Floods and recurring natural disasters in India
Better regulation of environmentally sensitive areas is needed to avert disasters.
4 Aug 2021
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Floods in Uttarkashi (Image: Oxfam International; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After two weeks of extremely hot and long dry weather, the monsoon winds brought heavy rains to the hilly northern states of India (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand) and the south-west coastal states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, and Kerala). Cloudbursts and landslides have wreaked havoc.

Mahabaleshwar, a hilly town in Maharashtra's Satara district in Western Ghats, received 600 mm of rain in 24 hours on July 22, breaking all previous records, while Taliye village in Raigad district of the state suffered the most. A landslide has killed 212 people so far with a large number of people still missing, which could increase the death toll. In addition to Taliye village, three other villages in Raigad district (Govele Sutarwadi, Kevanale, and Dhamnand) have reported deaths due to landslides.

A survey aimed to protect the villages from the scourge of natural calamities has revealed that 80 villages of this district (Raigarh) fall in the medium and 9 villages in the extremely environmentally sensitive areas, as reported by the District Collector of Raigad. Landslides can cause severe damage in these villages.

Apart from Raigad, nine other districts in Maharashtra have also been hit by heavy rains. Mumbai received 230 mm of rain in just six hours on July 18. Rains in Ratnagiri district broke a 40-year record.

Several areas in north Karnataka and Goa have also received up to 300 mm of rain in 24 hours last week. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), if an area receives 200 mm or more of rain in 24 hours during the last one week, it is categorized as heavy rain. Due to heavy rains, local rivers in Maharashtra and major rivers of Southern India (Krishna, Cauvery, Tungabhadra, Bhima, Kapila, etc.) have been flooded. Heavy rains have washed away many road stretches in Karnataka and Goa. Road connectivity in Goa, Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra have also been cut off due to landslides. Kerala too has reported landslides due to heavy rains.

In Himachal Pradesh, heavy rains on July 12 caused landslides on 54 roads, disrupting traffic for several hours. A cloudburst in Dharamshala caused the Bhagsunag rainwater river to flood, flooding residential areas. Six people were killed in landslides in Kangra district and nine in Kinnaur district, and similar conditions prevailed in neighbouring Uttarakhand. Roads around Chamoli are closed due to landslides.

In Bihar, the Champaran district has been flooded due to the rising Gandak river. At least four people have been killed and 35 others are still missing after a cloudburst at Hinjar village in Jammu & Kashmir Kishtwar region.

Disasters due to unplanned development

Heavy rains, cloudbursts, lightning strikes and landslides have killed hundreds of people across the country during this monsoon. People battling heavy rains in different parts of India are being informed that all this is due to climate change. Developed countries are responsible for these changes in climate since they have polluted the environment by emitting greenhouse gases in recent decades which is majorly responsible for rise in the average global temperature, as a result of which all the countries of the world are now suffering from natural disasters due to climate change. While this is one of the major reasons for the increase in the number of natural disasters, people cannot be misled and swooned this way.

It also needs to be brought to their attention that the other major reason is the unplanned development of our country in the blind race of development. Indiscriminate deforestation in the name of development in environmentally sensitive areas, construction of dams on rivers and buildings in riverine areas, conversion of mountainous areas to resorts are responsible for deforestation and cutting of mountains.

The central and state governments are largely responsible for the devastation from Maharashtra to Kerala. Since the beginning of this century, people of all these states have been protesting against the government’s anti-nature development plans.

Committee recommends a stop to indiscriminate development

In view of the public outcry, the central government had constituted a committee in 2010 under the chairmanship of eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil to look into the development of the Western Ghats as well as to protect these states from natural calamities. The committee had sent a report to the central government in 2011 after conducting a thorough and in-depth survey of various places. The committee had recommended declaring 87.5 per cent of the Western Ghats in six states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu) as environmentally sensitive.

The committee suggested that no new cities should be built in the environmentally sensitive area, new dams should be stopped and any construction should be obstructed and stopped in the catchment areas of wetlands and rivers. The committee also suggested a ban on the expansion of tourism and mining. The report was outright rejected by all the states, including the central government.

After that, the central government set up another committee under the chairmanship of Kasturirangan, the new committee diluted the Gadgil Committee's recommendations and reduced the eco-sensitive area to just 37.5 per cent leading to speeding up development in sensitive areas in the Western Ghats. These already sensitive areas have become more prone to natural disasters since then.

