Just two days of rain flood Kashmir Valley again. No lessons learnt from 2014?
When the rain began in the Kashmir Valley on Wednesday, people mistook it for a fleeting spring shower that would soon give way to bright sunshine. But it didn't stop, continuing to pour uninterrupted until Thursday night, when it mercifully stopped, just hours short of the mark set by the 2014 deluge.
But the state government had already declared flood in Srinagar and South Kashmir, where the incessant rain wrought havoc. Water submerged roads, collapsed houses and washed away bridges, which cut off access to many areas.
A passenger cab carrying nine people plunged into the raging Vaishav stream at Brenghi in South Kashmir. Villagers rescued seven, but two people, including the driver, are still missing.
Four more people died, two of them, a father and son, were hit by avalanches in Kargil; a woman was struck by lightning in Rajouri, and a minor girl was swept away by the flood in Kupwara.
The situation in Srinagar
In Srinagar, Lal Chowk and Hari Singh High Street were water-logged, forcing shopkeepers to relocate their merchandise.
The 2014 deluge had caught Lal Chowk traders unawares. They had chosen to ignore the warnings until a breach in the nearby Jhelum bank drowned the market and its adjacent areas under 10 feet of water.
But this time, alarm bells were ringing as the Jhelum crossed the flood mark of 21 feet at Sangam gauge, the point where the river enters Srinagar.
The government issued restrained warnings to people living alongside Jhelum, lest it create panic. Radio Kashmir crackled with regular updates. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti directed officials to constitute a Unified Control Room to tackle the situation.
People in many flood-prone areas in Srinagar started relocating. Top officials issued statements, but to little effect. It was left to Sonum Lotus, the Valley's favourite weatherman, to calm the jangling nerves.
“The (weather) system is weakening, a flood of the magnitude of 2014 won't arise,” Lotus wrote in his Facebook post. “So please keep cool, be vigilant and stay safe and don't get panicked. If God is with us who can be against us. Best wishes to all.”
By 10 pm on Thursday, the Valley seemed on the brink of yet another deluge. One breach on the bank, and the Jhelum would have emptied into Srinagar. But just then, the rain stopped.
The narrow escape has once again brought to light the growing vulnerability of the Valley to flood, especially Srinagar. Just two days of rain and the city looks set to drown again. This has undermined the confidence of the people still mopping up the fallout of the apocalyptic 2014 deluge.
Adding to the fears further is that this round of flooding is happening in April, the unlikeliest month. It is the first relatively warm month after an extended winter, accompanied by recurrent short duration rainfall, which poses little flood risk in the absence of the summer-induced high-altitude snow-melt. But with six months of warm temperatures ahead, including three months of peak summer, the possibility of an extended spell of rain coupled with snow-melt confronts the Valley with a distinct prospect of yet another flood. More so, when all it needs are just two days of uninterrupted rain.
Worse still, two years after 2014 deluge, the Valley has built little defence against a repeat. As Jhelum swells, Srinagar has little option but to cower in fear.
No money to make amends
Officials would tell you that the Centre took a long time to release money for flood protection. The Rs 80,000 crore package announced for the state by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2015 had just Rs 7,854 crore for flood relief, reconstruction and flood management of Jhelum and its tributaries. A part of this money had also to be spent on the river Tawi flood reconstruction project in Jammu. The J&K government had earlier sought Rs 44,000 crore for flood relief and rebuilding infrastructure to avert future floods.
Now, in the absence of adequate finances, the state government can do little. The situation now is that the spill channels constructed by Maharaja Hari Singh in early 1900 to divert flood water away from Srinagar have been silted, reducing their capacity to carry water.
The only long term remedy, say experts, is another spill channel extending all the way from Dogripora in South Kashmir, bypassing Srinagar and emptying into the Wular, a major lake in North Kashmir. But the channel, which will cover a distance of 80 km, will need Rs 20,000 crore to build. The cost is likely to rise further with the incorporation of aspects like land acquisition. The channel will have a discharge capacity of 55,000 cusecs.
But for now, the only option with the government is to deepen the Jhelum and the existing spill channels. This hasn't happened at the required pace, making Srinagar a sitting duck for the fury of the Jhelum.
That is, until a viable flood protection plan, a prohibitively expensive proposition, is put in place.