Disaster Risk Governance: A Study of Kashmir Floods 2014

Disaster Risk Governance: A Study of Kashmir Floods 2014

 Satellite images showing landmarks of Srinagar,  before and after the 2014 Kashmir floods (from top to bottom: 1) Budshah Bridge across Jhelum river, 2) Bakshi stadium, the state’s first synthetic football pitch, 3) Triangular Park, Jawahar Nagar. Only rooftops are visible after the floods, 4) Intersection near Athwagan. National highways 1A and 1D went under water).

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The recent floods in Kashmir have shown social and economic consequences of these disasters. Socio-economic disruptions have always a bearing on the political system and political culture of any vulnerable society. It is therefore emphasized in this paper that the traditional institutional preparedness towards disaster reduction can’t be accomplished. Since governance always has an effective role in disaster risk reduction it is therefore recognized that political will is essential for any integrated approach to disaster risk reduction. Here we focus on governance as an element in mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction with reference to floods in Kashmir in 2014. This paper emphasizes the links between governance and different disaster risk activities. There is a need for cooperative efforts between institutions and associations for disaster risk reduction.

Disaster risk

Disaster is often the outcome of a hazard. Natural disaster is a potentially damaging physical event which may cause loss of life or injury, property damage, social and economic disruption and environmental degradation. In 2012, 905 disasters occurred world wide, 93 percent of those disasters were weather related. These disasters cost $170 billion and insured losses $70 billion. Forty-five percent of disasters were meteorological storms, 36 percent were hydrological floods, 12 percent were climatologically induced, and 7 percent were geophysical events.

Vulnerability is the lack of defense and preparedness that also involves insecurity to structural and institutional-socio-economic and cultural defenses, and insecurity resulting from the physical, social, economic and environmental factors (UN/ISDR, Disaster Risk Reduction, Governance and Development,” Africa Educational Series in partnership with umvoto Africa (Pty) Ltd Cape Town, South Africa, Vol 2, Issue 4, December 2004) and the capacity of the community to cope with such vulnerabilities  Vulnerability can therefore be pre and post disaster risks. Different groups and geographical areas are exposed to lesser or greater degree depending on the degree of physical exposure and their social and economic conditions.

Disaster risk factors

The disaster risk factors with reference to the floods of 2014 in Srinagar demonstrate the weak interconnections between disaster risk governance and various institutions. The disaster risk factors are exclusively associated with the developments throughout the Kashmir valley, decisions and activities of government, local authorities and communities. Identification of these factors will help in policy frame work for planners and officials who influence disaster reduction policies, programs and strategies at local and national levels.

Risk by origin: Srinagar city is located at the brink of a hazardous confluence of many streams and rivers merging with the Jhelum River and traversing through Srinagar. Most rivers and streams of North Kashmir, Romush, Rambiara, Lidder, etc are merging with the Jehlum and flowing through Srinagar.

Physical exposure: A growing concentration of rural population and expansion of Srinagar’s own population affected the extinction of marshy lands and lakes of Srinagar by informal settlements.   The course of streams and rivers have been stifled for expansion of farm lands and courses of other small canals also vanished resulting in the water overflowing the banks through fields and villages.

Poor planning and control: Srinagar Development Authority is an entity made for drafting and reformulating the developmental plans of city from time to time. Recently they set a master plan 2000-2021 wherein they have accepted that they have no coordination with environmentalists and departments like flood control and disaster management though it is known that Srinagar is situated on banks of the Jhelum. Unplanned, unauthorized and very fast urbanization has encroached on the water bodies like the river and wet lands around Srinagar, which usually provide major outlets for flood or disaster like situations around Srinagar.

Climatic effects: Changes in the weather conditions about a month did not permit the crops to ripen. This severely damaged the agricultural sector.

Heavy rainfall: Highest precipitation recorded rainfall of about 173 mm during the first week of September 2014 was another factor.

Inadequate carrying capacity: Shujaat Bukhari in his article Deluge and Death published in Frontline, October 17, 2014, said the siltation in the Jhelum River and flood channels had reduced the water carrying capacity of these channels and river. Floodwater increased to 120,000 cusecs whereas Jhelum has a capacity of 35,000 cusecs only. The flood channel spill from Padshaibagh had an original capacity of 17,000 cusecs which has now reduced to 5,000 cusecs.

