Hydrophobia

Remember ‘rain, rain, go away…’?  This might have been a nursery rhyme in some by-gone age, but right now, in Kashmir, the words sound more like a desperate prayer. Every time it rains nowadays, people across the Valley peer anxiously out of their windows, wondering how many notches waters have risen on the Jhelum’s flood gauge. Neither the fears, nor the insecurity, are unfounded.  If rains had brought forth a devastating flood in September last year, they could do so again – thus the thinking goes. There is very little to allay these fears, least of all assurances from authorities, given their past record. Not that any assurances whatsoever have been forthcoming at all. The most optimistic public expectation, therefore, would be that should, God forbid, the floods appear again, there might be a more clear cut warning this time for the citizenry to look out for itself.

Such floods might have occurred for the first time in recent history, in terms of their magnitude and devastation, but that is no consolation. Floods are not some Halley’s Comet, with a guaranteed cycle of appearing once in three-quarters-of-a-century. If they came in September, there is nothing to stop an encore in March or April this year. The factors that led to the flooding of most of the Kashmir Valley have not ceased to exist. The denuded forests which result in tons of soil cover getting washed into streams and rivulets ultimately to end up in the river itself, raising the river bed by insidious inches, and the encroachments that choke water bodies, consigning many to oblivion remain unchanged, or grow worse with every passing day. Add to this the callous attitude and the ineptness of the authorities concerned, compounded a million-fold by corruption, and the prospect becomes pretty bleak. Like there are supposedly drains somewhere beneath our roads but where they start and where they end is something that even the department concerned must be clueless of. A few hours of rain, and water floods our roads and streets; a few days of it and the deluge ends up submerging our second-floor bedrooms.

       Spring is here and so are spring showers. They should have been cause for cheer but evoke dread instead. It will take a concerted effort on part of the authorities to address these fears. Floods are not exactly new to Kashmir: in the past too there have been devastating floods and local populations have witnessed periods of misery or reprieve depending on how the potential threat was addressed by those in charge. There have been rulers in the past who seriously addressed the issue of floods and water-logging, leading to eras of prosperity. Recent floods, though they occurred after a very long time, have once again brought the issue to the fore. What has become even more evident in the process is that demographics and land-use, having witnessed a tremendous change over the years, any floods that occur now have the potential to cause even more damage.

       Since there is a new government in the state, the issue of floods should remain high on its agenda. The rehabilitation process which has been delayed for too long now should begin in earnest. But what is even more important is that short-term as well as long term measures to prevent a recurrence of the September floods should be initiated without delay. What last year’s deluge has amply illustrated is that that repairing damage costs much more than preventive measures. The government needs to bring in some specialists of repute rather than depending upon its own ‘official’ experts, whose inefficiency stands certified to by the recent devastation. Short term measures like strengthening and concretization of dykes and removing encroachments have to be instituted without any delay. Collapsing structures and embankments during the current rains should serve as a reminder that the threat is not over. Long-term measures like widening and dredging of the river bed as well as the flood channel, and even constructing new flood channels, given the changed landscape and land usage, need to be planned and set into motion.

 A government taking over after the state has witnessed horrific destruction mainly because of criminal political irresponsibility can afford to ignore the threat only at incalculable cost to people in the future.