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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 33, New Delhi, July 31, 2021

Understanding Floods, Living With Them While Reducing Destruction | Bharat Dogra

Friday 30 July 2021, by Bharat Dogra

India is not alone in experiencing the paradox of more areas becoming exposed to floods even as the expenditure on flood protection goes on increasing. Many countries have experienced this . Clearly we need a review of basic thinking related to flood protection.

There are some floods which are very highly destructive and/or prolonged. Clearly we need to check such floods. Some of the most destructive floods in recent years have been those caused by embankment breaches and sudden release of huge quantities of water from dams. Such floods can be checked to a very significant extent by adopting appropriate policies, in the short-run and in the longer term. Some of the most prolonged floods or water-logging cases are those caused by the obstruction of natural drainage. These can also be checked to a significant extent by adopting appropriate steps in the short-term and in the longer-term.

However while checking the more destructive and prolonged floods, we must also learn to co-exist with the natural process of rivers spilling over their banks when there are heavy rains. There are ways of making this co-existence much more bearable and even turning the flood-flows to several beneficial uses.

Firstly, forests and green cover in the catchment areas should be very well-protected. There is a lot of difference between natural dense mixed forests and man-made plantations. It is natural mixed forests with their good share of more dense, broad leaf species that we need, as well as plenty of other indigenous growths that can protect soil and conserve water effectively. We need well-planned soil and water conservation efforts in catchment areas.

In the immediate flood-plains nearer to river we must avoid costly infra-structure and those crops which can be destroyed easily by floods. This is the place for conserving water and for fruit orchards or other useful trees which are capable of absorbing as well as tolerating excessive water and moisture, for grass fodder as well as livelihoods based on this.

If we take these precautions then by the time floods reach the wider flood-plains their intensity would be much reduced. More flood-tolerant varieties of crops should be preferred here. The drainage paths should be kept so free of obstructions that flood waters find their path easily to natural depressions, lakes, ponds and tanks, filling them up to provide water later in the rain scarce months. Free drainage paths devoid of obstructions will allow water to clear quickly, at the same time leaving behind fertile silt which will help farmers to get good crops without chemical fertilizers.

As far as possible rivers should be free of embankments and dams. Where dams have already been constructed or are badly need by certain circumstances, flood protection should get adequate attention in dam-management and maintenance. Where embankments cannot be avoided, their maintenance and protection should get adequate attention and people should be involved in this.

All this requires very good understanding of local conditions and a highly decentralized approach, with communities empowered and resourceful to take and implement decisions and also having the understanding to resolve differences and work for common good.

While a broad understanding at a wider level is very useful, the implementation must be as per local conditions and realities, and for this decentralization and empowerment as well as harmony of local communities are very important.

To bring such changes in flood policy, the perception about rivers and floods should change in very basic ways. A narrow engineering based perception and dominance based perception should change to a perception based on living with nature, understanding nature and its ways and trying to live in harmony with them , as well as the related vision of largely free-flowing rivers. Such a vision also involves giving adequate importance to all life-forms which thrive in and around rivers. Such a vision involves wider and longer-term thinking based on harmony with nature, while giving up narrow and reductionist approach based on dominance.

(The writer, a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His latest books include Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children. )

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