Snow melt: For about the last four years Kashmir received a good amount of snow which increased the snow melt even in September during the 2014 floods.

Wet lands: Flood vulnerability in the Jhelum has worsened during the last few decades as most of the wet lands that used to act as sponge during floodings have been urbanized and converted into concrete landscapes. In and around Srinagar City 20 wetlands have been lost to urban colonies during last five decades. The impervious concrete surfaces in the city have increased from 34% to 65% from 1990-2010 severely effecting hydrological process. Shrinking of most of the wetlands and deforestation has increased the vulnerability of flash flooding in the Jhelum basin which manifested in the floods of 2014 (Shakil A Roshoo, ‘The 2014 Kashmir Flood: The Extreme of the Extremes,’ editorial, Greater Kashmir, 21 September 2014).

Lack of documented information: There is no documentation of flood prone communities and regions so that information could be used to reduce the flood risk. No flood map has been prepared by the flood department or disaster management which could be used to easily carry out rescue operations.

Lack of rescue boats: The inundation of flood water went up to 20 feet in some of the south Kashmir villages, but there were no water boats or organized cohesive and integrated planning to reach out to the stranded people for rescuing precious lives.

Railway line: The presence of railway line aligned through flood plains has made a difference in the observed inundation patterns during 2014 flooding and might be responsible for the higher levels of inundation observed in Kakapora, Nowgam, Lasjan and Srinagar City. A few of the traditionally flood-hit areas in Jhelum flood plains didn’t receive the flood waters this time probably because of this physical barrier in the midst of flood plains ( Shakil A Roshoo).

The highest magnitude of inundation and loss during floods is attributed to the combined effects of rainfall, reckless urbanization of flood plains along the banks of the Jhelum, loss of wetlands and the reduced capacity of the Jhelum and the channels and streams due to siltation from catchment areas.

Floods of September 2014

The valley of Kashmir is lying at an altitude of 5,753 meters between Himalayan peaks. The valley is vulnerable to physical and hydrological disasters. Though the valley is known for fresh water streams and waterfalls, they heavily impact on the life of the people and their property they are in fury. The valley is vulnerable to the impact of disasters due to a range of physical socio-economic institutional and environmental factors. The recent floods have exposed the valley’s lack of disaster risk reduction mechanism. Though the departments like flood control, disaster management, SDRF do exist to control the risks but during the floods they have displayed an inability and absence of professionalism.

The rains, due to the combined effect of Western Disturbances and Monsoons, caused huge cloudbursts and very heavy rains in Kashmir in the first week of September. Extremely urbanized and mismanaged flood plains gave an impetus to the situation which attained disastrous dimensions due to prolonged and extremely heavy rainfall. The situation engulfed the whole of Kashmir (and Jammu), exacerbated by the higher snowmelt runoff from the extensive snow-packs observed in the mountainous region. The continuous and extreme precipitation during 1-7 September 2014 triggered the unprecedented flooding in Jhelum basin. Reports from the people about the cloud bursts in the upper reaches of the valley, like in Sonamarg (cloud burst in Sonamarg had increased the water level in Sindh nallah by 75cm in just two hours) and  Kousarnag are ascribed to the sudden and drastic rise of water in the Jhelum basin.

The archived meteorological data revealed that in the past 125 years September exhibited the least rainfall-month for Kashmir with mean rainfall at 26.6 mm. South Kashmir recorded rainfall almost twice that of central and north Kashmir, according to precipitation analysis. This caused the enormous surface runoff and base flow leading to deluge in the basin. Another factor responsible for the higher snowmelt runoff in tributaries of the Jhelum was the substantial amount of snowfall for the last four years. Waters in the Jhelum River overflowed its banks for a major part of its stretch in south Kashmir to Srinagar City. The gauge readings at Sangam crossed 36 feet on 5 September 2014 with flood water measuring about 120,000 cusecs and overflowing more than 1m above the banks. Another gauge reading at Srinagar showed the flood water flowing above danger mark of about 22 feet discharging 70,000 cusecs against the drainage capacity of 35,000 cusecs (Shakil A Romshoo, ‘What Trigger the 2014 Kashmir Floods?,’ editorial, Greater Kashmir, 18 October 2014).

