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Not just climate change, mismanaged rivers, towns also led to deluge in South Asia

By Bharat Dogra 

Most countries of South Asia have suffered excessive flood losses this year, peaking in Pakistan. In the last week of August Pakistan, overwhelmed by surging waters, declared an emergency. Nearly 1500 human lives have already been claimed by the disaster. With excessive rains affecting almost half the country and a third of the country submerged during the peak of the flood, nearly 33 million people were reported to be temporarily without shelter. This meant about one out of every seven persons in a country with a total population of around 220 million. With over 700,000 houses destroyed or damaged, these families were likely to be deprived of shelter for a much longer time.
In neighboring India, the most flood-prone state of Assam had experienced waves of extreme floods at a much earlier stage of the monsoon. Around 22 June, over 5.5 million people out of a total population of around 31 million were reported to be affected by floods in Assam, or more than one out of six. Some next-door provinces were battered too.
While Assam is a known flood-prone state in the north-east of India, some of the least flood prone desert areas in the north-west also received exceptionally heavy rain, submerging parts of Jodhpur, city of palaces and forts much favored by tourists. In southern parts of India, Bengaluru, the leading hub of informational technology in the country, suffered very extensive damage in floods.
Several parts of the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in India were battered very badly by flash floods and landslides. While rains continued relentlessly, the authorities said that by the end of August, there was already damage estimated at Rs. 20 billion in this small state (population less than 8 million). It has become even clearer during this rainy season that most hilly regions are becoming much more susceptible to landslides and flash floods.
This was much in evidence in Nepal and Bangladesh as well. Bangladesh experienced waves of destructive floods around the same time as Assam, with more to follow. In Afghanistan, in August, widespread and very ferocious floods threatened large parts of the country which was earlier ravaged by a prolonged drought.
In many river-bank areas, particularly in India and Bangladesh, the extent of land erosion by ferocious rivers has increased greatly and tens of thousands of farmers have been rendered landless.
In these times of climate change, rains have been more concentrated and heavy in short spells, inflicting more damage. In Pakistan, rain during certain spells has been reported to be several times the expected norm. This, as well as the much higher glacier melt during the scorching summer, have been identified as the leading cause of floods by official sources. This can be abnormal in terms of historic weather patterns, but is not to be considered unexpected in times of climate change.
This is climate change at work, but not all the damage can be blamed on this alone. Local mismanagement, also linked in some contexts to climate change (as in the case of deforestation) or other factors not so linked (such as indiscriminate constructions in paths of natural water flow) has also contributed a lot to the fury of floods. Deforestation is a serious problem. In Pakistan forest cover is reported to have reduced from over 33 per cent to just around 4 per cent during the last 75 years or so. A significant part of this has been often been blamed on notorious timber mafias. In India it is the bulk felling of trees for several development projects of dubious merit which has been more controversial in recent times. The Ken-Betwa River Link involves the felling of well over 2 million trees, even though its viability has been repeatedly questioned.
Many dam reservoirs have been unable to fulfill the flood role envisaged for them, partly because of their rapid siltation caused by deforestation and partly because for economic reasons these tend to be managed much more prominently for hydro power and irrigation rather than for flood control. In reality, the larger than anticipated release of water from these dams often becomes the cause of more destructive floods.
Embankments have been constructed over vast areas in South Asia, but their real flood protection role too has diverged much from what was originally envisaged. Over the years the embanked rivers, unable to deposit their silt over a wide area, continue to rise, till the walls can stop them no more. Poor maintenance of embankments also continues to cause frequent breaches. Inability of natural rain-flows to enter embanked rivers contributes to new kinds of prolonged floods and waterlogging over substantial areas. The floods unleashed by breached embankments are much more furious than normal floods.
River-beds have been mined recklessly for construction materials. Wetlands and ponds which could absorb much of the flooded water in the past have been encroached upon. In urban areas well-connected builders have even encroached on land of natural water-flows, diverting water towards previously built and often denser residential areas. Corruption and cost- cutting lead to neglect of drainage while carrying out construction works.
Climate change requires much better preparation and adaptation to face the challenge of climate change. If highly destructive deluges are to be avoided, South Asia will need a much better response to new emerging threats.
The immediate concern should be to make the humanitarian response in flood affected areas as good as possible, but in the longer run, South Asia really needs to improve its response towards floods -- as floods become more disastrous in times of climate change, the region cannot afford to further worsen the threat by mismanagement and policy distortions. The demand for developed, rich countries to make compensatory payments for having contributed the most to climate change is justified, but this should not lead to neglect of much-needed local improvements. What all can agree immediately is to rush more and better managed relief to those suffering the most from floods.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril', ‘Protecting Earth for Children' and ‘A Day in 2071’

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