Yeh Jo India Hai Na | Flashfloods in North India Are a Man-Made Triple Whammy

Construction of properties along river banks constricts river channels and amplifies destruction by flash floods.

3 min read

Monsoon mayhem is here again. Flash floods in the hills, waterlogging in our cities and towns. The viral videos are telling a terrible story. There’s destruction of public and private property, we see roads caving in, streets, colonies, and entire localities submerged, buildings, bridges, and cars swept away. Even more, dozens of lives have been lost.

But any lessons learnt? Aaj bhi… nahi.

And so, it’s a story that needs re-telling every year. It's not a whammy, or a double whammy, it’s now an annual triple whammy. And much of it is man-made.  


Poor Drainage System Riddles Most Indian Cities

First, let’s do a quick revision course – Climate Change 101. Let’s remind ourselves that we, as mankind, contribute to global warming with emissions, by burning fossil fuels, and deforestation. Global warming stems from heated oceans from which water droplets evaporate and monsoon clouds are more moisture-laden than ever before.

The South-West monsoon clouds that hit India during June every year, have been drawing more moisture from the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea off late. So now, each year they usher in heavier monsoons leading to record rainfall.

Most Indian cities are ill-equipped to deal with heavy rains, as the stormwater drainage capacity in a lot of mega cities is less than the rains they are now receiving. The work needed to increase capacity is chronically lagging. Freshly developed areas (read Gurgaon and Mohali, at opposite ends of Haryana) are prime examples of poor drainage systems as can be noticed in viral videos online.

And, in many cities, the drainage system is also highly choked up with garbage which most municipalities are slow to clear year after year. So, yes, as the monsoons get heavier, our cities are less able to deal with the consequences.


Unusual Flooding in Hills: A Man-Made Intervention?

But in the Himalayas, mainly Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, there’s a double whammy (I know I said triple whammy which we'll get to in a bit) unfurling as not only is the traditional monsoon bringing more rainfall than ever before, the Himalayan glaciers too, are melting faster. And the faster the ice melts, or as glacial lakes overflow – we see flashfloods.

Let’s cut away briefly to Pakistan. The unprecedented flooding we saw in Pakistan last year which caused unheard-of death and destruction pushed the country to the brink of social, economic, and frankly, even political chaos. It was due to this double whammy of heavy monsoons, along with the Indus, its tributaries, and all Himalayan rivers arriving on the Indus plains of Punjab and Sindh with vast amounts of extra water that impacted the entire country.

But as I had mentioned at the start, it’s actually a triple whammy that states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand face. And it’s man-made. Take a closer look at the viral videos of the Beas River in the spate in Himachal Pradesh.

What we see is an angry river, cramped on both sides by man-made obstructions. Earlier, even in the hills and the foothills, Himalayan rivers had floodplains on either side of their banks. Floodplains are nature’s own buffer to absorb excess river water when there is excess rain.

The water would spill onto the floodplains, there would be zero or minimal loss of life or property. No distressing viral videos, no troubling headlines. But now, we have completely covered the floodplains of these Himalayan rivers with unplanned and unscientific constructions.

Over the years, we have built tourist camps, hotels, parking lots, homes, shops, and even pilgrimage sites, along the river banks. This highly constricts the river channels, and so now, when there is a flash flood, the destruction we see is more severe, more spectacular, and more scary.

But do we actually stay scared? Strangely, no.

Tomorrow, the floods will recede. All the death and the destruction will be forgotten, and we will all return to our irresponsible ways. We will wake up, even us, professionals in the media, only when the next flash flood hits, and when the next flood of viral videos hits us. Sad, but true.

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