The waters may be receding in Kerala but previous post-flood scenarios in other states suggest it could take years for the southern state to help rebuild its people’s lives, destroyed in one of the worst floods in a century, and some more to implement measures that could significantly minimise the impact of a similar disaster.
The state government has estimated a loss of Rs 20,000 crore, with Idukki, Malappuram, Kottayam and Ernakulam districts being the worst affected in the Kerala floods. Government officials say the state’s topmost priority is to rescue people and provide lakhs of the affected with relief materials. They, however, admit that rebuilding the state will be a “daunting task”.
“Tough days are ahead,” chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Monday when asked about his government’s plans to start the reconstruction work. “Over a million people are in the relief camps and as of now they are our priority. We are assessing human and material damage,” he added.
The government estimates about one lakh buildings, which includes people’s houses, have been damaged,over 10,000km of highways and roads and hundreds of bridges have been washed away, and crops in millions of hectares of land have been lost in the Kerala floods.
The government will start the process to accurately assess the damage after the relief and rescue work is over, an official said.
Experts say that an area under severe flood could take up to a decade to fully recover. A 2015 paper by Prakash Tripathi of Ambedkar University, titled ‘Flood Disaster in India: An Analysis of trend and Preparedness’, pointed out that completing relief and rehabilitation work takes about two years on average while the ecological recovery could take up to more than five years.
Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People spoke of “different aspects of recovery” — the human aspect, which involves rehabilitation, and creation of systems, which enables reducing the impact of future floods. “We cannot stop floods. But we can minimise their impact. For that, some structural re-engineering to ensure that the rivers can flow freely is needed. This takes time.”
Thakkar isn’t off the mark. Four years after the devastating floods in Kashmir, which saw its 2.61 lakh homes partially or completely damaged, the recovery work is still not over even though the government has paid compensation to those affected.
The state and central governments differ on their estimates of the damage caused in the Valley.
Chief engineer in the state’s irrigation and flood control department, MM Shahnawaz said in the first phase, they filled all breaches and strengthened the embankments. “From 32,000 cusecs of water, we increased river Jhelum’s carrying capacity to 41,000 cusecs. We are further planning to increase it to 60,000 cusecs in coming years,” he said.
The chief engineer said that in the second phase a Spanish company has been engaged to formulate comprehensive flood mitigation and river management and the project will be completed in five to seven years. As a long term plan, the state government also plans to construct storage dams for the tributaries of the river or constructing a separate flood spill channel.
Similar is the story in Uttarakhand, where upper reaches were ravaged by the devastating June 2013 flash floods in the Mandakini and Alaknanda rivers that impacted around nine million people and left close to 200 people dead. Kedarnath in Rudraprayag districts were worst affected where flash floods washed away the 16 km trek from the shrine till Gaurikund.
Amit Singh Negi, secretary disaster management, said, “We received over R 1000 crore from the central government for rescue and relief. The money has been disbursed but the strengthening of roads and other structures is going on.”
The state government officials, however, refused to comment on failure to remove encroachments on the river flood plain that was the cause for major loss of human life. This still poses a huge bottleneck to prevent re-run of 2013.
The northern parts of Bihar were ravaged by the huge breach in the embankment on Kosi river on India-Nepal border in 2008. It affected 3.3 million people and left 527 dead. Around 6.6 million hectares of agriculture land became unfit for cultivation because of excessive siltation.
Ten years on, the Bihar government is still struggling to provide an alternate to farmers. The officials said the state has initiated measures including subsidy to adopt new crops but the results have not been very encouraging.
The relief and rehabilitation work started by the state government, though helped mitigate the problem, is also still not over.
The World Bank-aided Kosi Flood Recovery Project of $220 million, which was initially supposed to be completed by September 2014, was extended to June 2018. The bank is also funding Bihar Kosi Basin Development project of $250 million with completion deadline of March 2023.
Assam, the state which receives floods on annual basis due to river Brahmaputra’s fury, has taken a large number of steps such as building embankments to minimise the damage but, according to the river board, the impact had been minimal as people continue to live in floodplains.
The board, however, suggested in its 2017 report that building of huge storage dams upstream of the river can control the impact of floods, which the activists say could prove to be “disastrous” as it has happened in Kerala.
“We have to learn from Kerala that just development big storage dams may not help. When it rains heavily, the dam gates have been opened which results in excessive flooding. Instead, we need to work on flood management, which basically means removing encroachments from traditional water flow zones and allowing excess water to flow smoothly into oceans,” Thakkar said.
Former Central Water Commission chairperson A B Pandya said creating storage dams helps both in generating electricity and managing floods.
“If Tehri Dam would not have been there, the damage because of the Uttarkhand floods would have been much more. We have seen in north-east also that the impact of floods is less because of the dams,” he said.
According to CWC data, the floods are responsible for deaths of 84% of people in all natural disasters in India. “The recurrence and intensity of floods has amplified over the time (especially after 1970s) which damages life and costs economy dearly,” said Prakash Tripathi in his study, which also said there was a need for effective pre-and post-disaster mechanism as the nature cannot be checked but disaster can be reduced.