From droughts to floods: India’s tryst with climate extremes

Deconstructing the traditional narrow engineering based policy discourses around floods and droughts and connecting them to social and cultural realities is the need of the hour in India.
Water talk Series at Mumbai (Image Source:Tata Insitute of Social Sciences) Water talk Series at Mumbai (Image Source:Tata Insitute of Social Sciences)

India has witnessed extreme weather conditions this year. While parts of the north and south have battled drought like conditions this summer, the northeast and western coastal areas witnessed heavy rains and floods.
While climate change has been highlighted as one of the reasons for these extreme events, experts argue that human factors, faulty models of development and the narrow perception of droughts and floods at the policy level has worsened the situation in India.

What are droughts and floods? To what extent are they really harmful? How are discourses around floods and droughts constructed at the policy level and how do they influence action on the ground? These were some of the questions contemplated at the Water Talk Series organised by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai,  on ‘The Discourse of Flood and Drought in India – The Question of Life, Livelihood and Environment’ .

Human interventions, faulty developmental models exacerbate impact of floods

Floods and droughts are inevitable, says Himanshu Thakkar from South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), but can turn into disasters due to a lack of understanding of the important role that river catchments, wetlands, local water bodies, rivers, streams, groundwater play in controlling floods and droughts.

Floods can turn into disasters when natural drainage systems do not have the capacity to carry water. Our catchments are gradually degrading, and their capacity to hold, store and recharge water is gradually decreasing. This is because man made activities have completely destroyed the soil, forests, local water storage systems leading to decrease in recharge capacity.

“We do not have mechanisms in place to use the rainwater efficiently. Only big dams are still viewed as storage structures in India at the policy level, while other storage options at the local level continue to be neglected”, he adds.

Role of dams in triggering floods

While dams have the capacity to moderate floods, this does not help in reality when they are filled to their maximum capacity for fear of droughts. In such a situation, they can also lead to massive floods in cases of mismanagement and when not operated properly. These self-created floods are far worse as compared to normal floods, which are exacerbated due to poor catchment capacities.

A shift from traditional engineering approaches such as large storage structures, focus on catchment management, disaster risk management with focus on dam safety, transparency in reservoir management and community involvement are the need of the hour, according to Thakkar.

Aquifers, ubiquitous buffers to droughts and floods

What role does groundwater play in controlling droughts and floods? How can we look at floods and droughts through the groundwater lens? According to Dr. Himanshu Kulkarni of Advanced Centre for Water Resource Development and Management (ACWADAM) that works on groundwater issues, aquifers act as ubiquitous buffers to droughts and floods and remain one of the last respites in times of both extremes.

For example, floods in Bihar often leave no option for safe drinking water but the ubiquitous hand pump that has often been found to come to the rescue of affected people whether on embankments or even when habitations are surrounded by flood waters. The same is true in the case of places experiencing water scarcity during repeated droughts like in the hot and cold arid regions such as Kutch or Ladakh, where too, people totally depend on groundwater in one form or the other.

India alone extracts a quarter of the total global groundwater extraction. Groundwater forms the lifeline for agriculture, wildlife as well as industries and is increasingly used in urban areas. Continuous depletion of aquifers and deteriorating quality of groundwater has reduced the buffering capacity of aquifers in times of extremes. The basic challenge lies in how to balance aquifer stocks to cope with droughts and floods. To do so, aquifer based community groundwater management holds plenty of promise.

One must also remember that groundwater further plays an important role in maintaining baseflows in river systems. Around 34-35 billion cubic metres of water is conservatively estimated as the annual ‘base flow’ contributing to streams and rivers in India. Soil moisture too depends on groundwater.

"This buffering capacity of groundwater to droughts and floods depends on the properties of aquifers and the status of groundwater extraction. The catchment properties of the area and soil moisture levels also help in controlling floods and droughts”, Dr. Kulkarni adds.

There are many challenges in recharging aquifers. Rainfall patterns are changing significantly across India with heavy precipitation over shorter periods. Pre monsoon precipitation has also decline in many places, like Pune for example, such changes having serious implications for soil moisture status and groundwater recharge.

Reviving shallow aquifers, which have been the silent but prodigious resources for many centuries in India, should become the single most important agenda for bringing back the resilient properties of aquifers in the country. There are multiple benefits to this. Improved management of supply and demand, increased resilience in water supplies during the times of extreme climate, floods and droughts and securing multifaceted water supplies across the wide typology of socio-environmental conditions are the important factors in this regard.

