By Mohuya Chaudhuri*
This year’s monsoon will be remembered for a host of catastrophic disasters that engulfed many states. Since its onset, unprecedented flash floods and a cyclone caused colossal damage and destruction, affecting lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Meghalaya. Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
A year after the Uttarakhand cataclysm, questions are once again being raised whether the Centre and the respective state governments took adequate measures to ensure disaster preparedness in these vulnerable, disaster prone spots.
The nation woke up when unprecedented rainfall caused devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir as water levels in Jhelum River rose rapidly inundating several districts destroying lakhs of homes and taking hundreds of lives. The region has experienced such floods in the past but because the frequency is not frequent, perhaps the administration did not pay much attention.
The Central Water Commission does flood forecasting through its several flood forecasting sites located in different parts of the country. These forecasts are done based on in situ water level measurements at these flood forecasting sites in conjunction with IMD weather forecasts.
It did not, however, do so in Jammu and Kashmir because it does not have any such site. Therefore, there was no forewarning that there was the possibility of such massive floods.
The state disaster management authorities were clearly caught off guard since no one predicted that such a large-scale calamity was about to take place and so no plans were made to address the situation.
As a result, public safety was compromised.
Such a lackadaisical approach was evident in Assam and Meghalaya as well. In Assam, despite the Central Water Commission’s forecasts, there was no disaster management plan in place nor was any assistance taken from the meteorological department before the overwhelming deluge.
Meghalaya, like Jammu and Kashmir does does not have a flood forecasting site so neither the administration nor the public were prepared for the sudden cloudbursts and flash floods in South West Garo hills that took around 52 lives while about 10,000 people had to be shifted to shelters as the powerful water pressure completely destroyed homes and threatened to take many lives.
Neighbouring Assam felt the immediate impact of the massive cloudbursts since it was moving at a rapid pace. The raging flood situation severely affected large tracts of land in twelve districts, destroying infrastructure like roads, bridges and cutting off water and power supply as well.
Incessant downpours led to heavy landslides as well. Water levels in Rivers Beki, Bhramhaputra, Nonoi, Belsiri and Jiabhorioli in Assam rose to alarmingly high levels and the deluge continued to endanger lives of those housed close to the river.
It is estimated that nearly 4 lakh families in 415 villages were stranded in these inundated areas, which still remain submerged. Ten other districts struggled as the embankments fell rapidly. So far, many people have been airlifted and over 85,000 people have been shifted to 84 shelters. About 94 relief camps have been set up just like in Jammu and Kashmir to manage disease outbreaks.
So far, 44 people are reported to have died although the actual data is not available since many are missing. The overwhelming flash flood in Assam is one of the worst the state has witnessed in recent years. Like in Kashmir, the system is battling to evacuate those stranded due to the floods and landslide as well ensure their survival.
Relief operations have been carried out in all areas and but in every instance it has been a race against time. Medical care and food supplies have been provided to all families who suffered enormous losses but the risk remained for long. The rivers are still swelling, as rainfall is still very high.
In the affected states like in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam, the Centre and the State governments, along with public support have taken several steps to mitigate the dire situation and assist families in restoring their lives, however bringing life to normalcy will be a long haul.
In many parts, the situation continues to be grim since the adverse climate conditions and infected environment still pose a serious threat.
Water levels in the catchment areas are high and extremely polluted since excess water in many parts have not been pumped out completely. Also many bodies are still submerged and not been recovered. As a result, health officials are afraid that there could be disease outbreaks. To prevent the spread of water borne diseases, a large number of chlorine tablets were distributed.
Post the torrential situation with lakhs of people struggling to survive, the Union Health ministry’s rapid response teams have been parked at flood-hit districts to assess the health situation and gauge the risks that exist so that appropriate action can be taken. Emergency medicines were dispatched and doctors and specialists were posted at district hospitals which had heavy caseloads but not enough personnel. About one lakh measles vaccines were sent as well for children between six months and five years to control outbreaks which often occur in flood-affected areas.
However, according to some families who managed to survive in states like Assam, no relief materials were provided by the administration, especially to those who were stranded due to heavy floods.
Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, medicines- let alone vaccines- were not dispatched to flood-hit areas in North East even though the threat of water borne diseases was very high. Nor did officials distribute water purifiers and food supplies to people in affected areas, leaving them to cope with the situation themselves. Many are extremely dissatisfied and angry with the government’s poor response to the tragedy that has destroyed their lives.
