Flood management in India requires an integrated basin management

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Question – Flood management in India requires an integrated basin management and not a fragmented approach. Comment. – 1 January 2022

Answer –  Of all the natural calamities that occur in India, the incidence of floods is the highest. Although this is mainly due to the uncertainty of the Indian monsoon and the heavy water flow in the four months of the rainy season, India’s asymmetric geomorphic features play an important role in determining the nature and intensity of floods in different regions. The poorest section of the society is affected by floods, floods cause loss of life and property as well as damage to nature. Therefore, there is a need for flood estimation from the perspective of sustainable development.

Flood management is an essential component of disaster management in India. According to the Central Water Commission (CWC) data, there has not been a single year in the last 65 years (1952-2018) when the country has been completely unaffected by floods.

The current approach to flood control in India focuses on responsive practices to reduce flood risk and vulnerabilities to flood damage. This is mainly done through structural development or dredging such as the construction of dams, embankments, which separate rivers from their floodplains. However, these ad-hoc measures are only partially effective and only delay rather than reduce the risk of flooding.

The main drawbacks of the current preventive measures of flood control are:

  • Dams and reservoirs are built on the rivers to absorb the excess flow and to control the flow in the lower rivers. However, sometimes the water released by dams exceeds the capacity of downstream river channels, causing flooding in low-lying areas.
  • Embankments are constructed on river channels only as an ad-hoc measure for short-term mitigation. Long-term durability is neglected in their design and construction. Thus, embankments are weak and break regularly.
  • Also, due to embankments, the river channels prevent water from entering from the outlying areas. This leads to water logging in the outskirts and seepage from under the embankments.
  • Dredging is done by removing silt from the river channels to increase the depth and carrying capacity of the rivers. However, rivers such as the Brahmaputra accumulate more sediment than they remove per year, making the practice highly costly and wasteful.

Overall, these measures are fragmentary and short-lived and do not address the problems associated with them. Thus, there is a need to focus on integrated basin management, which includes:

  • It considers the river basin as a unique dynamic system. At the same time it aims to maximize (such as using flood water for irrigation, rainwater harvesting and inland shipping, safeguarding wildlife habitats, etc.) the net benefits from floodplains, and minimize the loss of life and property. For example, the Telugu Ganga project aims to use the flood waters of the Krishna and Pennar rivers to irrigate the drought-prone region of Rayalaseema.
  • It emphasizes on inter-disciplinary and inter-state coordination of water, land and related resources in a river basin, watershed or catchment area to achieve long-term sustainability. For example, after the establishment of Bhakra Beas Management Board (1967), profit sharing was done among Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan etc. for purposes like hydropower and irrigation through Integrated Operational Policy.
  • It is a holistic approach, in which the management of various micro watersheds in catchment and flood prone areas is ensured in such a way that each change positively affects the other components.
  • It supports adequate participation in well-informed and transparent planning and decision-making processes by all concerned stakeholders. For example, the Brahmaputra River Basin Resilience Building Program is a community-based preparedness approach towards disaster risk reduction in the floodplains of Jorhat, Golaghat and Majuli districts of Assam.

Necessary efforts need to be made to prevent disasters like floods and reduce the post-flood losses. Efforts are being made to reduce the impact of floods through various government policies and programmes. But these efforts will not be effective in preventing such disasters unless man-made factors like climate change, deforestation, unscientific development work etc.

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