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Flash Floods: Misery imposed by Men, not Nature

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What makes submergence, water logging and flash floods so different
from floods? A simple pointer that while the former results from
ill-advised decisions taken by individuals, who remain shielded by a
system that is shrouded under the culture of secrecy, the latter has
been a natural phenomenon just like rainfall or a river is.

The debate is slowly raging that this year's flash floods flowed out
of negligent dam operations, and not from incessant rainfall within a
matter of few days or rivers rising suddenly and flowing in spate. A
look back at similar incidents and media's role in past few years
indicate that how easily it debunked critical thinking and chose to
flow with official viewpoint; unless it came to a hugely populated
city going under waters due to flash floods in Tapti river downstream
of Ukai dam.

Last year, on August 1st, The Indian Express reported in a story an
exasperated sigh voiced by P K Laheri, chairman and managing director
of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, "I am helpless, tell me what to do".
The words that followed Laheri's exasperated sigh tried to make a case
for taking the height of Sardar Sarovar dam higher, "All this water
could have been saved. Two months of storage in the dam has been lost.
If the level had been five metres higher, the curve of power
generation would have been optimum. We could have filled up reservoirs
in scarcity-prone areas of Surendrangar and Banaskantha, or released
water into more rivers like the Sabarmati. We wanted to do all this in
this monsoon. It is unfortunate ... we will have to wait for the next
season".

Within two days of the report appearing on the front page, the
newspaper carried an editorial on the matter. Emphasizing that
"Gujarat's present dilemma goes beyond the agony of the present
floods", this editorial pointed out that "all that water from the
unprecedented rainfall the state has experienced over the last few
days will after swirling around city streets and rural hutments flow
away into the sea". And from there to the question of the Sardar
Sarovar Dam, with this, "the 20-year campaign by assorted activists
and busybodies has not only delayed it considerably, it has led to a
scaling down of its height".

So a monsoon later, how effectively and optimally have dam operators
in Gujarat utilized the impounded water in reservoir over Narmada? It
was widely reported in Gujarati newspapers that Narmada Main Canal was
breached at several places and since July 28th it was carrying meager
580 cubic feet water per second, even as the inflow of water at Sardar
Sarovar dam was 23000 cubic feet per second. As meager flow into
irrigation canals along with incessant rains upstream led to sudden
rise of water levels, releases into the river through the powerhouse
were just 21,000 cusecs till the dam started overflowing from August
2nd onwards. Far from taking impounded waters to other rivers through
irrigation canal, Gujarat couldn't utilize the waters impounded in the
reservoir, taking the water level to a high 128 meters within a matter
of a week spelling doom for downstream villages and Bharuch.

And whom shall we blame for breaches in main canals? Those critics who
have pointed out institutional vacuum in SSP's command area?

Rewind one more year. Two years ago, on August 3rd 2004, UNI reported
that Narmada main canal collapsed at two places near Bodeli,
inundating villages and rendering hundreds of villagers homeless.
Within a week, on August 11th, PTI Bhasha had flashed similar news,
reporting of collapse of Narmada canal in Viramgam Taluka in Ahmedabad
district.

Neither of the incidents of collapse of main canal was followed with
incisive and analytical follow up by mainstream media. During past two
years ad hoc administration of irrigation establishment didn't come
under public gaze, as media actively overflowed along with official
view. Those who tried to battle against silencing of untold miseries
suffered by people due to water logging, submergence and flash floods
downstream were belittled by them. An overflowing dam that attracted
thousands to behold it in awe didn't allow any questions on what havoc
did it spell on submergence affected people, or what untold misery can
it spell for people living downstream?

So the pertinent question is, why did Surat got submerged, with the
backlash of high tide raising the backwater level alike the rising
waters in submergence zone of dams?

Just prior to the onset of this year's monsoon, water level in Ukai
dam was 21.56 % of the reservoir capacity, and by July 20th it was
already 51 % (i.e. half) filled, as per Central Water Commission data.

Within next ten days, water level at dam site rose and on July 30th it
stood at 322.93 feet, which is around 22 feet below the Full Reservoir
Level, as per an UNI news release. The same news release had quoted
floods control room sources at Surat claiming that Tapti river was
flowing six meters below danger mark, clearly indicating that even as
the reservoir was filing up very fast, authorities had not scheduled
downstream releases in a phased manner!

While four days later, on August 3rd, reservoir was filled to 77.54%
of the storage capacity, the irrigation minister was heard pressing at
a press briefing on August 2nd, "till August 15th waters will not be
released from Ukai dam", as revealed now by IANS correspondent.
Authorities waited for three more days before hitting the panic button
by hastily opening the floodgates of Ukai on August 6th, the waters
started steadily rising in Tapti river downstream. Next day, by the
afternoon water level in 345.6 feet high Ukai dam had risen up to 341
feet and they started releasing 7 to 8 lakh cusecs waters downstream
as per news agency reports. By the night, the downstream releases went
up to 10 lakh cusecs. By this time large part of Surat had already
submerged under water, but on August 8th as well, dam authorities
continued releasing 10 lakh cusecs water, while authorities bluffed
misleading certain news agencies that "now it had decided to allow
water levels to go up to 344.8 feet". On August 9th, the volume of
waters release form Ukai dam had come down to 7.50 lakh cusecs,
however, there was no respite for Surat, as it coincided with high
tide in the sea on full moon day, not allowing the waters to recede.

And while the meager amount of statistics that are available from
various news agency reports and UNDP's situation reports make out a
strong case pointing a finger at negligent dam operation by Ukai dam
authorities, in a statement published by The Indian Express on August
13th, S R Rao, Principal Secretary, Urban Development chose to give a
clean chit to Ukai authorities; "I have checked all statistics. None
including you could have prevented this" (emphasis supplied).

On August 11th, the same newspaper had carried a news story titled
Don't fault nature, Surat's misery man made, in which N K Singh
reported, "Gujarat government has been reluctant to disclose official
data related to inflow and outflow of water. Revenue Minister Kaushik
Patel refused to share the details at a press meet in Gandhinagar and
walked out in a huff when media persons quizzed him on the releases of
water."

Himanshu Thakkar, director of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and
People says, "The trouble is, so long as our water bureaucracy remains
non-transparent and unaccountable, disasters like the current one
won't leave us soon. The least one can demand is a credible,
independent enquiry on why such a situation arose. Especially when it
was one that could have been substantially avoided with more optimal
operation of projects."

While S R Rao can claim to have looked at all statistics and even
pronounce an opinion over it, why is it that hourly data on inflow at
dam site, use of water available in reservoir for power generation and
irrigation, as well as outflow and downstream releases remain away
from public gaze and scrutiny and even denied when demanded by press
persons? The message that this man made disaster has brought home is,
don't get fooled, its flash floods flowing from dams. The least UPA
government could do to emerge out of credibility crisis arisen along
with the proposed bill to amend RTI Act, is to make Gujarat Irrigation
Department put this data in public domain. Let all statistics that has
gone under the inquisitive eyes of S R Rao, be put under scanner of
public scrutiny.

Himanshu Upadhyaya - himanshugreen@gmail.com