Even in Jammu and Kashmir, where a lot of relief work is being done, a majority within the community feels that the steps that have been taken and are being taken are too little too late. Better disaster preparedness could have saved many lives and prevented their homes from being demolished ruthlessly, leaving them homeless and their future uncertain.
A thought that resonates even more, not just in Assam and Meghalaya but also Odisha and Bihar which faced the ire of flash floods much earlier. In August, 33 lakh people had to bear the brunt of formidable floods. It is believed that 35 people died but the figure may be more. The forecast was shared with the government but they did not respond in time. As a result, hundreds of families are still struggling to overcome the impact of the devastating floods.
Even after the floods inundated hundreds of villages, families found it hard to make their way to relief camps because the government did not provide boats nor was their any other kind of relief operation to transport them from their homes that were caught in the deluge to the nearest relief camp. The only food supplies they received from government consisted of rice and jaggery. Thousands of villages were marooned due to heavy rainfall and floods.
Though the government claimed that it would handle the emergency with the help of 40 relief teams but whether they did reach those who needed help the most is still unclear since the climate acted as a serious impediment.
Similarly in Bihar, where every year the Kosi river basin experiences flash flood, decimating homes and turning hundreds of families homeless. This year, around two and a half lakh people are believed to be affected in nine districts. Most of them lived on the river embankment with no facilities. In most cases, the water is infected because of the bodies of those who died because the powerful water flow submerged them and the carcasses of animals that drowned.
Since approaching these areas is almost impossible due to the severe weather conditions, the river water gets very polluted and is therefore a harbinger of a wide range of diseases. Cases of diarrhoea and other water borne enteric diseases like diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and measles are widespread. Lack of clean water and sanitation are the key causes that results in high mortality. Children, infants and the elderly mostly bear the brunt.
So far, no major disease outbreaks have been reported, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Jammu and Kashmir, but hundreds of people have lined up at medical camps and health facilities. So it is unclear about the exact prevalence of illness.
But in Bihar, the steps taken have been minimal and over the years, there has been no improvement in disaster management, especially near Kosi.
Though the government claims that the response has been intensive on its part, with officials across all states and the Centre stating that the administration is always in a state of high alert and massive steps have been taken to mitigate the condition in these disaster zones but the question that arises is why does the government wake up only after disasters strike. Why does the system not respond prior to such climatic catastrophes so that lives are saved and people are not rendered homeless?
First of all, why did the Central Water Commission not set up a system of flood forecasting in Jammu and Kashmir when hundreds of families live in close proximity with rivers like Jhelum and Chenub in the valley. Or for that matter in other states like Assam which faces massive flash floods every year along with Odisha when the administration is aware that many districts are flood prone and have witnessed catastrophic floods repeatedly, almost every year but so far no flood forecasting sites have been put up in many of these risk prone areas like Meghalaya and Jammu and Kashmir, nor have any other preventive steps been taken to minimize the risks for the population.
Even when flood forecasts are made, often they are inaccurate or too late by when water levels have begun to rise and rivers are raging, setting in motion destruction.
For instance, as of now, seasonal maps of the meteorological department provide the degree and variables of rainfall for each season – ranging from rain deficit to excess rainfall. But what are the measures that the government takes to ensure that the public is made aware of the nature of monsoon that is expected by sharing the flood forecasting data so that people can ensure their own safety instead of waiting for the last minute when the disaster is beyond control. But the CWC and the state governments have failed to do so like it was in the case of the Uttarakhand tragedy.
Despite the fact that the government spends massive amount of funds for setting up shelters and providing relief material, let alone the enormous losses that families themselves face, both financially and emotionally post such disasters for which government compensation is not enough, no strategy has been prepared to address such catastrophes.
Simple steps such as rehabilitating families living by the riverside to safer zones and strengthening embankments so that they can withstand the strong water flow and excessive flooding but above all tracking the probability of disaster striking a region much in advance by accurately forecasting every season so that the right information on flood prone areas can be disseminated in the public on time so that the administration along with the community can help minimize the impact of such impending disasters if not control it.
But then who is listening or paying heed? Such government indifference and poor engagement can only ensure that the cycle of cataclysm will continue unabated in India.
* Mohuya Chaudhuri, former senior editor, NDTV, is a Delhi-based independent journalist, resarcher and film maker. She may be contacted at [email protected] – OST