat of the sudden floods, as witnessed in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry in November-December 2015, also looms large this year since the La Nina effect is expected to set in during fall and winter this year, bringing prolonged spells of wet weather to the country. La Nina is cooling of the tropical Pacific that is often termed as an opposite of El Nino which brings more rain to India and other parts of Asia.

Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

According to a senior NDMA official, while a number of technological interventions have helped in assessing precipitation and floods, the area of concern remains the lack of coordination between the state government officials on the one hand, and the NDRF and the SDRF teams on the other. Also, as rising waters rapidly cut off low lying areas along the rivers, the government officials normally find themselves at a loss on how to reach out to the marooned.

The situation has not made much progress since 2008 where the then vice-chairman of the NDMA, General N. C. Vij had said “Though the various expert committees and working groups headed by eminent dignitaries have made several useful recommendations, these have mostly remained unimplemented, which is a cause of concern.”

According to the NDMA official, last year 15 states experienced floods. He said the Central Water Commission (CWC) is the nodal agency that operates telemetric stations and flood forecasting stations to issue prior warnings. “In 1958, we had just one flood forecasting site which increased to 175 in 2013. Of these, 147 are level forecasting sites and 28 are for inflow forecasting.”

Technology is helping but there is lack of coordination

The IMD now has Doppler Radars that gather information on total rainfall, direction and speed of rain, and storms. “While seven radars have already been installed at coastal stations (six in the east and one in west), four more are due to become operational this year (one in the east and three in the west).”

The official said while positioning of NDRF battalions were critical for rescue operations, the NDMA and the NDRF conducted exercises to create scenarios, activate the administration and identify gaps and challenges.

The official said that over the years, the synergy between the agencies had improved, and that showed in the recent response to the cyclone. H
He said that safe places on higher ground level for shifting people, places for relief camps and drop points for food packets were identified, and marked out beforehand for ensuring quick response during floods.

But, as the official pointed out, the positioning of SDRF teams was usually in the hands of the states which usually acted on the advise of the NDRF but sometimes were driven by other considerations too. “[The] NDRF takes charges (sic) when floods come. They have boats and other equipment and are a sophisticated force, but use of technology needs to be strengthened at the grassroot as revenue officials know the villagers and can be more influential in ensuring timely evacuation.”

Paucity of funds, delay in maps a concern

Another area that needs attention is the paucity of funding faced by Administrative Training Institutes in different states, that have disaster management centres under them.

The National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) under the Indian Space Research Organisation, which has prepared a flood atlas for the states of Assam and Bihar, is now in the process of making the same for West Bengal, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. The atlases come with inundation maps that provide details of areas that are prone to getting submerged when river waters rise.

The NDMA official said that the atlases for Orissa and Uttar Pradesh had been delayed and a meeting had been called by the NDMA with NRSC and CWC officials on June 24 to create an expert group that would advise on going ahead with similar projects for other states. After this, the NDMA officials would also meet Orissa and Uttar Pradesh officials to work out ways to expedite the project. “We hope to get one of these atlas out by the year end,” the official said.

Preparation to get relief material in place is on

Meanwhile, the NDMA has also issued advisories to all the states on arranging emergency material for meeting any crisis. “We specify the minimum standard of relief material and take note of how much is utilised in any given area.”

Similarly, in the wake of threat posed by urban flooding – as witnessed in Mumbai and Chennai – workshops have been conducted and an expert group has been constituted by the NDMA, which has held two meetings on adopting a three-tier strategy to tackle the problem on immediate basis (by 2020), medium term (2025) and long term basis (by 2030). A ten-point strategy has been devised for the immediate term and the plan has been sent to all the states for their inputs.

Officials are also taking help of various institutes in identifying solutions to area specific problems. IIT Roorkee is working on a flood model with the help of precipitation estimate by using satellite data. “This would help us in assessing the impact of a cloud burst (sudden heavy precipitation) in any given area of the Himalayan region,” the official said.