The flood water breached into Srinagar City through the weaker sections of the embankment and overflowing of water in Jhelum was about 3-5 feet.  The flood inundation levels recorded in the flood plains of Jhelum were the highest in the archived hydrological history of Kashmir with vast areas in Kashmir valley inundated, and many of these areas remained under flood waters for more than four weeks. In south Kashmir, several villages and cultivated lands were washed away by the flood water of the turbulent mountainous tributaries of the Jhelum like Rambiara, Veshnu and Romshi. For a distance of about 25 kilometres from Sangam to Kakapora, the Jhelum was flowing one meter above its embankments. Almost 912 sqkm of flood plains out of 1760 sqkm were heavily flooded in the September 2014 floods. Out of three floods in Kashmir hydrological disaster history, the ones in 1928, 1959 and 2014 qualify to be designated as those that brought extreme socio-economic destruction.

Impact on Kashmir governance, politics and political culture

Floods in Kashmir proved to be a catastrophe not only economically but also because of the socio-cultural impact that they wrought in the lives of the people. The Kashmir deluge unleashed ricocheting impacts reverberating in two directions—alienation and participation. The politics or political scenario also underwent great change owing to changes in the major patterns of the people’s lives.

At the governance level people of Kashmir went in two directions: more alienation towards the state administration and felt a need for participation for good governance. At the governance level the people of Kashmir felt deeply sad due to mismanagement and absence of any governmental apparatus or of bureaucratic help. This alienation aggravated more on account of good governance shown by other Indian states in disasters like in Orissa wherein at least 7 to 10 lakh people were rehabilitated and saved during ‘Hudhud’ and were appreciated by world forums like the World Health Organization and world disaster management. In Kashmir this effect was seen in the state election wherein Altaf Bukhair, a first-time contestant from PDP, won the election from Aamira Kadal with a good margin against Nasir Aslam Wani, provincial head of NC. Bukhari did play a very important role during the Kashmir deluge. He made day-in and day-out rounds around Srinagar City personally to help people. This won him one of the Srinagar seats.

On the other hand people felt helpless due to the absence of the state administration and inability to work out an immediate plan for help. Its inability to save people provided a base for people to caste their votes without fear to choose their trusted representatives in the state election. The election status showed an increase in the voter turnout, in the five phased election in J&K, was due to a need to have a good and transparent state administration. Any disaster brings socio-economic and structural changes in a society. Cultural anthropologists advocate human behavior is shaped and reshaped by cultures that include societal system, pattern of life, religion and ways of thinking. Sociologists believe socio-economic-cultural structures reflect the human way of thinking and patterns of society. Psycho-analysists argue that people are shaped by their habits and attitudes (ways of living) which bear on human mind and behavior.

Thus the socio-economic changes also had an impact on the Kashmiri political culture and sub-culture.  The 4% increase in total voter turnout  from the previous election in 2008, though low but it proves a very positive beginning in the electoral politics of J&K and a step forward in the development of trust in the institutional arrangement. Thus the political culture of the Kashmiri people accepted the election system and electoral institutional arrangement in their political culture. Earlier people never accepted election as fair or had rejected previous elections as fraudulent.

One of the main factors in Jammu and Kashmir politics has been a geographical division and stemming from it the politics of alienation with two different streams. The alienation of Jammu and of Kashmir with two different political goals: the Kashmir region would never compromise on the secular principles, one of the reasons for people to vote, who earlier never voted, to defeat communal forces. It has stood for democratic and secular principles of India, as envisaged in the Naya Kashmi Plan of Sheikh Abdullah defeating the aims of the Two-Nations theory.

The people of Kashmir are alienated, however, due to over-centralization of Delhi and would like to see minimal interference in the form of a loose federation—a solution to its political alienation keeping in view the Indian secular-federal rigidity. Jammu represents the aspiration of integration and is alienated due to the stagnated process of total integration. Total integration with the rest of India is a solution to their alienation. The communal card is a non-issue for the people of Jammu; the fact that they are more inclined to the lager Indian cultural domain than to their Jammu and Kashmir domain where Kashmiri Muslim majority dominates.

