Flood control policies in India - A paper in the journal Golden Research Thoughts

The paper traces the history of flood management in India, its successes and failures, the methods and structures used for flood management and suggests the way forward

This paper published in the journal Golden Research Thoughts aims at describing the different initiatives undertaken by the expert committees and Government of India in tackling the flood problem of India. The paper traces the history of flood management in India, its successes and failures, the methods and structures used for flood management in the past and present and suggests on the way forward by reflecting on the earlier and current situation and progress we have made on flood control in India.

The paper informs that floods are one of the natural calamities that India faces almost every year in varying degree of magnitude. The frequent occurrence of floods can be attributed to various factors, including wide variation in rainfall over time and space and inadequate carrying capacity of rivers. The problems get accentuated due to silting, bank erosion, landslides, poor natural drainage, glacial lake outburst, etc. Indiscriminate development and encroachment of flood plain areas, improper planning & construction of roads, railway lines, etc. have also been responsible for increase in flood damages.

The paper goes on to describe/shed light on the policy history for tackling floods in India. In India, a National Flood Control programme was launched in 1953. By 1979, 9.75 billion rupees (nearly $1 billion) had been spent on embankments and other structural controls. Flood management schemes have also been taken up by respective State Governments in their successive plans. It is estimated that a total of 16,199 km length of embankments and 32,003 km length of drainage channels have been constructed, a total of 906 towns were protected and 4,721 villages were provided protection from floods up to the year 1997. From the above works, it is estimated that an area of 14.37m.ha has benefited.

In addition to the structural flood protection measures, non-structural measures like flood forecasting and warning of incoming floods have also played a significant role in reducing the loss of life and movable property apart from alerting authorities in-charge to take appropriate  to deal with floods. The Central Water Commission manages a major network of such flood forecasting stations on inter-state rivers in 18 states. The techniques of observation of hydrological and hydro-meteorological data and their transmission to the forecasting station have been constantly under review and updating.  Similarly, inflow forecasting activity is also constantly being reviewed for making necessary improvements to make the forecasts more accurate and also to give higher lead time.
However, the paper argues that inspite of these efforts, flood damage is increasing year by year. The emphasis, which till recently,  has been on trying to control floods through structural controls, has done very little to improve the situation. There is now a growing body of evidence which makes it increasingly clear that structural controls do little or nothing to reduce the ravages of floods. On the contrary, they would appear to exacerbate the problem, not least by increasing the severity of those floods which occur.

For example, embankments have found to lead to a series of problems, which include:

  • Not allowing water from outside to come in, creating water logging outside, seepage from underneath the embankments adding to the problems
  • No embankment is break proof, and when they break they variously bring deluge, prolonged water logging and sand casting
  • A situation of conflict arises between those who are within the embankments, who would like to break the embankment to reduce the water level within the embankment and those who are outside, who would like the embankment to remain intact
  • The embankments have to constructed sufficiently wide so that the embanked river is able to carry the flood peaks, keeping in view the fact that the earthen embankments cannot stand velocities adjacent to banks exceeding about 1.2 to 1.5 meters per second
  • The existence of embankments changes the character of floods in the area. The floods are sudden, can have greater destructive power, bring a huge quantity of sand with it and remain for longer periods

The paper ends by arguing that, focus thus needs to be on flood management and not flood control. Flood management does not aim at total elimination or control of floods or providing total immunity from the effects of all magnitudes of floods, which is neither practicable from economic considerations nor even necessary, keeping in view other realities that are faced in the Indian context. A multipronged strategy ranging from modifying the floods by means of structural measures to learning to live with the floods by means of other non structural measures is well within pragmatic realism in flood management. An efficient flood management is a special case of water management and requires a most holistic approach as it involves the management of thousands of micro-watersheds in both the catchment and the flood prone areas.

A copy of the paper can be accessed at this link




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