The fallout of ignoring environmental regulations

Dharamsala’s Bhagsunag area reports several casualties following a massive landslide in Boh valley, which cannot merely be termed a natural disaster. The main cause of flooding in the seasonal river Bhagsunag is the construction of buildings in the river basin. Due to heavy rains caused by the cloudburst, excess water in the river and obstruction of buildings constructed in the flow area, the flood water eventually made its way through the residential area and swept away cars, scooters, and motorcycles parked there like toys. Landslides in Kinnaur were caused by over-cutting of the hill while widening the road, upsetting the balance of the mountain, leading to the death of 9 people when large boulders fell on a minibus.

Uttarakhand, a hill state near Himachal Pradesh, has to pay a heavy price for building dams on rivers beyond their capacity, increasing the length and width of roads and constructing hotels and buildings in riverine areas, ignoring environmental regulations. Following the catastrophic cloudburst tragedy in Uttarakhand in 2013, there has been a spate of natural calamities. The Chamoli tragedy of February 2021 killed at least 300 people. From May 3 to May 11 of 2021, heavy rains have still been causing landslides there.

It is pertinent to mention here that most of the landslides are taking place in the newly constructed Chardham road area. In September 2020, the apex court had directed the Uttarakhand government to keep the width of the road at only 5.5 m. The width of this road is being kept at 12 m for which up to 24 m widths of land would be required. The more the mountains are cut down, the greater are the chances of landslides in mountainous areas. In European countries, the width of roads in mountainous areas is kept at only 8 meters. In this regard, in 2019 the National Institute of Disaster Management expressed concern that planners in the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats are using similar plans to the ones used in the plains, which are destabilizing mountainous areas.

The Kochi International Airport, which was hit by floods in 2018, is an example of how government schemes in the name of development violate environmental norms. Kochi International Airport was awarded the ‘Champion of Earth’ award by the United Nations in 2018 because all the work here is being done with solar energy. Sadly, the solar panels supplying energy are installed in the river bed area. After heavy rains in 2018, the eco-friendly international airport was closed for about two weeks due to flooding as excess rainwater naturally flows into the occupied river bed area.

According to a report by the Central Water Commission, India accounts for 20 per cent of the world's deaths due to floods. In the 64 years from 1953 to 2017, more than one million people died due to floods alone. The report also said that the country suffers a financial loss of Rs 205.8 crore every year due to floods. According to a report released by the Council on Energy, Information and Water in 2020, 2020, the incidence of flooding has increased eightfold in the last five decades. Between 1970 and 2005, on average 19 districts in the country were flooded, but since 2005, the number has risen to 55.

According to the report, more than 97.51 million people in India are facing floods. Incidents related to floods, such as landslides, heavy rains, thunderstorms, rising sea levels, etc. have increased 20-folds.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which was released in 2014 had clearly revealed that natural disasters caused by rising temperatures would hit China and India more than any other country. Now the question arises as to what governments should do to protect the people from natural disasters. The central and state governments should not use environmentally sensitive areas for development projects like industries, resorts, roads, which might be monetarily lucrative to accelerate the pace of development. These projects can be profitable but will render the country and its people more prone to natural hazards in future. There is a need to take action, both nationally and internationally, to prevent natural disasters.

At an international level, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as is done in European countries, saying that just a few countries like the United States, Europe, and China are responsible for climate change will not suffice. India did not propose any new framework for greenhouse gas emissions at the Climate Summit convened by US President Joe Biden on April 22, 2021, nor did it set any limits for zero carbon emissions. The absence of India in the two-day meeting (July 24-25) of 51 countries to deal with climate change raises concerns on how seriously it is taking the climate change crisis. Today, India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and the seventh country to be hit by natural disasters in 2019 according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Despite this, India is the only country out of 51 countries that did not attend the meeting. India is right in stating that the United States, China, and European countries have more responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases, but we must also fulfill our nation’s responsibility and play our part in trying to resolve the climate crisis for future generations.

At a national level, India should act immediately. Any construction and development project in mountainous areas, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, should not go through until it is consulted and approved by geologists and locals.

If the government had heard the popular opinion of the locals, the state of Uttarakhand would not have suffered so much today. The people of the region had started opposing the government's anti-environmental development plans from the time of British rule. In order to protect the Western Ghats from natural calamities, all the states in the region and the Central government should seriously consider the report of the Madhav Gadgil Committee and its recommendations before implementing development plans so that the people of these states don’t lose their lives year after year due to these new normal recurring natural calamities.

The central government should extend full cooperation in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases at the international level, implement sound decisions to make all national development pro-people and nature friendly. We have a duty to start acting on the climate crisis today, to protect our planet and hand it over to our successors, better than how we found it.


Dr Gurinder Kaur is a Former Professor of the Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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