Floods: blacked out but real

I read newspapers and I watch the news unfold on scores of television channels. But in spite of these sources that keep me informed about current affairs, I would not know that floods are still ravaging vast parts of India. I would not know that over 2,800 people have died in these disasters, which have been termed as the worst ever in living memory. I would not know what is happening in the villages that drowned under the fury of nature or how millions are coping with the water that has swept away crops, livestock, worldly belongings, homes, roads, schools and what not. I would not even know how life continues after the fury, when deadly diseases come in the wake of the flooding.

In retrospect, I would think that I have seen in the Indian media more images of the recent floods in the uk than in Jammu and Kashmir, in Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar, in Assam, in Orissa, in Andhra Pradesh, in Karnataka and in Gujarat.

There are two responses to this observation.

One (cynical) answer is that middle-class India, for whom the media now delivers news (or infotainment), is simply not interested in events that affect poor India. In addition, the advertising revenue of the competitive and consolidated business of the media kicks in when it caters to the purchasing segments of society, not its market-unconnected parts. Floods in non-metropolitan cities don’t make the grade, as far as news is concerned.

The other, equally plausible reason could be that floods in India are after all not news. While floods in the uk are unusual; they are increasingly understood to be part of the changing climate system and so they make it to the headlines. But floods in India are annual events. The cycle of devastation is not worth reporting—droughts followed by floods in one region or another, and then water-related diseases, from malaria to cholera. There is no news to tell.

But whatever explanation you choose to believe, we cannot switch off reality. The story of floods is partly usual but also mainly unusual. There is much we know but still do not heed so that devastation is less painful. But equally, there is much that we do not know because of which the pain is much more frightful.

We know that the areas classified as flood-prone—defined as area affected by overflowing rivers (not areas submerged because of heavy rains)—has progressively increased over the past decades. It was 25 million hectares (mha) in 1960, which went up to 40 mha in 1978 and by the mid-1980s an estimated 58 mha was flood affected. But importantly, over these years the area under floods increased each year even though average rainfall levels did not increase. In other words, we were doing something wrong in the way we manage the spate of water so that rivers would overflow each season.

The answer is not difficult to find. In flood-prone areas—from the flood plains of the mighty Himalayan rivers to many other smaller watersheds—the overflow of the river brought fertile silt and recharged groundwater so the next crop was bountiful.

But over the years, we learnt not to live with floods. We built over the wetlands, we filled up the streams that dispersed and then carried the water of the rivers and we built habitations in lowlands which were bound to be inundated. We cut down our forests, which would to some extent have mitigated the intensity of the flood by impeding the flow of water. All in all, we have become more vulnerable to annual floods.

The current floods are all that, and much more. In recent years, the flood fury has intensified because of the changing intensity of rainfall. The deluge comes more frequently because of the sheer fury of incessant rain, which has nowhere to go. Just last week torrential rain in villages of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka killed over 60 people. We know that climate change models had predicted extreme rain events. Is there a connection here?

Then there is the issue of the release of water from reservoirs into lands, which are already deluged by rain. It is this combo effect that seems to be playing a big role in the floods we see today. There is some evidence that reservoirs—dams upstream of drowned lands—were already full of water at the beginning of the monsoon period. There is no hard evidence, as yet, to link this high reservoir level with increased flow from melting glaciers. But there is a possibility.

We know that dam authorities maintain high reservoir levels because of the uncertainty of rains. We also know that when there are intense bursts of rain and levels of water rise to an extent that could endanger the dam, the gates are opened and the water rushes out. If this flow of water is combined with even more rain in the region, then a deluge becomes inevitable. We know that variability in our rainfall is increasing at the sub-regional level. What then will this mean for the management of our reservoirs in the future? The question is do we understand the phenomenon of floods?

We don’t. We have no mechanism to be informed of the changing intensity of rainfall; of the increased inflow into our reservoirs and of the water released by dam authorities. The fact is that today’s floods are a double tragedy: of mismanagement of our land and water combined with mismanagement of science and data.

This mismanagement is criminal. Let’s at least know that.

— Sunita Narain