Conclusion and suggestions

Enwrapped in the lap of majestic mountains of the Himalayas and endowed with some of the preeminent hill stations like Pahalgam and Gulmarg, the exalted beauty of the Kashmir valley suddenly turned to ranting and raving torrents after the sudden gushing flood waters left behind a trail of death and destruction. The fury of floods and the overflow of the Jhelum River have caused bizarre damages to the land of paradise. The ruination wrought by flooding was probably the worst the state has faced in recent memory. The tragedy unfolded not just from the havoc of rains, but poor disaster planning was equally responsible for aggravating the flood destruction. Huge embankments were busted, bridges were washed away; villages were submerged and communication channels broke down. In fact, the magnitude of the flooding was such that the crowd could not differentiate between Jhelum, Dal Lake and the inhabited areas. Not only it had claimed hundreds of lives but the fury resulted in damage to assets worth trillions of rupees and affected several lakhs of families. Almost all districts, both in Jammu and Kashmir region, have been affected. Southern Kashmir remained cut off from rest of the Valley for days together. The damages mostly in southern and central Kashmir include utter annihilation of bridges, buildings, huts, roadways besides casualties of people, cattle and livestock due to submerging.

Additionally the disruption of many vital services like gas and electricity, public transportation systems and the contamination of the drinking water supply exacerbated the miseries of the inhabitants. Many people, especially from the working classes, are not still able to make it to their workplace due to breakdown of structures. The survivors face a battle of rehabilitation and spread of post-flood diseases. The helping hand of the local government was restrained and too slow and the possibility of reconstruction is a long way away. In particular, the state of helplessness made matters worse. For days together, people could not get in touch with their families in Srinagar. They were just clueless about their relatives. Every breath seemed massive and every moment seemed like long juncture for them for not being able to get in contact with their families or to even to have knowledge about their whereabouts. The local youth of the valley appeared on the scene and came out as heroes from this tragedy. The hospitals faced worse misfortune because the flood waters terrorized patients and doctors as they resorted to the upper floors of the hospital buildings almost as refugees. Many children reportedly lost their lives in inundated hospitals. Heartrending scenes were reported from the hospitals as desperate people cried for help.

The state civil administration not only miserably failed in dealing with the ferocious floods but also was not good enough in basic disaster management policies. They were busy politicizing this human tragedy rather than intensifying their efforts to help the victims and rebuild flood ravaged Kashmir. Due to a lack of rescuers people had to urge the local civilians to navigate across the city to carry out rescue operations by using wooden boats.  Rafts and pontoons were groomed from empty petrol and kerosene barrels tied together with rope in rescuing stranded and helpless people.  Youths carved and adjusted the plastic water tanks and turned them into boats. International disaster management must pressure the state and central government to allow a sustained international relief effort to salvage those in need, manage the hazards of widespread disease and help rebuild a new Kashmir.  Almost all ancient civilizations have heartrending tales about death causing floods that wiped out civilizations. Though it is not possible to keep a lid on floods, but its human and economic losses can unquestionably be mitigated by implementing well identified measures and policies.

Suggestions

Integrated aid units: Integration and cooperation of different agencies like flood control, disaster management, food and supplies, SDRF, fire and emergency services, and health department is essential. Integrated aid units on Karewas and some foothills nearer to flood basins should be established. Every specialized agency should facilitate the respective services; rescuing operations, settlements and tents, food supplies and health facilities, etc. Buffer stock has to be mobilized before the floods strike the valley near these units.

Floating ambulances: Flood management has to reserve the boats separately for rescue and health care issues. Most of the maternity relief and other relief operations could be carried out during floods.

Role for academia: Flooding is a complex process and could be faced only by adopting a multidisciplinary approach based on the use and knowledge of latest scientific tools and techniques. Our state has not progressed to employ the advanced techniques in flood hazard prediction. Academia has to play its role to promote and develop coordinated interdisciplinary research towards the acquisition and improvement of scientific knowledge necessary for the containment of floods in the state. Scientific flood risk assessment at the community level is imperative for devising a robust flood disaster management plan. The plan would help to preempt flood risks (Shakil A Romshoo, 18 October 2014).

Flood map: A flood map has to be prepared which will help in all other disaster risk reduction tasks during floods. The flood map should be distributed among agencies and officials as well as general public for awareness about disaster risk reduction.

Inter-agency coordination: There is urgent need of flood risk reduction which could be addressed through inter-agency coordination.

Training of volunteers: We have volunteers in NCC in all wings of defense and security services and NSS. India as a diversified land geographically and demographically doesn’t have a program like NCC for auxiliary help during disasters. Therefore, a brigade like Volunteers for Disaster Reduction should be set up and proper training should be given to them to control or manage natural, physical and manmade disasters.

 

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