“We have a paradox where aquifer stocks are lower during droughts and higher during floods. Balancing aquifer stocks for droughts and floods is the need of the hour. The single most action could be by way of recharging shallow aquifers across the country”, he concludes.

Floods in the Northeast, a product of unidirectional flood management policies

The flood prone North East is a unique case in point - in the Brahmaputra river basin, people are used to living with floods, according to Dr. Partha Das from Aaranyak, an organisation working on enviroment and boiodiversity. 

“Not all floods are harmful. In fact, moderate floods were traditionally welcomed by farmers and fisherfolk as they helped agriculture and fishing immensely. While there is a growing intolerance to floods in modern times as people are moving away from rivers, the idea that floods need to be controlled technologically is growing, even at the policy level”.

Floods in Northeast India are increasingly becoming more unpredictable and devastating. This can not only be attributed to climate change, but also to the:

  • Increasing impact of human activities such as settlement and farming in the flood plains and river beds
  • Destruction of wetlands
  • Inadequate drainage structures
  • Overemphasis on structural measures to control floods at the policy level
  • Faulty construction and lack of maintenance of already constructed structures such as embankments
  • Lack of importance given to non structural measures such as catchment treatment and early warning 

Good governance coupled with an integrated basin level management approach and community participation are needed for better flood management in the future.

Women and the marginalised are affected most by floods

Dominant discourses around droughts and floods tend to be gender blind and look at women as a homogenous group, portray them as victims and undervalue their knowledge, argues Seema Kulkarni from SOPPECOM.

“Overburdened and undernourished, droughts and floods can worsen the situation for women. Lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced food intake, increased work burdens under severe climatic conditions such as extreme heat coupled with lack of control over resources such as land, water, forests can take a toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of women”.

An integrated ecosystem based approach based on gender and social justice and gender sensitive policies that acknowledge the rights of women and the marginalised in the context of agriculture, forests, environment and water are the need of the hour.

Redefining optimum use and efficiency in water use in agriculture

We need a paradigm shift in the way in which irrigation, water use, agricultural efficiency are understood at the policy level argues Mr A. Ravindra, from Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), an organisation that works on watershed management, rainfed agriculture.  

“When it rains, the soil absorbs moisture, some of which evaporates while the rest is used by plants to grow. The water content in the soil is an indicator of plant water use and evaporation and this can be used to determine when to irrigate and how much water is needed. Irrigation thus is not about piped water, it is about utilising maximum rainfall to grow crops, utilising water in the soil and only providing water to fill the gap”.

The same is true about our ideas of efficiency, where we need to think of security versus maximum productivity. Primary objective needs to be how we can be secure.  Our focus needs to be on how to improve and retain soil moisture in the case of deficient rainfall. There needs to be a change in the present focus at the policy level on irrigation practices that need large water storage structures. Rather efforts need to be made to use the available water efficiently through better crop planning and water management. A change in perspective will not only help in using the available water efficiently, but will also reduce the huge public investments in irrigation.

Open wells as answers to urban water distress

Local water storage structures to tackle water scarcity are often ignored at the policy level. Can a peek into our rich water traditions provide a solution to the urban crisis we are facing today? Vishwanath Srikantaiah, of Biome Environmental Solutions based in Bangalore, urges for the need to revive the now neglected traditional open wells to quench the thirst of water starved cities.

"The open well is a provider and a communicator. It ‘talks’ provided we are ready to listen. We need to get back to the culture of an open well”, he adds.

The solution to rapid groundwater depletion and changing rainfall patterns can be in the form of digging open wells and recharging these shallow unconfined aquifers. Vishwanath cited the example of a unique effort made in Rainbow Drive, an apartment complex in Bangalore, where traditional well diggers have cleaned, deepened, revived and even dug new open wells to provide water for homes, institutions, parks and industries. These recharge wells replenish groundwater by catching rainwater from rooftops and stormwater drains. Vishwanath went on to highlight the need to spread such efforts in different water stressed cities in the country.

As Dr Amita Bhide, Dean, School of Habitat Studies, TISS, says

"It is necessary to deconstruct policy discourses around floods and droughts and connect them to social and cultural realities rather than following the traditional engineering approach".

Better governance mechanisms, a move away from structural solutions, efficient water management, emphasis on recharge mechanisms and rainwater harvesting, local solutions and involvement of community in the efforts could go a long way in coping with droughts and floods.

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