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The Kerala floods have brought to light the devastating effects of floods on the social and economic life of people. Although caused by excessive rainfall, ecologist Madhav Gadgil blames the floods on human-made reasons like quarrying, improper construction and reduced forest cover. Hence, it is imperative to look at the urban floods that India has witnessed in the recent past and steps that need to be taken so that frequency of future events can be reduced and the damage caused minimised.

Floods are a situation when the amount of rainfall is so high that the absorptive capacity of the ground is insufficient and water, instead of seeping into the ground, flows on the surface (Sommerland, 2018).  Floods were traditionally thought of like a natural disaster. However, in light of the recent spate of floods like in Kerala, Chennai and Mumbai, the traditional understanding is changing. Human-made causes like deforestation and encroachment of water bodies are seen as the primary cause of increasing intensity of floods and the damage caused.

Climate change is one of the reasons for the increase in rainfall. It has changed the normal and there has been an increase in a number of heavy rainfall days in recent years in Mumbai (Indorewala and Wagh, 2018). Deforestation and encroachment of water bodies lead to the lower water holding capacity of the ground. All this has changed the status-quo for the environment and weather which the local communities and the governments are not ready to adapt to.

Although the Kerala state government blames mismanagement of dams, the cause of the floods goes beyond dams. The state received 255 per cent more rainfall than usual (Narayanan, 2018), but the damage was exacerbated by failing to follow the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil Committee in 2011. The committee recommended a halt on the illegal quarrying in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats which the Kerala government opposed (Sinha, 2018). Moreover, there was also the construction of houses and the Kochi airport on the floodplains of the river Periyar which prevented water from flowing into the river. Although the heavy rains are uncontrollable, better infrastructure management could have reduced the scale of the destruction.

Similar infrastructural hazards were seen in the case of Chennai floods in 2015 and Mumbai floods in 2005. In Chennai, the floods were caused because of reclamation of the numerous lakes and marshy land in and around the city. This causes the water absorptive capacity of the water bodies to fall resulting in floods. Another culprit in the case of Chennai was the massive amount of plastic thrown into the drains which deteriorated the drainage capacity (Jayaraman, 2015). In 2005, Mumbai saw heavy rains coupled with high tide preventing water from draining into the Arabian Sea. However, the presence of slums on the floodplains of the Mithi river reduced the river channel and water holding capacity of the river. Moreover, the Mumbai airport is built around the Mithi river and lies on its floodplains. The floodplains are a part of the river during floods and help in absorbing the excess water during floods. The encroachment of floodplains leads to excess water to on the surface and cause floods on a larger scale. Mumbai does not seem to have learnt its lesson and the Navi Mumbai airport is proposed to be constructed on the marshy lands.

During periods of heavy rainfall, Central and State governments can ensure that the damage is prevented, and Civic authorities can ensure that the damage is minimised. Civic authorities should restrict construction on the floodplains of the river as they are geographically a part of the river and it is the first area of the river to be flooded (Nair, 2017). Environmental activists have been pushing the civic authorities in Mumbai and Delhi to halt encroachment on the Mithi and the Yamuna floodplains. Kerala floods should be a reminder for these cities to clean up their act.

Furthermore, Mumbai still has a British-era drainage system, which is inadequate in times of floods. In the aftermath of the 2005 floods, Mumbai planned a Brihanmumbai Stormwater Disposal System (BRIMSTOWAD). However, the project is nowhere near completion. Moreover, in light of the frequent disasters, construction should be damage resilient.

Central and State governments which have a larger mandate should initiate policies which have a larger spatial and temporal dimension. The World Commission on Dams (2000) has reported that large dams worsen the flooding situation. Hence, further construction of large dams can be halted, and emphasis should be on small hydropower projects. The policy of having 33% forest cover should be strictly adhered to. This will help in increasing the seepage of water and reduce the surface water, thereby reducing the intensity of floods.

The Sendai framework signed in 2015 under the aegis of United Nations focuses on disaster risk mitigation. The framework sets priorities for action which include “Understanding disaster risk, strengthening risk governance, investing in risk reduction and enhancing risk preparedness.” Although it is a voluntary and non-binding agreement, India should implement this to reduce disaster risk and increase preparedness during disasters. Similarly, the Madhav Gadgil report, whose recommendations were dismissed by both the Central and State governments, needs to be relooked at. A bottoms-up approach for environmental management, as recommended by the report, needs to push for while preserving the eco-sensitive areas of the Western Ghats.


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IANS (August 28, 2018). Floods have pushed back Idukki 40 years back: Kerala Power Minister. India Today. Retrieved from https://www.indiatoday.in/kerala-floods/story/kerala-idukki-floods-40-years-back-power-minister-mm-mani-1323074-2018-08-26

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Nair, M (September 3, 2017). Mumbai needs to restore flood plains of its rivers at the earliest. The Hindustan Times. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/mumbai-needs-to-restore-flood-plains-of-its-rivers-at-the-earliest/story-QAXJasWfcdDFaXV97cMiJL.html

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Sommerland, J (July 22, 2018). Kerala floods: What causes flash flooding and why has it been so severe in India. Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/kerala-floods-latest-india-cause-flash-flooding-landslides-explained-a8500801.html

Sinha, A (August 22, 2018). Kerala Floods: The prescriptions for the Western Ghats. Indian Express. Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/kerala-floods-the-prescriptions-for-the-western-ghats-5316449/

World Commission on Dams. (2000). Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-making: the Report of the World Commission on Dams. Earthscan.

Image source: NDTV

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Written By Pranav Mayekar

Masters in Economics from TERI School of Advanced Studies

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