Impact-based projections, information sharing with those at risk, information on the efficacy of early warning systems and regional action plans are needed on a war footing.
The devastating floods that swept the Kashmir valley in September 2014 appeared to be unprecedented, but a quick research and field investigation revealed that they were not. Even if we only consider the past 125 years of history, floods of various intensities have often struck Kashmir. The critical lessons we’ve gained during and after the floods could have helped us create a resilient blueprint for the future, even if it makes sense for people to move past painful situations and the memories they arouse. Eight years and more later, we have not only failed to save the accounts of the brave individuals who triumphed in one of the most trying times, but we have also failed to collate the vast amounts of data of many different kinds that, if gathered, could have provided the basis for building community based models for the future prediction of floods and their mitigation.
Over the last eight years, planners, policymakers, administrators, experts as well as institutions and organisations using artificial intelligence and machine learning could have aided in the development of the Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) roadmap, which is critical for fragile ecologies like Kashmir.
While the intention of taking huge loans from the World Bank after the 2014 floods for the Jhelum and Tawi Flood Recovery Project was to increase disaster resilience and the capacity to respond promptly and effectively to a crisis or emergency, we are still a long way from that. We have mostly rebuilt the damaged infrastructure in the same location and manner, naively presuming that floods of this magnitude will not recur in our lifetime. With climate change, not only are we more vulnerable, but if we look at history, the grave floods of 1893 were followed by one of even greater intensity in 1903, sans climate change. However, good planning considers at least 500 years, just like our building our places of worship, temples and shrines.
The world has moved on since September 2014, while we stand as vulnerable as before, if not more. Our most important work initiated since the floods of 2014 has been additional dredging to increase the carrying capacity of the river Jhelum.
The vulnerability of the valley has to do with its inherent geography. Kashmir valley is an oval-shaped bowl with three distinct spatial forms: the mountains at the periphery, fan-shaped tabletop flat plateaus and the floor along the river Jhelum. This oval-shaped bowl, with its major axis running north-south, measures approximately 145 km in length and 44 km in width. The river Jhelum, which originates in the southern part of the valley at Verinag, literally bifurcates the valley into east and west bank settlements.
The peripheral mountains rise from the floor of the valley up to 2.5 -3.5 kilometer heights in as little as 22 kilometres, making it an average gradient of 1:11 on its western and southern edges and 1:15 on its eastern edge. Where these steep mountains cease to exist, an interesting geography of flat, fan-shaped tabletop plateaus with ravines can be seen. In Sanskrit, these formations that are related to lakes or lacustrine in nature were referred to as udar or suda, meaning ‘a barren waste land’. They are now known as wudar in Kashmiri or karewas in Persian. The glacier melt and rainwater that cascade down these steep mountains slash forcefully through the soft wudars and join the Jhelum. Historically, along the east and west banks of the river Jhelum, many capital cities and later towns sprung up. Even as late as post-independence Jhelum’s tributaries, various canals and water bodies formed one of the primary modes of transportation. Traditionally, one could navigate upstream for about 102 km from Baramulla to Khannabal in Anantnag district without a single lock.
Almost each of the tributaries of the Jhelum that join it from the eastern and western mountain ranges creates a breathtaking landscape of smaller valleys like Bangus, Chatpal, Daksum, Karnah, Warwan, Watlab, Gurez, Lolab, Tulail, and others. These landscapes are unique ecosystems of moist temperate and alpine vegetation. The moist temperate forests are dominated by oaks, Himalayan firs and pines, and have large meadows, streams, marshes and water channels.
The river Jhelum is joined by streams from the south, the Sandrin, Brang, Arpat, Kokarnag, and Achabal Springs, and below Khannabal by Lidder. Further down the eastern bank, it is joined by the Arpal spring, streams from Wastawaran and Tral, and minor ones from Pampore. On its left bank, or the west Bank, it is joined by the ferocious Vishav, Reimbara, Romushi and Doondhganga, each with its own unique watershed. The river Jhelum eventually drains itself into the large Wullar lake at the northern edge of the oval valley. It enters Wullar lake from the east and leaves it from its south edge through a single gorge into Pakistan.
