Author(s): SuTime to get out of denial mode
Chandra Bhushan [1]
Issue Date:
Government will have to internalise the fact that climate change is going to affect us more and more in the future

Bridge on the Tawi
river washed away in the flood

The flood in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) is again a grim reminder that climate change has started to hit India hard. But there is a complete denial on part of the Indian scientific community and the government to link extreme weather events with climate change.

Mumbai rains

On July 26, 2005, when Mumbai was deluged with 994 mm of rainfall in 24-hours and thousands of people died, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) wrote in its annual report that it was caused due to “meso-scale convection around Mumbai”. It called it as an “exceptionally heavy rainfall event”, but refused to link it with the changing climate.

Leh cloudburst

On August 6, 2010, when Leh town was completely devastated and 200 people died because of the cloudburst in which 250 mm of rainfall occurred in an hour, scientists used terms such as “freak” and “unusual” to define this extreme weather event. IMD in its official report stated that “the western Himalayan region experiences the cloud burst events during the monsoon season in association with the strong monsoon circulation or the interaction of monsoon circulation with the mid-latitude westerly system, but Laddakh region of J&K is not known to be frequently affected by this type of phenomena. It is a cold desert and average rainfall for the month of August is 15.4 mm only.” Having stated this, IMD scientists went on record and said that what happened in Leh had nothing to do with climate change.

Uttarakhand disaster

In June, 2013, Uttarakhand was devastated by extreme rainfalls. On June 17 alone, some parts of Uttarakhand recorded more than 340 mm of rainfall, which is 375 per cent more than the daily normal. IMD reported a weekly departure of about 847 per cent in the rainfall volume for the week ending on June 19, 2013. It affected all 13 districts (four districts were devastated), killing 5,700 people and causing economic loss of more than Rs 10,000 crore. The cause of this extreme event was attributed to the strong interaction between “the westerlies and the monsoon system over the Uttarakhand” by IMD. However, IMD in its official report went on to state: “ The episode was unique in that, the line of convergence of the two weather systems was nearly stationary for hours at a time, resulting in huge amount of accumulated rainfall causing widespread flooding.” But most Indian scientists refused to link this “unique” event with climate change.

Now J&K floods

Now we have the J&K floods. The rainfalls have been termed as “unseasonal and extreme”. At many places it has rained more than 200 mm in 24 hours. We do not know the true extent of the devastation, but the initial estimates are that at least hundreds have died and economic losses are in thousands of crores of rupees. IMD has again stated: “The heavy rain was due to the interaction between the monsoon current and two intense western disturbances.”

The fact is that Indian scientists have termed all the four extreme rainfall events as “unique”, “unprecedented”, and “unusual”. But they have failed to explain why these “unique”, “unprecedented”, “unusual” events are happening so frequently. The worst part is that they have refused to even entertain the idea that climate change might be playing some role in these events. The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), on the other hand, has not even uttered a word on these extreme rainfall events.

But the world is not waiting for the verdict of the Indian official scientific community or the MoEF&CC. The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [2], released in 2014 and the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation released by IPCC in 2011, clearly indicate that India will be hit more and more by extreme rainfall events as the world continues to warm in the coming decades. In fact, most climate models (including those run by Indian scientists) predict that, in general, we are going have more rainfall but less rainy days. This means that we will have more intense rainfalls in the future.

Whether we attribute these extreme events to the “interaction between western disturbances and monsoon” or not (western disturbances are blamed for everything), the fact is we will have to start preparing to deal with such extreme events. But we can only prepare ourselves properly if we get out of the denial mode.

Presently, all extreme weather events are considered as part of the “normal cycle of droughts and floods” that has affected us for centuries. Our response, therefore, is reactive in nature.

Change of approach

But in the rapidly warming planet (CO2 concentration in the atmosphere now exceeds 400 ppm), past is not going to be a good indicator for the future. The government will have to internalize the fact that climate change is going to affect us more and more in the future. Once we do this, then our approach would be proactive and we will be able to build resilience against extreme weather events in true sense.

Most studies show that India is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. A warmer planet will affect India the most; especially the poor of India. It is in our interest to be proactive in addressing climate change.

