Every monsoon season brings with it headlines of flash floods, landslides and the number of people killed or rendered homeless. Floods are most lethal in India as these account for over 40 percent of deaths out of all natural disasters. These are also the costliest among disasters, accounting for around 70 percent of economic losses caused by all disasters. Between 1980 and 2017, India experienced 235 floods, which led to 126,286 deaths and affected 1.93 billion people. The economic losses due to floods stood at a humongous $58.7 billion.
Moreover, estimates reveal that around 45.35 million hectares of land is vulnerable to floods. It has been found that as per the variable of ‘liable to flood prone area as a percentage of State geographical area’, Punjab is most prone (over 80 percent) flowed by Bihar (73 percent), Haryana (53 percent) and Assam (48.7 percent). The population fatality by floods is the highest in Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar, Gujarat and Assam with Manipur witnessing the lowest number. However, in recent years, Assam and the north-eastern states have been witness to high levels of inundation.
This year also heavy rainfall has been affecting north-eastern India, particularly in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Meghalaya since early May, triggering landslides and causing river overflow and floods that have resulted in casualties and damage. Media reports indicate several fatalities due to floods and landslides. About 40,000 persons have been displaced to relief camps, while over 197,000 people have been affected. 12 relief distribution centres have also been opened up. Rescue operations are being carried out by National and State Disaster Response Forces (NDRF & SDRF), Fire and Emergency Services and local population.
Not just in the North-East but several other states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand not to speak of Maharashtra’s capital Mumbai have witnessed heavy rainfall and a flood-like situation. But surprisingly there has been deficient rainfall in West Bengal and Odisha. Obviously, climate change has made this possible as flood prone areas are suffering due to deficiency in rainfall, while drought prone regions are witnessing heavy rainfall. As of 3 August, the death toll reached 1,354 across India, as reported by the National Emergency Response Centre (NDMI). The worst affected States are: Himachal Pradesh (with 232 fatalities), Assam (199), Madhya Pradesh (162), Gujarat (119) and Maharashtra (112).
It needs to be mentioned here that the major flood prone regions in India are Punjab, Haryana, most of the Gangetic plains, including UP, North Bihar and West Bengal, the Brahmaputra valley, coastal Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, and southern Gujarat. Now-a-days Kerala and Tamil Nadu also feel the fury of the floods. In September 2014, the Kashmir region witnessed disastrous floods. In June 2013, a multi-day cloudburst centred on the northern state of Uttarakhand, caused devastating floods and landslides in its districts caused by torrential rainfall.
The major factors causing floods are obviously meteorological factors such as heavy rainfall, tropical cyclones and cloud burst, physical factors such as large catchment area, and inadequate catchment area and, of course, human factors like deforestation, siltation, faulty agricultural practices, bursting and overflow of dams and, accelerated urbanisation.
Coming to the question of impacts of floods, it is a well-known fact that this affects the poorer and marginalised sections of society, mainly residing in rural areas. These include: one, destructions of human settlements as millions are rendered homeless with serious consequences on the national economy and society; two, destruction of valuable crops almost every year as also damaging physical infrastructure such as roads, rails, bridges etc; and three, spread of diseases like cholera, gastroenteritis, hepatitis and other water-borne diseases spread in the flood-affected areas. However, one cannot deny that floods make a few positive contribution as floods deposit fertile silt over agricultural fields, which helps in soil fertility.
In the NDMA Act, 2005, the responsibilities to act and provide relief flow from the Centre to the bottom (local governance bodies). This means that in a disaster situation, the uniformed forces that go down to the site for relief and response works, which may not be familiar with terrain, find it necessary that local self-governance bodies, such as panchayats, aware of both the area and people much better, would give a helping hand.
With that in mind, after the 2018 Kerala floods, the state government saw the need to alter its disaster management governance. In January 2020, under the Rebuild Kerala Initiative, the state government passed an order for the “preparation of disaster management plans by local self-government institutions”. Reports reveal that including these disaster plans into Gram Panchayats’ Annual Plans has been completed successfully. They are currently gearing towards another round of listing down their projects for relief and response, along with mitigation and flood-proofing activities for their villages.
It needs to be understood that over the years, floods, landslides and other natural disasters have led to more refugees than from all the wars we have fought. Thus, though with the advancement of technology such as satellite and remote-sensing equipment, flood waves are being tracked as the water level rises, evacuation and proper rehabilitation is not being successfully carried out.
Therefore, the focus of an effective strategy should be on mapping of flood prone areas to give proper indication of water flow during floods and land use control, thereby reducing the danger of life and property, when the waters inundate the flood plains and the coastal areas. At the same time, authorities should strictly monitor that no major development should be permitted in the areas which are subjected to high flooding.
The other aspect that needs consideration and which is being neglected is decreasing the amount of run-off with the help of reforestation. Flood diversion includes levees, embankments, dams and channel improvement. Dams can store water and can release water at a manageable rate. But the failure of dams in earthquakes and operation of releasing the water can cause floods in the lower areas. The other aspect is flood proofing measures, which are already under way. As drainage system is generally choked by the construction of roads, canals, railway tracks etc. there is a need to restore floods to the original form of drainage system.
Finally, to mitigate the impact of floods, there is a need for States to devise long-term disaster management policies. While flood forecasting systems need further accuracy, specially in low-lying areas, this needs to reach the rural population. The government should spend more on flood prevention and mitigation measures. Another crucial area is river connectivity and construction of multipurpose cyclones and flood shelters in low lying areas that help mitigate the loss of lives from floods. Finally, States should undertake designed disaster management plan, which is marked by regular meetings at the highest level to evaluate disaster preparedness, construction of multipurpose fold shelters and undertaking district-wise Flood Inundation Mapping. A holistic approach to lessen the impact of floods is critical