Kashmir flood disaster worsened by risks being ignored - experts

by Ashutosh Sharma | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 September 2014 12:30 GMT

A woman weeps at the site of her home, devastated by floods in Kuppar village near Jammu in India's state of Jammu and Kashmir. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Ashutosh Sharma

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Deaths are blamed on the lack of a disaster plan and uncontrolled construction as well as extreme rainfall

JAMMU, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation)–The worst flooding in as much as a century in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has killed 215 people, washed away homes and businesses, cut off roads and communications and forced India’s Army to wage a large-scale rescue effort, officials say.

The disaster follows warnings as recently as last year that the Himalayan state had no comprehensive disaster management plan in place and no disaster response force equipped to handle such a crisis, despite warnings it was vulnerable to flooding like that that hit Uttarakhand state last year, claiming more than 3,500 lives.

Authorities blamed the current flooding not only on record heavy rainfall but on a construction surge that has put more and more buildings and homes in low-lying areas – including the capital’s Srinagar Development Authority, which saw its offices among the buildings inundated.

“It’s time for introspection, as we never expected such devastation,” said Suresh Chugh, director of Environment and Remote Sensing for the Jammu and Kashmir government. With climate change models predicting a continuing increase in heavy rainfall in the region, “there is every possibility of more such floods occurring in the future, and there is a need for concerted and coordinated efforts to address longer term concerns about disaster risks during extreme weather events,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

The current floods have left tens of thousands of people stranded on rooftops or other high ground, and have been described by the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, as the worst in 109 years. In Srinagar, floodwaters for the first time in memory reached the highest bridges in the city and completely inundated many residential areas and government buildings.

In a state already struggling to recover from decades of conflict along the border with Pakistan, surging rivers like the Jhelum and Sindh in the Kashmir Valley and Chenab and Tawi in Jammu region, as well as floods on dozens of smaller and seasonal rivers, have brought widespread death and destruction.

In Jammu, Zareena Begum and her husband Nazeer Ahmed, both from the region’s nomadic Gujjar tribe, lost the small house they’d built a decade ago to flooding that swept the Tawi River through Jammu city. In their area at least 50 houses were washed away, many home to families resettled away from shelling at Kashmir’s Line of Control.

The floods destroyed not only their home but also killed their 29 water buffalos, their only source of income, a sobbing Begum said. “My husband I had invested a part of our life in our home,” she said.

RELIEF OPERATION

Amid panic, chaos and confusion, India’s Army, Air Force, Navy, police and National Disaster Response Force have rescued nearly 96,000 people so far, the forces said Thursday.

“The Indian Army will not move back to the barracks till the last man is brought to safety,” promised General Dalbir Singh, chief of the Army staff. So far, about 125 helicopters and other aircraft have been deployed for the rescue operation.

But in the Kashmir valley even the main Army base, police headquarters, High Court and Civil Secretariat remained submerged by the floods Thursday.

With mudslides forcing road closures, the government and other agencies have so far failed to reach thousands of villages in the south of the Peer Panjal mountains with aid, people in those areas said by telephone. In the difficult-to-access area, non-stop rain and landslides have reportedly caused extensive damage to mud houses, crops and livestock.

The floods have ravaged maize, rice and vegetable fields in the region, and last week led villagers on the Jammu plains to clash with police as they demanded emergency food aid for themselves and their animals, according to Manjit Singh, a former state minister.

Road authorities, working with Army engineers, also have been racing to clear and repair roads and bridges. In some areas, makeshift or pontoon bridges have been put in places to replace permanent bridges lost to the floods.

WARNINGS IGNORED

While the Central Water Commission is being blamed for not issuing any alert about the floods, experts said poor planning also was a major contributor to the disaster.

In July last year, at a meeting of the environment committee of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council, experts warned that climate change coupled with an unplanned construction boom could lead to a disaster “worse than that of Uttarakhand” in ecologically fragile Jammu and Kashmir.

“In Jammu, a combination of factors including encroachment of river catchment areas, construction of residential and commercial structures along river banks and conversion of wetlands into agricultural lands exacerbated the (flooding),” said Bushan Parimoo, president of the Environment Awareness Forum, a nongovernmental organisation.

In the Kashmir valley, unplanned construction is being blamed as the major cause of the current flooding. “The colonies that have come up in last 20 years are not following any guideline and the master plan that is only on paper is hardly followed,” noted an editorial in Rising Kashmir, a daily newspaper.

“Since the devastation triggered by earthquakes in 2005, we have been raising a hue and cry over growing construction along both the banks of the River Tawi as well as floodplains and beds of seasonal rivers but no one paid heed,” G.M. Bhat, a professor of geology at the University of Jammu, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The government lacks vision and it never listens to experts,” he charged. “Mostly it’s a coterie of politicians, bureaucrats and private constructors who rule the roost. The government has legalised construction in the beds of seasonal rivers. Where will the floodwaters go during extreme rainfall?

“It was a disaster in the making” he said. “It must be a wake-up call for all of us.”

Experts pointed out that Jammu and Kashmir has no comprehensive disaster management plan or disaster response force equipped to handle such crises. Last year, Shashidhar Reddy, vice chair of the National Disaster Management Authority, warned during a visit that many Indian states lacked such preparedness and “Jammu and Kashmir is sailing in the same boat.”

To see a slideshow of images on the Kashmir flooding, click here.

Ashutosh Sharma is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir, India.

(Editing by Laurie Goering; laurie.goering@thomsonreuters.com)

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