Srinagar | Furkan Latif Khan: The Kashmir Valley suffered a devastating flood in September 2014. After an unusually high level of rainfall, the fact that buildings were built on overflow channels and flood plains caused a catastrophe that caused more than 190 deaths in the valley and damage estimated at Rs 1 lakh crore.
Kashmir has historically received low levels of rainfall during the South Asian monsoon season (typically June to September). But new research suggests this may be changing, setting the stage for more catastrophic flooding unless authorities can better plan and prepare.
Monsoon knocking in the valley
Recent research analyzed 30 years of rainfall data in the Kashmir Valley from 1980 to 2017. “We saw increased activity in the Indian summer monsoon,” said Mohammad Muslim, a professor at the University of Kashmir and one of the paper’s five authors. Their research found that between 1980–1990 and 2010–2017, the summer monsoon contributed nearly 10 per cent to the overall rainfall in the Kashmir Valley.
Research suggests that the Indian summer monsoon winds, which brought rain to the Indian subcontinent, are now rapidly making their way into the valley. These winds used to stop at the southern edge of the valley. “We understand that this is happening due to some factors within Kashmir,” says Mohammad Muslim. He further added: “There has been a major change in land use in the Kashmir region. We also had agricultural and horticultural land in the city of Srinagar. Now all this is coming to an end. Construction has already taken place here and because of this, the heat island effect can now be seen here. He explains that higher temperatures mean less pressure has developed, drawing the Indian summer monsoon winds down into the valley.
Mohamed Muslim, a climate change researcher, is concerned about changes in rainfall patterns because more rain in the summer months means excess water in the rivers of the Himalayan valley. These rivers already carry large amounts of water from glaciers and ice melt during this period.
He adds: “If [summer and fall rainfall] is too high, the consequences can be serious, including flooding and crop destruction. We have already seen the results of the autumn rains in September 2014.”
Urbanisation and wetland destruction worsens flooding
The potential impact of excess monsoon rains could be severe in the urban areas of the Valley, as there have been heavy encroachments and construction work on the region’s natural drainage and flood protection systems.
Sheikh Anees, who has a Ph.D. in Geoinformatics from Kashmir University, is monitoring the condition of wetlands in the valley. In research he co-authored, he reported that 37 per cent of the Narkara wetland, one of the remaining urban wetlands in Srinagar, is under construction. The research recorded a 2,663 per cent increase in a built-up area between 1965 and 2016.
The network of wetlands of the Kashmir Valley can act as a natural flood prevention system as the wetlands in their natural state can absorb excess water. And if water rises in one, then the rest of the water starts flowing in the water bodies associated with it. This helps in avoiding floods.
Sheikh Anees says, “Reckless urbanization in Narkara affects the hydrological connectivity and ecology of this important semi-urban wetland which increases the risk of floods in the catchment area of this Himalayan wetland.”
Another wetland in Srinagar, Khushal Sir, has been similarly affected, with much of the area now under construction. Anees said, “Bhadwana to Mar Kanail [which flows into Khushal Sar] and urbanization have not only reduced the water holding capacity of this wetland but also affected hydrological connectivity with other neighbouring water bodies. This has seriously affected the natural condition of the wetlands.”
She explains that the areas around the wetlands were severely submerged in the September 2014 floods.
She says, “Any wetland in Kashmir, whether protected or not, has some form of encroachment. Houses have been built either in the adjoining areas or in the areas with drainage.
Hokarsar is a wetland of international importance which is an important stop for migratory birds. There are problems because of the flood channel. The channel was built with the intention of diverting excess water from the city in the event of a flood but its planning was poor. Due to this channel, so much mud and mud started coming in the area that even the wetland could not handle it.
According to Rashid Nakash, the wildlife warden of the area, “60 per cent of the Hokarsar wetlands are currently under heavy mudslides.” He explains that the Srinagar Irrigation and Flood Control Department is trying to clear the silt from the area using dredgers. But this is not a planned solution, rather it is just the management of a problem that will bring trouble again.
Lack of planning in Kashmir’s urbanisation
Ramzan Ahmad Dar, regional town planner at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who has been involved in planning most of the region’s urban areas, blames a lack of scientific data for the haphazard urbanization that is now taking place in Kashmir and its flood defenses. has become a cause of trouble. “We are not aware of the risks associated with it, so we just plan like that,” he says.
Dar tells The Third Pole, “We need to create sensitivity and hazard maps of areas, so that we can use those inputs in our master plans. Our land use policy should have been designed keeping the risks in mind, but this is not available to us… we rarely take into account the risk factors.”
He also said that urban planners face many challenges in Kashmir, as it is an area of high seismic activity and also prone to landslides. He described the current urban planning as “an environmental disaster to come”.
No coordination in urban master plans
Dar says that many departments involved in town planning show little interest in a coordinated plan, which continues to allow indiscriminate building construction. He explains, “The [urban] master plan is a coordinated regional approach of the government. We try for coordination and linkage between different departments. Unfortunately, when we prepare these documents, the departments do not show their interest, [and] when the document is created, it ends up with many flaws.”
These include insufficient data on how much land will be needed for housing colonies and a lack of clear demarcation of areas (such as important wetlands) that should not be built on.
Dar says this is true for all master plans made for Srinagar and other cities since 1970.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.