The river had a pattern for years and gently flowed through the highly stable earthen embankments for most of the year. It was difficult to navigate during the winter months, and often a channel would have to be made. However, due to its topography, gradient, and the inherent capacity of the river Jhelum to carry only one third of the volume of the total catchment, floods in the valley were a recurring phenomenon. Most often, due to the terrain and gradient, the floods would happen below Srinagar, often inundating the agrarian landscape that resulted in recurring losses. The land above Srinagar would often drain faster and crop recovery was possible.
2014 and the Looming Threat
In the year 2014, in a matter of five days of rainfall, river Jhelum created one of the worst floods in 100 years. Following the floods, a proposal for a new spill channel near Pulwama district was submitted to the World Bank to drain the overflow into Wullar lake. These proposals might protect the Srinagar city, but would probably inundate areas of north Kashmir and create a back flow. A more ecological and multidisciplinary decentralised water-based approach to delaying runoff in each of the watersheds of the tributaries of the Jhelum would be a more pragmatic and sustainable approach to this challenging issue.
Unfortunately, over the last many decades, there has been excessive deforestation, melting of glaciers, erosion, siltation of lake beds and siltation of the river Jhelum, its tributaries, and the overflow channel. Further, fragmentation of the drainage system and loss of marshes have happened due to new railroads, highways and settlements. As a result, Srinagar, and many of the towns along the river Jhelum, are extremely vulnerable to repeated onslaught of floods. In a few days of rainfall, frequent floods in Kashmir threaten the lives of people and its natural and cultural heritage. And if the floods are ever coupled with an earthquake, it would be a colossal, unrecoverable loss.
Historically, the creation of Srinagar city on the left bank of the river Jhelum created impediments to the drainage of streams into the river from the mountains on the east, thus making it vulnerable to floods. The creation of the Nallah Mar canal on the eastern edge of the city acted as an interceptor drain for the flowing water from the eastern mountains. Furthermore, it served as an overflow for the Dal lake, draining into the Jhelum river downstream. However, the filling of the Nallah Mar canal and its conversion into a peripheral road in the 1960s was the beginning of the end for the drainage system of the Srinagar area, thus making the city more prone to floods. While stench and stagnation of water in the Nallah Mar were cited as reasons for its filling, there would have been more progressive solutions even at that time. People around the globe are going back to nature-based solutions and bring back to life buried water systems, reimagining and reconnecting them as urban design and environmentally sensitive landscape initiatives.
Kashmir Valley had a God-gifted system of wetlands made up of lakes, marshes and canal systems that acted as sponges to slow down and impound the flow of the surface water. Notably, most of the lakes around Srinagar are found on the land between the mountains and the eastern banks of the river. Marshes were predominant on the western banks, typically downstream of the settlements and the city of Srinagar. It is reasonable to believe that over time, lakes have transformed into marshes because of annual inundation, low gradients, animal waste and extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides that promote vegetative growth in the water bodies. This has led to rapid shrinkage in the size of the lakes and the transformation of lakes like Anchar, Brari Nambal, Kushalsar and Gilsar into marshy conditions.
Loss of forest cover, meadows, lakes and marshes contributes to the change in landscape. For instance, meadows are disappearing due to an increase in sheep grazing or a change in land use to active recreation. Forests have depleted rapidly, and the decadal comparison in Lidder valley itself shows a loss of forest cover of more than 14% between 1992 and 2010. Kolahoi glaciers have melted and shrunken by 17% between 1980 and 2013 or, in other words, between 1962- 2013 by 2.81sq. km, according to published research. Marshes have given way to plantations and orchards. Floating gardens have been reclaimed and filled. Lakes have become marshes. Canals are fragmented, filled and reclaimed, intersected by highways, or engulfed by settlements.
Prior to the 2014 floods, the valley had extensive and high levels of rainfall, particularly in the southern districts, for seven days straight, with a peak discharge topping 3250 metre cubes per second. This, along with the river Jhelum’s relatively level gradient from Sangam downstream, has historically flooded a significant area of the flood plains. The issue was made worse by the numerous wetlands’ fragmentation and shrinking, as well as by the reduced channel capacity brought on by siltation from hilly areas that had lost their forests. Notably, research by Kashmir University revealed that the floodwaters could not even completely reach Wular lake in September 2014 and, instead, spread through the valley floor.