Special Feature:
Jammu and Kashmir Floods: Caught unawares [3]
Source URL:
shmita Sengupta @, DOWNTOEARTH
Date:Sep 10, 2014
Putting a stop to unmindful concretisation of lake beds and drainage channels can save cities from disastrous floods

Buildings close in on Fateh Sagar lake in Udaipur
Buildings close in on Fateh Sagar lake in Udaipur

As Jammu and Kashmir battles one of the worst floods in decades, environmentalists have blamed encroachment of the wetlands in the valley as the main reason for this devastation.

The Kashmir valley is dotted with wetlands which play a very important role in controlling flood in the region. Apart from natural ponds and lakes, the valley also houses other types of wetlands, like rivers, streams, riverine wetlands, man-made ponds and tanks. As per a report of Department of Environment and Remote Sensing, there are 1,230 lakes and water bodies in the state with 150 in Jammu, 415 in Kashmir and 665 in Ladakh. Dal Lake, Anchar Lake, Manasbal and Wular Lake are some of the larger wetlands in the area which are facing a major threat due to urbanisation.

Dal lake, one of the world’s largest natural lakes, covered an area of 75 sq km in 1200 AD. The lake area almost reduced to one-third in the eighties and has further reduced to one-sixth of its original size in the recent past. The lake has also lost almost 12 m of depth. “Massive encroachments and erection of many structures and hotels have led to the reduction in the size of the lake,” says Manu Bhatnagar, principal advisor in the natural heritage division of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Delhi Chapter. INTACH’s Jammu and Kashmir chapter had observed that construction in low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked discharge channels of the river almost five years ago.

Just like Dal, encroachments have also happened on the banks of one of the most prominent rivers in the state, the Jhelum that passes through Srinagar, the summer capital of the state. In 2005-06, the department of Irrigation and Flood Control launched a drive to remove encroachers along the Jhelum channel. However, the drive was not to manage the natural drainage of Srinagar but to beautify the river front. The waterbodies in Jammu are also under threat. The city was once famous for its traditional ponds and tanks which have been erased to house commercial complexes and parks in the city. This practice is repeated across India. Every year floods are reported from Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Surat, Rohtak, Gorakhpur, Guwahati due factors like inadequate drainage systems, housing on flood plains, natural drains and river beds, and loss of natural water storage areas. These factors demonstrate how rapid urbanisation in and around the city limits make flood events inevitable in the urban areas. In the last decade alone, a number of incidents of urban floods were reported – Mumbai (nine times), Ahmedabad (seven times), Chennai (six times), Hyderabad (five times), Kolkata (five times), Bengaluru (four times) and Surat (thrice).

Mumbai case point

Just like Srinagar and Jammu, many urban centres of India are failing to manage the drainage channels which are the stormwater drains. Unplanned development is taking place on the channels which are supposed to empty themselves in the nearby wetlands. In July, 2005, Mumbai learnt its lesson for tampering with nature. The city received over 900 mm rainfall in 24 hours and this killed almost 450 people. With flood came fever, dengue, diarrhoea and cholera. It has been seen that in 1925 as much as 60 per cent of the land area in the city was for agriculture and forest. In the beginning of 1990, the area got reduced to just half. The six basins of streams that criss-crossed the city, carrying its monsoon run-off, had been converted into roads, buildings and slums. The city came to know that it had a river called Mithi which had been marked as stormwater drain in the Environmental Status Report 2002-2003. The city is almost built over the river and untreated sewage and garbage choke the waterways of the river. In 2006, the corporation ordered eviction of the slum colony near the river to clean the river. Protests followed. Nothing concrete happened; there were plans for more buildings encroaching the river. Thus the city faces floods again and again.


Repeated mistakes

The stories of wetlands in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Guwahati seem to be strikingly similar. In the beginning of 1960, Bengaluru had 262 lakes, but right now only 10 of them hold water. Hyderabad is also losing its waterbodies. Between 1989 and 2001, 3,245 ha of waterbodies were lost, which is 10 times the size of Hussain Sagar, the major waterbody of the city.

Bengaluru’s urbanisation at the cost of green cover and waterbodies
Bengaluru’s urbanisation at the cost of green cover and waterbodies

Phanisai, researcher with non-profit Namma Bengaluru Foundation, explains that the city has both upstream and downstream lakes. The upstream lakes feed the downstream lakes through “rajkalve” (stormwater drains). He adds most of these drains in the city have been encroached, hence there is no outlet for the lakes upstream, and hence there is rise in these lakes causing flooding in the neighbouring areas. The downstream lakes are also not getting any feed from the upstream lakes and they are encroached in due course of time. Just like Mumbai, Bengaluru also faced flooding in the monsoon of 2005; the situation was worsened by choked drains and unauthorised development along the lakes.

