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Nature's fury and man's folly

Vast swathes of northern and central India have been devastated by severe floods. As per latest reports, at least 300 people have died and more than 60 lakh others have been affected. These floods have left a trail of devastation, submerging villages, washing away crops, destroying roads, and disrupting power and telecommunication lines. The situation has turned especially grim in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. Parts of Bihar and UP are already under the grips of their annual cycle of floods. In the last three days at least 22 people have been killed and over 23 lakh affected. Many areas, especially the riverine belt of 12 districts are badly reeling under water. Both the Ganga and Son are flowing way above the danger mark. In Uttar Pradesh, approximately 30 people were killed and over 15 lakh people affected over the course of the past few days. Schools were closed in the major cities of Varanasi and Allahabad. Both the Yamuna and Ganga are flowing above the danger mark. In Madhya Pradesh, at least 70 have died since the onset of the monsoons in June and almost 20,000 people have been evacuated to relief camps. In response, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Indian Army have been deployed to these states, rescuing thousands of people stranded in remote villages. 

The situation in parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is particularly peculiar and tragic at the same time. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has claimed that the devastation in his state is man-made, considering the fact that it has received 14 percent less rain than is standard for the monsoon. Despite receiving less than normal rainfall, large parts of Bihar have been devastated. The state is usually at the receiving end of excess water flowing from Nepal, especially on the unpredictable Kosi river. But environmentalists have attributed the recent flooding in the Son and Ganga to the mismanagement of a dam and barrage in the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal respectively. 

Over the past month, the Bansagar dam in Madhya Pradesh had reportedly accumulated a lot of water.  But authorities at the dam began releasing water only when it was more than 95 percent full. It did not have enough capacity to store any more water. On August 19, the authorities reportedly decided to open 16 of its 18 gates and released 1.5 lakh cusec of water over two days. Environmentalists and other experts have argued that this led to the Ganga and Son rising to unprecedented levels in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh. They have also gone on to conclude that if the Bansagar dam had not released water in an unregulated manner, we may not have witnessed such devastation. Speaking to a leading national daily, environmentalist and water conservationist Himanshu Thakkar said: “It shows mismanagement of the dam by Bansagar Control Board where Bihar is also a party to it along with MP and UP."  

Beyond the follies of the authorities in the Bansagar Control Board, poor silt management has been cited as another major reason behind these devastating floods. On Tuesday, Nitish Kumar rushed to the national capital and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention to get immediate help and look for a long-term solution in the form of a national policy on silt management. Water experts argue that both the Son and Ganga are choked with silt and drainage congestion, leaving greater scope for flooding in these parts. For a long time, environmentalists have laid the blame for these problems in the Ganga on the construction of the Farakka barrage in West Bengal, especially silting. Nitish Kumar has gone to the extent of demanding the removal of the barrage altogether. Now more than ever there is an urgent need to assess the costs and benefits of the Farakka barrage. Moreover, the Centre and state governments need to urgently formulate a national silt management policy.       

Unlike the odd situation in Bihar, states like Madhya Pradesh have been subject to unusually concentrated bursts of rainfall. Just weeks before the monsoon many of these areas had suffered droughts. One of the fundamental features of climate change is extreme weather events sharply juxtaposed against each other, according to Scroll.in, an Indian news website. Sounding a warning, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast more rains in central India over the next two days. Some of the areas affected by such concentrated bursts are also located in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, which also witnessed unusual amounts of rainfall. One of the most catastrophic impacts of excessive rainfall is the resultant crop damage. Farmers in these regions had shifted to crops that are more resilient to drought. There is no telling the horrors farmers have suffered on ground.   

Despite the best efforts of the NDRF, the standard of relief work by the usually is inadequate. Lack of health facilities, inadequate stockpiles of food and medicine in outlying areas and shoddy relief camps are common. “The collapse of systems in acute conditions is undoubtedly a reflection of the lack of robust regular services that could be upgraded for emergencies,” according to a recent editorial in The Hindu. Without adequate health facilities, serious infections could spread. These concerns need to be dealt with on war footing. The editorial goes on to argue for a better understanding of patterns created by rivers such as the Ganga and its tributaries during the monsoon season. It advocates the use of both advanced techniques such as mapping based on satellite imagery and ground-level surveys to study these patterns. This would allow governments to better predict these disasters and improve rescue-relief work.
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