The floods caused one trillion rupees in damage in Jammu and Kashmir. According to preliminary estimates, the housing sector lost more than Rs 30,000 crore, while the business sector lost more than Rs 70,000 crore, J&K Chief Secretary Iqbal Khanday said in September 2014.
Initial estimates suggested that a total of 353,864 structures had been damaged. Flooding had affected 12.5 lakh families across the state, Khanday said. Nearly 300 people lost their lives across J&K.
Numerous neighbourhoods in Srinagar, including Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar and Indira Nagar, were inundated in floodwater for protracted periods of time and it was estimated that at least 800 villages were underwater for more than two weeks. A 6,000-kilometer road network was also thought to have been devastated by the flooding.
Later, a study revealed that during the 2015–16 growing season, there was a loss of 1659 hectares of land used for apple farming, with soil erosion brought on by devastating floods accounting for most of the sharp reduction. Additionally, the quantity of apples not produced in 2014 was 477381 metric tonnes, which resulted in a significant economic loss of Rs. 1444.97 crore.
Following the floods, kids exhibited significant levels of incursion and avoidance. Both the boys and the girls displayed a moderate to severe level of psychological impact. The topics of water were the main focuses of the children’s narrations then, which were often followed by fear for the parents’ lives, fear for their own lives, and lastly avoidance of being near rivers and nightmares about floating in the water.
To gain a firsthand understanding of the effects of floods on agriculture, orchards, infrastructure, individual properties, and institutions, among other things, the author travelled to various districts of the valley after the floods, when the water had significantly subsided, including areas of Kulgam where the damage was most severe. Everywhere, there were visible signs of damage, including in homes, hospitals, college campuses and school facilities. To start a new life, farmers were burning the damaged leftover crops. The damage was severe, to put it mildly.
In comparison to the harm done, the average financial help provided to each household in the research region was insignificant. The study has also shown that flooding in one area might have an impact on other socioeconomic sectors. The loss of harvests in the agricultural sector decreased households’ purchasing power.
The Way Forward
A multidisciplinary, integrated, sustainable solution should have been discussed at a higher level by civil society, including individual experts, commercial and governmental organisations and institutions, considering such widespread destruction. A roadmap for future course correction should have been drawn by building on the experiences of the locals through a series of workshops on education, rehabilitation and mitigation measures both long-term and short-term. A disaster risk assessment is necessary to determine the likelihood of present and potential hazards as well as the possible effects of these hazards on the valley and its population, given the valley’s increased sensitivity to the unexpected climate change component now.
To do that, a detailed baseline mapping of cities and towns is required to comprehend the amount of risk present therein and to design strategies for enhancing resilience to such risks. This means that a multi-hazard adaptation strategy based on an evaluation of its climate risks should be in place for the entire valley.
Any planning for resilience must begin with data collection and mapping. Data on hazards at the city level, with the Kashmir Valley’s seismic vulnerability and flood concerns being given priority. Many studies on global information systems (GIS), land use and planning, and transformation from Kashmir University and other institutions could be used as a starting point for mapping of hazards and vulnerabilities, enabling the city to identify priority areas, sectors, and the communities most at risk. Maps are frequently used to visualise climate hazards throughout the entire city, in particular sectors and neighbourhoods, and for particular asset owners.
Globally this is a common place methodology, like the New York City Panel on Climate Change was established by New York City to identify the vital infrastructure in the city that might be in danger from climate change. The task force is made up of scientists, private utilities and other organizations. To further inform climate risk assessments, Toronto and Melbourne have also established coalitions or networks that encourage working connections with the infrastructure sectors. To increase awareness of the cascading risks of climate hazards in the city, the 2009 Climate Adaptation Plan in Johannesburg organised a workshop with junior and mid-level workers from city agencies. Amsterdam organised a series of seminars with the assistance of the neighbourhood water resource management business.
Mapping the Lidder, Vaishav, Rembiara, Sukhnag, Dudh Ganga, and Romshi watershed using GIS could serve as a foundation for analysing and lowering the hazards from and within each watershed. It will be possible to explore the possibilities of slowing down the river within each watershed through an integrated, naturally based, more long-lasting, and sustainable solution through the study of the various open space types (agricultural, forest, orchards), and if possible, general ownership patterns.
