OLD AN­SWERS FOR ‘NEW’ MONSOON

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

FLOODS IN the time of drought are In­dia’s new nor­mal. Let us get this clear. Each year with­out fail, a vi­cious cy­cle of crip­pling drought and then dev­as­tat­ing floods plays out be­fore us. Some­times this cy­cle gets so bad that it even makes it to the head­lines. But the fact is that this cy­cle is get­ting a new nor­mal. First, floods and droughts come to­gether. To­day, even as 40 per cent of the dis­tricts in In­dia face prospects of drought, close to 25 per cent dis­tricts have had heavy rain­fall of more than 100 mm in just a mat­ter of hours. Se­condly, the rain­fall is not only vari­able but also ex­treme.

Chandi­garh, a city of open parks, was re­cently sub­merged in wa­ter. It had de­fi­cient rain­fall till Au­gust 21, and then it got 115 mm of rain in just 12 hours. It drowned. In other words, it got roughly 15 per cent of its an­nual monsoon rain in just a few hours. Ben­galuru hardly had any rain and then it poured. It got 150 mm of rain in just about a day, which is close to 30 per cent of its an­nual monsoon rain. It is no won­der that the city drowned. Mount Abu got over half its an­nual monsoon rain in two days.

This is the dou­ble whammy I have dis­cussed count­less times in my ar­ti­cles. The fact is that on the one hand, we are get­ting our wa­ter man­age­ment wrong—we are build­ing in flood­plains, de­stroy­ing our wa­ter­bod­ies and fill­ing up our wa­ter chan­nels. On the other hand, cli­mate change is be­gin­ning to show its im­pact on the monsoon. It is lead­ing to more rain in a fewer num­ber of rainy days, as sci­en­tists have pre­dicted. We now see more rain and more ex­treme rain events.

This year, up to mid-Au­gust, data shows that In­dia has had 16 ex­tremely heavy rain events, de­fined as rain­fall over 244 mm in a day, and 100 heavy rain events, de­fined as rain­fall be­tween 124 to 244 mm in a day. This means that rain will be­come a flood. Worse, in met records, the rain will be shown as nor­mal, not recog­nis­ing that it did not rain when it was most needed for sow­ing or that the rain came in just one down­pour. It came and went. It brought no ben­e­fits. Only grief.

It is time we un­der­stood this re­al­ity. This means learn­ing to cope with twin sce­nar­ios, all at once. This means be­ing ob­ses­sive about how to mit­i­gate floods and how to live with scarcity of wa­ter. But the good news is that do­ing one, can help the other. But we need to stop de­bat­ing, dither­ing or dawdling. We know what to do. And we have no time to lose—cli­mate change will only in­crease with time as weather and rain­fall will only get more vari­able, more ex­treme and more cat­a­strophic.

Take floods. The me­dia has re­ported that the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing—which can only be called a hare-brained scheme—de­silt­ing the mas­sive Brahma­pu­tra to con­trol floods in As­sam. This is not just un­fea­si­ble but an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion as it means we will lose more time. In Bi­har, the gov­ern­ment wants to do more of the same by build­ing em­bank­ments along its rivers. This is when its own Kosi is per­haps the only river in the coun­try, which is called both mother and witch. It comes down from the Hi­malayas; is known to bring vast quan­ti­ties of silt; and, changes course with reg­u­lar pre­ci­sion. We know that all ef­forts to tie up the river by build­ing em­bank­ments have not worked; the silt fills the river and the bed rises, and the wa­ter spills and seeps out across the re­gion. This year’s floods in Bi­har have al­ready taken over 250 lives (con­ser­va­tive fig­ures) and dev­as­tated more than 10 mil­lion peo­ple. Not small. And re­mem­ber with ev­ery flood and ev­ery drought the poor get poorer. All the de­vel­op­ment div­i­dend is lost; homes, toi­lets and schools built are washed away and liveli­hoods, de­stroyed.

The an­swer to floods is what has been dis­cussed for long. In fact, it was prac­tised in th­ese flood-prone re­gions many decades ago. It re­quires plan­ning sys­tems that can di­vert and chan­nelise wa­ter so that it does not flood land and de­stroy life. It means link­ing rivers to ponds, lakes and ditches so that wa­ter is free to flow. This will dis­trib­ute the wa­ter across the re­gion and bring other ben­e­fits. It will recharge ground­wa­ter so that in the sub­se­quent months of low rain­fall, there is wa­ter for drink­ing and ir­ri­ga­tion. It will also en­sure that there is food dur­ing the flood pe­riod, as wet­lands are highly pro­duc­tive in terms of fish and plant food.

Mit­i­gat­ing floods and droughts has only one an­swer: ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to build­ing mil­lions and mil­lions of con­nected and liv­ing wa­ter struc­tures that will cap­ture rain, be a sponge for flood and store­house for drought. The only ques­tion is: when will we read the writ­ing on the wall? Get with it. Get it right.

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