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Nature's Fury

The recent flash floods in Srinagar and other parts of Jammu & Kashmir have been described as 'the worst in living memory' and have caused a massive humanitarian crisis. There has been large scale mortality of human beings and animals, people stranded without food, water and shelter, and thousands of people have lost their homes, property and means of livelihood.

Just last year, in June 2013, the Kedarnath area of Uttarakhand suffered a similar calamity, in which the loss of life and property was devastating. The aftermath has been painful for all concerned and the state is still coping with the recovery process.

Photo courtesy: European Commission DG ECHO

In both these cases, unusually heavy and continuous rainfall within a short period of time, sometimes referred to as a 'cloud burst', was the immediate and recognizable cause of the disaster. It is easy to call these natural calamities and leave it at that. However, there is much more that needs to be understood and acted on.

It is important to note that these calamities took place in the Himalayan region of India. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range and hence are very fragile and prone to landslides and flooding. These are two factors that have made this a vulnerable region which is disaster prone. The first, according to scientists and experts, is climate change, a pattern caused by human activities that are heating up the atmosphere faster than normal. This is leading to extreme weather events. For instance, in recent years, the Indian monsoon has become more unpredictable and intense, with extreme rain events becoming more frequent, especially in the Himalayan region.

The other factor that has compounded the disasters is truly man-made. This relates to the scale of development intervention undertaken in various ways in recent times. Despite its fragility and vulnerability, the Himalayan region has seen ill-planned, unchecked and even illegal construction activity, mining and road building on a large scale. Besides, numerous hydro-power projects have been built, disregarding the possible adverse consequences. In the Kedarnath area, large-scale construction, largely fuelled by unregulated tourism, took place in recent years along riverbeds or on fragile banks and other unsuitable land. No wonder when the flash floods occurred in June 2013, the water, rubble and stones came crashing down and took away everything, including several thousands of human lives! This is the deadly and painful cost of uncontrolled growth and environmental mismanagement.

The recent disaster in Jammu & Kashmir was worsened by gross neglect of the traditional system of flood management and water bodies as well as unplanned and unauthorized construction of habitations. The traditional system was to channelize the water flowing down the mountains into water channels and water bodies like the Dal and Nageen lakes, which are inter-connected and virtually act like sponges. But, over time, faulty planning and unregulated land use have damaged or destroyed the time-tested sustainable models. Water channels and lake-beds have been neglected or encroached upon and faulty embankments have been raised on the Jhelum and Chenab rivers. Besides, buildings have come up in the low-lying areas that are highly prone to flooding. So, when it rains heavily – and with greater frequency and intensity on account of climate change – the water has no outlet, which then results in flooding and devastation. This is what happened in Srinagar recently.

The way ahead lies in understanding the basic issues, especially the emerging trends of climate change and the vulnerability of the Himalayan region, and to seriously understand what has gone wrong and then take corrective action to set things right in a time-bound manner. Business as usual will not do. There is no time to lose and procrastination and delay will surely bring greater disaster.

Written by:

Samar Singh

Former General Secretary WWF, Retired Secretary of Government of India. He is the recipient of the International Award "Order of the Golden Ark" for his exceptional work done in the field of nature conservation. He has also authored several books on environment.

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