Government must frame a land policy to counter flooding of the city

More than a year has passed since the deluge of September 2014 that hit Kashmir Valley. The damage to infrastructure was unparalleled. Srinagar city and many other areas especially in south Kashmir, was decimated.
Since then so many discussions, newspaper articles, seminars by civil society, academia and government agencies have been conducted to deliberate upon building a flood resistant infrastructure but nothing has yet translated on the ground. Although the state government submitted a report to government of India asking for a Rs 44,000 crore flood rehabilitation package, New Delhi binned the assessment report. Many questions still elude the common people. What went wrong? What could have been done to minimise such devastation? Where were the lacunae in strategic decision framework of the line departments in the state administration? The loss to human lives would have been unprecedented had an earthquake hit the Valley while it was clogged by floodwater. Can these grave issues be ever addressed?
The 2014 deluge showed that government is incapable and technically ill equipped to tackle such situations.  Although, the office of chief town planner in consultation with Srinagar Municipal Corporation is active in reframing the master plan for the city, but first they have to identify green zones wherein no infrastructure development is permitted.  Such zones can act as buffers for retaining floodwaters in the future. Although it is impossible to relocate a large chunk of population, a blanket ban on future infrastructure development will go a long way in tackling the flood problem. In and around Srinagar city, we have already lost 50 percent of wetlands to urbanisation during the past 100 years. Such reckless unplanned urbanisation has made the city vulnerable to flooding and recurrent waterlogging. The posh areas all along byepass from Nowgam to Parimpora and HMT used to be buffers for floodwaters but now these areas have been transformed into a concrete jungle. The impervious surface area in the city has increased to such an extent that just a few minutes of rainfall inundates most parts of the city. The fate of Hokersar (queen of wetlands) and many other wetlands is a sad reflection on government functioning in Kashmir. The wetland has lost 575 hectares of its area from 1,875 in 1962 to 1,300 in 2008. It is tragic to see Central University of Kashmir being built on a wetland area in the central Kashmir district of Ganderbal. More awful is that  the lakes and waterways development authority is rehabilitating Dal dwellers to a place called Rakh-i-Aarath in Budgam, which was a wetland just a decade ago. Although, the massive land filling has seemingly converted the wetlands to ‘habitable’ areas but such areas could be at the highest risk in case a strong earthquake happens, which has been predicted to be imminent over the region. One fears to think as to what could be the quantum of fatality in the congested old-city and many such townships across Kashmir in case an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 8 on Richter scale hits the region. Most parts of Kashmir Valley fall in highly vulnerable earthquake zones, but does government has any plans to undertake micro-seismic zonation of major urban centres in the state?  If not, I think it is high time to undertake the one. An efficient micro-zonation process, again aided by geographic information system, would besides the physical vulnerability incorporate information like building strength and socio-economy of people to precisely identify areas at risk.
For flood control, although the short-term efforts like dredging and desilting the river areas and wetlands would be beneficial but the long-term measures aimed at reducing the risk of population towards disasters should be on the priority list of government machinery. Although we do have so called “master-plans” for most of the townships but they are either faulty or trivial. There is nothing in such plans to account for disaster reduction and safety of life and property. Although, we as a society do care about many environmental issues but our preparedness to disasters looming large over the region are seldom discussed.
A proper land use policy should be devised for the entire state. Such a policy should be primarily driven by credible scientific research with inputs from every stakeholder. Such a land use policy doesn’t come up overnight. In this context, the cutting edge technology of GIS with inputs from satellite remote sensing, ground observations and existing baseline information are imperative. Rather than entrusting the job to a single state government department, the state can request academia to build the capacity of concerned line departments both in terms of human resource as well as IT to develop a robust state land use policy. The state government can take a leaf from Indian states where academia-government partnerships are instrumental in framing government policies on important issues.
—The author is an assistant professor in the department of earth sciences, Kashmir University. Feedback: irfangis@gmail.com