Auqib Javeed: On June 22, the government sounded a flood warning in the Kashmir Valley after the water level in the Sangam and Ram Munshibagh areas of Srinagar rose. The water level was officially below the “flood danger” level. But the river water flooded two colonies of over 20 houses in the Bemina area of Srinagar. At least three villages in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district were hit by flash floods.
After a few days, the rains subsided, and the flood waters began to recede as well, but the river water continued to rise at a high level until July. Then on July 29, the Meteorological Department of Kashmir issued a ‘Yellow Warning’ after three days of continuous rain. “There is a possibility of floods,” Mukhtar Ahmed, deputy director of the meteorological department in Srinagar, told The Third Poll.
In Kashmir, the memories of the devastating floods of 2014 still linger among the people. Recent warnings have raised some questions about the effectiveness of the region’s flood management plans.
How was the flood management plan after 2014
In September 2014, the Kashmir Valley experienced the worst flood ever since several parts of the Jhelum river area were in spate. More than 300 people were killed in this flood and property worth billions was damaged.
Soon after this devastating flood, the central government approved a flood management plan for the Jhelum River and its tributaries. The project was funded through the Prime Minister’s Development Package. And this plan was divided into two phases.
399 crores were allocated for the first phase which is yet to be completed. At this stage, there was talk of dredging the river to remove the sediment. Dredging refers to the removal of sludge from the inside of any river or lake using heavy machinery. The government claimed that this phase would increase the discharge capacity of Jhelum from 31,800 cusecs to 41,000 cusecs. This means that the river can make room for about 25% more water without overspilling its banks.
The Jhelum River flows from Verinag in South Kashmir, northwards through Srinagar to reach Wular Lake in the Bandipora district of North Kashmir. The Jhelum River is the only drainage channel for water arriving from 103 streams and tributaries.
According to the Irrigation and Flood Control (IF&C) Department of Kashmir, the main objective of the first phase was to remove major impediments to dealing with floods of low to moderate magnitude in the Jhelum river and its existing flood spill channel. The flood spill channel of the Jhelum runs from the south of Srinagar to Wular Lake and is intended to divert excess water.
Major criticism and allegations of financial misappropriation
However, in a June 2021 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) — an independent body under India’s Constitution, empowered to audit all receipts and expenditure of government works — criticised the IF&C department for major lapses in achieving required targets.
In one particularly damning section on progress at two sections of the Jhelum identified for the clearing of bottlenecks, the CAG report states that only 8% of a target 1.42 lakh (142,000) cubic metres of river bed material was dredged between Khanabal and Kadalpal and that no material was dredged from the Jhelum between Sether and Sempore, despite a target of 0.6 lakh (60,000) cubic metres.
The CAG report also highlighted financial irregularities, particularly officers signing off on amounts higher than they were authorised to do. On 25 July 2022, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh also sought a response on the utilisation of funds provided by the central government for the restoration project.
The first phase of the project was undertaken by the Kolkata-based company Reach Dredging Limited. The dredging was scheduled to be completed in March 2018, but the company missed several deadlines and was asked to wind up the operations by the I&FC department in April 2018. The department is yet to complete the project.
Many questions arise
It was only after a few days of rain in June that the water level rose to the level of flood danger. Several local residents like Hilal Ahmed Mir, a businessman who lives in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar area, expressed their dismay.
Mir asks, “It is absolutely a waste of money. If after a few days of rain the river comes in spate again, where did the Rs 399 crore go?”
Civil engineer Iftikhar Ahmed Drabu, who closely follows the dredging process, argues that officials choose the wrong stretches of river to start dredging.
Drabu said, “The dredging was done in the upper reaches – making the city [Srinagar] more vulnerable to floods.” He further argued that Jhelum needs additional channels to reduce the risk of floods. He favoured the construction of two parallel channels to hold the excess water, saying that dredging alone would not solve the problem.
Naresh Kumar of the IF&C focused instead on what the plan was supposed to achieve, rather than on why the threat of floods has not seemingly receded. He told The Third Pole that the major aim in phase one of the flood management plan was to remove bottlenecks and obstructions in the flood spill channel. This, he said, was important to divert excess flood waters at Padshahi Bagh from the Jhelum River directly into Wular Lake after traversing 48 kilometres. The implication was that, while the water might still rise, the clearance of the bottlenecks would not allow this to become a danger.
Aijaz Ahmad Keen, an executive engineer at the Srinagar Irrigation and Flood Control Department, told The Third Pole: “In Phase II, the dredging will be done in lower areas to increase the outflow.”
But neither point deals with the major issue raised by the CAG report, that “the execution of the work was not as per the terms and conditions of the contract [and] would limit the efficacy of the dredging works in river Jhelum for increased flow”. The Third Pole contacted the IF&C department regarding the CAG report’s criticisms, but the department declined to comment, and declined to reveal whether they have filed a response to the report.
Nonetheless, on 8 July, the Jammu and Kashmir administration allocated INR 16.23 billion (USD 200 million) for Phase II of the flood management of Jhelum River and its tributaries.
This article was first published on The Third Pole.
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