Change in land use in Bengaluru between 1973 and 2007. (Source: Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)
Change in land use in Bengaluru between 1973 and 2007. (Source: Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)

In Hyderabad, the flood threats are evident because of encroachment of the floodplain of the Musi, the main river of the city, according to environmentalists. The city already faced a disastrous flood in 2000 but still the authorities did not learn any lesson. Only few encroachments were removed after a high court order.

In Guwahati, the beels or the ponds used to collect huge amount of rainwater that flowed from the surrounding hill catchments. Rampant encroachment almost killed the beels and also the channels feeding them, which makes flood a regular feature in the city, says Partha J Das, programme head of Guwahati-based NGO, Aranyak. He adds Guwahati is facing the consequences of mismanagement of waterbodies and river. It’s not just encroachment, but garbage dumping is also choking the drainage channels and the waterbodies of the city. Unplanned rapid urbanisation during post 2000 in most of the cities led to large-scale conversion of watershed area of lakes to residential and commercial estates. The catchments also got deforested or degraded; this caused huge silt movement in the catchment. The silt flowed directly into the waterbodies clogging them. This results in flash floods in the region, explains Das.

The urban waterbodies are under the land owning agencies like departments of revenue, fisheries, urban development, public works, municipalities or panchayats. These departments fill up the waterbodies and show these as cases of change in land use patterns. The vital roles played by the urban waterbodies in flood moderation and groundwater recharge are completely underestimated, unaccounted and overlooked, says Jasveen Jairath, regional coordinator of Hyderabad-based NGO, Save Our Urban Lakes. Jairath, who is fighting to save the lakes of Hyderabad, adds that one should not disturb the drainage flow and the storage capacity of the wetlands. This will give rise to floods and droughts in the city.

Sukhdev Singh, chief executive officer of Delhi Parks and Garden Society under Government of Delhi says most of the urban waterbodies in Delhi are encroached because they are dry. The catchment and the waterbodies are under different agencies and conflict of interests between two agencies kill the waterbodies. He quoted the example of Badkhal lake in Faridabad, very close to Delhi, which has become dry as the catchment has been degraded due to mining. Singh says waterbodies should be under a separate department. Right now Delhi waterbodies are under different agencies for whom their conservation is not a priority.

What does the law say?

The lakes and waterbodies of India are directly influenced by a number of legal provisions and regulatory framework. Article 48-A of the Constitution states: “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country”. Similarly, Article 51-A (g) says it is the fundamental duty of each citizen “to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures.”

Few cities like Guwahati and Kolkata have taken steps to preserve the waterbodies. In Guwahati, the state government, pushed by the judicial intervention, passed the Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Bill of 2008. The aim was to preserve wetlands and to reacquire lands in the periphery of the waterbody for its protection. Earlier in 2006, the East Kolkata Wetland Conservation and Management bill was passed to protect some 12,000 ha of wetland. This bill includes provision for penalties—Rs 1 lakh for encroachment. The Andhra government’s ‘Water, Land, Trees Act’ empowers state agencies to take steps to protect water bodies and to prevent conversion. The Act also requires measures to permanently demarcate the boundaries of the water bodies and to “evict and prevent encroachment”. The Kerala Government has also came out with Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008. This Act provides for imprisonment for not less than six months and fine up to Rs 1 lakh.

Cross section of floodplain elevation shows how city development across India pay scant regard to rivers’ needs
Cross section of floodplain elevation shows how city development across India pay scant regard to rivers’ needs

People concerned about lakes have been forced to go to court because there was no other grievance redressal mechanism to identify and protect the city’s waterbodies. Giving in to the clamour for a national regulation, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), issued a rule for conservation and management of wetlands in December, 2010, under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, called the Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2010.

According to Sanjay Upadhyay, a leading environmental lawyer, one has to give teeth to the law. Once the wetland is notified under the Act then only it can be protected, otherwise the Act is of no use. If one fails to notify a wetland, then that wetland cannot be protected. Upadhyay adds Town and Country Planning Act should take care of the wetlands. But the municipal bodies that implement this act does not have technical capacity identify a wetland.

Bhatnagar of INTACH adds that government apathy towards the wetlands causes floods in the urban areas. In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, lack of implementation of strict laws allowed people to construct on the flood plain areas. Stringent laws should be in place to protect the urban waterbodies, believe all the lake warriors.