September, 2014 flood disaster is our collective responsibility

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The flood waters in Jammu and Kashmir are slowly receding, but, as usual the finger pointing exercise has set in for nobody is willing to take the responsibility for this disaster. Those who should be held accountable for this catastrophe are the administration, the scientific community of the state and the public. 

Current and the past administrations have failed to inform people about the impending natural disasters in Jammu and Kashmir. This is indicated by the casual attitude of the management to inform people about the dynamics of river systems of the state. We do not have adequate and well equipped flood and water monitoring stations to access the health of the channels, rivers etc. The width, depth, flow rate, path of any flowing channel and thickness of sediments, are extremely important parameters to watch. If these data are continuously recorded, we can quickly access how streams behave during excessive rainfall. Climate fluctuations, though, governed by complex processes can be put into practice if watched and analyzed carefully. Further, these days it is not hard to accurately map an approximate scale of destruction from any forthcoming disaster via freely available satellite images. Google images can easily be used to generate such data (e.g. mapping the areas close to streams etc.), however, and unfortunately, administration has not produced such valuable maps to inform people about any threat. The reality is that a number of government and private buildings are illegally built on active/inactive river beds, which is alarming. This also includes health centers and schools, which further suggests an indifference of administration to guard and protect the health of water bodies.

Further, there are a few big and small dams on some of the major rivers in Jammu and Kashmir and generally, during flooding there is always a danger that such structures could be damaged, because it accumulates a huge quantity of water and sediment. Thus, often water is released by opening of the gates. However, this is often dangerous, because on the downstream end it will increase the water level very quickly, which will have a remarkable effect on flooding and its destruction potential. I am not sure if such gates were opened during the recent flooding in Kashmir, if yes, and does that coincide with the abrupt increase of water levels in Srinagar etc.??? Administration has to answer this. Also, we need data to know the opening and closing of any flood related gates during the recent flooding period. A few new media reports have cited that J&K government has accepted that it was clueless on how waters suddenly rose in river Jhelum on September 7, which ultimately led to drowning of the summer capital for the first time in over 100 years. This however, needs to be investigated in details.

Added to this misery is public ignorance about the natural disasters. We often forget things easily and natural disasters are not exceptions, particularly, when they recur after decades. However, the administration should have made sure that the people are prepared for such natural disasters especially when there have been warnings about it in the past. A flood memorial should have been built to remind people constantly and continuously, about the potential of a possible flooding disaster in the state. And since flooding is not rare in the state, a flood research institute should have bridged the knowledge and awareness gap.

The second on my list is the scientific community of Jammu and Kashmir State. These people cannot deny their share of responsibility. Do we have any full-fledged report on flood disasters from our own scientists? Have they suggested or indicated anything significant.  Is there any nexus between the scientific community, government and public to understand and minimize such disasters? As per my knowledge, I have not come across anything which suggests that some previous studies have indicated that some areas will be inundated, completely or partially. This is purely our own mistake; we have to take it head-on. This is not rocket science, and it is can be made available. Even we can produce high quality inundation maps easily. This may need support from institutes and government in J and K, because it requires extensive field work. The lack of such crucial data suggests that we have to rebuild the science of floods in Jammu and Kashmir.

The 3rd group that shares accountability of this disaster is public, which holds one of the major keys for this destruction. Although, often they are treated as pure victims of disaster but, in reality they do share a part of responsibility. We are aware that because of our illegal constructions on river beds, stream flowing courses, or river terraces, their natural course is modified. Thus, the flowing water is forced to breach its bank. This is common in Jammu and Kashmir, where even some religious buildings are built on temporarily inactive or even active river beds. Most of such types of construction are prohibited by law. If we take a look at our surrounding river bodies we will understand the gravity of pathetic situations that we have created over the decades for ourselves. The illegal encroachment is definitely not a rare phenomenon in our state and particularly, on poor water bodies of any size and shape. I come from Islamabad (Anantnag) and one of the mosques in this area is built on a small stream, which is illegal. Whenever it rains heavily it always results in inundation of its main entrance.

We have to take this disaster as an opportunity to reconstruct the lost glory of Jammu and Kashmir and act now. We need to learn from our past mistakes and this will help us in building a secure and environment friendly Jammu and Kashmir.

Author is  Senior Lecturer | Department of Applied Geology, School of Engineering and Science, Curtin University, Sarawak Malaysia

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