Catastrophes like unprecedented floods in Pakistan and China and cloudburst in a desert region like Leh in Jammu and Kashmir are no longer rarities. With climate change being a reality, freakish weather-induced calamities are bound to become more frequent all over the world; India being no exception. Mechanisms, therefore, need to be put in place to minimise, if not wholly eliminate, the damage due to such events. Unusual floods in southern India last year, due to unexpectedly heavy downpours towards the fag end of the monsoon season in late September, and the deluge of the desert track of Rajasthan in the beginning of the monsoon season a few years earlier could be examples of climate change-related perils. This year again, relentless rains for over a week in most parts of the country has caused many rivers to swell and submerge surrounding areas, exposing the under-preparedness of the authorities to confront such contingencies. River Yamuna is swelling by the day in Delhi, necessitating evacuation of people to safer, but under-prepared, places. Equally alarming is the state of rivers like Brahmaputra, Ganga, Sutlej, Kosi, Ghaggar and their tributaries which are flowing above the danger mark and have flooded nearby tracts.
The problems caused by overflowing rivers in the monsoon season are compounded by the poor upkeep of river embankments and the vulnerability of a large number of vintage dams. More than 100 of the country’s total 4,700-odd big, medium and small dams are more than a century old and have far outlived their stipulated lifespans. Over a score of dams have already collapsed in past few decades. The worst deluge in recent memory, with huge loss to life, livelihoods and property, in Bihar in 2008, was triggered by a breach of Kosi embankment near the Indo-Nepal border. Unlike in a natural disaster like an earthquake, which can neither be foreseen nor prevented, floods are both predictable and preventable to a large extent. Flood-prone areas, totalling around 40 million hectares, are already known and well demarcated. Yet, flood-proofing measures have not been taken in most of these tracts. A flood-forecasting system, too, is in place. But its output is often found wanting in details. Mere volume of flows in rivers is no longer the sole criterion that determines the level of flood threat. Most of the rivers are heavily silted which has raised their beds and curtailed their water-holding capacity. Even meagre rise in flows can, therefore, cause water to spread to nearby areas. The natural disaster management system is geared largely towards rescue and relief operations, though in this task, too, the services of the armed forces often need to be sought. Most importantly, there is need for proper maintenance of river bunds and dams, and meticulous management of stored water in the reservoirs and their flows through floodgates. Also, habitations on the beds and flood pans of rivers should be strictly curbed to minimise human and livestock casualties. Better to be safe than sorry.