Such a method could lessen the amount of water entering the river Jhelum at its highest flow while also delaying the pace of run-off, giving additional time for warning besides lowering the likelihood and intensity of floods. In addition to rejuvenating the springs that are gradually dying, such a strategy will increase the moisture level in the soil and increase agricultural output. If we want to reduce the risk of flooding in the valley again, we must reconsider the fragmented wetlands systems that were connected on the surface and below through aquifers and rethink land use patterns.
A committee formed by the Indian government to investigate the causes of the devastating floods proposed several solutions to avoid similar catastrophes in future. In its report, the panel made a number of long-term recommendations, including the construction of a second, supplemental flood spill channel, the development of storage facilities along Jhelum tributaries, the zoning of flood plains, and the expansion of Wular lake. Small storages on several Jhelum streams may be developed and constructed in conformity with the Indus Water Treaty’s guidelines for general, power, and/or flood reasons. The group recommended that this “will help to mitigate floods and lessen the silt load of the River Jhelum.” To improve the carrying capacity of the river Jhelum from 31000 cusecs to 60000 cusecs, activity was planned under PMDP in two phases.
The Disaster Management Act of 2005 made it possible to establish the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) at the national level and the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), the latter with a clear mandate for leading disaster management efforts in the states.
The absence of impact-based projections, poor information sharing with those at risk, a lack of information on the efficacy of early warning systems and a lack of regional action plans must be addressed on an urgent basis in Kashmir. Technically, setting up an early warning system for flooding in the age of technology is one of the easiest options that could be employed. To detect the rising water, sensors could be installed along the Jhelum’s tributaries, notably at the confluence known as Sangam. A wireless system could send a signal to a receiver when the water level in Sangam rises and a warning could be quickly sent to the settlement downstream via a mobile app. Such a system is affordable and simple to implement. We are so close yet so further from such a simple pre-warning system. A reasonably low cost and simple to handle example of a community-based early warning system was set up on the Jiadhal river in northern sub-tributary of the Brahmaputra river in Assam and it saved the community from loss of life and livestock in the floods of 2013.
Odisha became the first state in India in April 2018 to have an early warning system in place for cyclones and tsunamis. No, it has well-tested early warning systems for cyclones along the 480 km stretch for community outreach that ensures people are contacted promptly. It currently has a network of more than 870 cyclone and flood shelters; each one can accommodate 1,000 people. Youth have participated in and are received training from maintenance committees for more than 450 cyclone shelters in search and rescue, first aid, and issuing cyclone warnings post the cyclone of epic proportions that tore over the entire Odisha coast in October 1999.
There are numerous diverse disaster preparedness, awareness, and information-dissemination programmes in operation across many towns, states, and countries. Because earthquakes frequently occur in California, earthquake warning systems are necessary. California developed the MyShake App that is Android based available on Google Play, which is now also used by Oregon and Washington, and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) to assist individuals in becoming ready for an emergency. These tools can alert users to the impending arrival of an earthquake in as little as a few seconds or as much as tens of seconds. Their emergency preparedness office shares planning, preparation, and practise skills with its communities in a manner not too different from Japan.
In the last few decades, planning agencies have come up with new ways to deal with floods since traditional methods often disturb riverine ecosystems in both urban and rural areas and raise the risk of flooding in the long run.
The capacity of the city and region to reduce flooding in particularly sensitive urban areas, design for controlled flooding in designated areas and reorganise in the event of damage are addressed in alternative ways that connect to resilience theory. In other words, it is believed that water-sensitive urban design in conjunction with adaptive, multifunctional infrastructure might increase resistance to climate change. However, the techniques to manage integrative and multi-criteria features in the legal and organisational systems are still largely underdeveloped, as is the implementation of these measures into decision-making. In general, it’s important to have a design framework that incorporates technical, social, legal and institutional factors. The introduction of such a framework has challenges that are primarily socio-institutional rather than technological and those must be prioritised in tandem with other issues. However, for any of these to go forward requires a long-term clarity of vision, engagement, sensitivity and leadership.
Akshay Kaul is a renowned landscape architect known for his environmentally sensitive work. He is a recipient of various national and international awards.