Where is the Silver Lining?

As the evening setting sun plays peek-a-boo with the grey clouds, my son knows it’s time to go to the terrace. As the first drop of water lands on him, which actually happens to be from the running tap adjacent to which he is standing, his little hands and waist spring into action. Accompanied with a squirmy action is an energetic rendition of ‘Lain, lain, go wa way, come again anothel day’. To the uninitiated, it’s the popular nursery rhyme ‘Rain, rain, go away’ sung by a 2-year-old.

For me, well, I am undecided. Should I be happy and join him as he looks expectantly at the celestial skies or should I shy away?

In December 2015, my parents woke up to their home-turned-island in Chennai. What followed was a blue landscape that refused to recede, strangers-turned-friends, sleepless nights, shortage of cash in ATM, dead phones, unavailability of food. They are religious and I believe that it is this faith that pulled them out and served as a distraction from everything desolate. Rains are no more a regular/happy affair.  A heavy downpour brings back all those memories and leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Almost once in every few years we see a flood or an earthquake or a cyclone or a heat wave and we (both the government and the people) pull through within few months – stumbling. Look at the maximum figures of damages due to floods/heavy rains alone as per the National Disaster Management Authority of India (1953-2005)

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Gilbert F. White, popularly known as the ‘father of floodplain management’ once remarked “Floods are ‘acts of God’, but flood losses are largely acts of man.”

In the UN report, “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters”, it is said that between 1995-2015, 157,000 people have died as a result of floods and 2.3 billion people have been affected by it.

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Figure 1: UNISDR/CRED

The report also says that there were 3,062 flood disasters, which accounted for 47% of all weather-related disasters and 43% of all natural disasters.

 

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Figure 2: UNISDR/CRED

The main point to ponder over when talking about floods is ‘Who’ – whether the causative agent is man (avoidable) or nature (unavoidable).  There is the man who (un)knowingly builds in the flood-plain of a river or encroaches a dried-up water body that could actually serve as a storage basin during floods. On the other hand, man, dog and property get drenched (drowned?) in heavy rains and cloud-bursts.

If you looked at the Flood Management page in the website of the Water Resources Information System of India, you would be bowled over by the meticulous analysis and the elaborate, minute recommendations made by various expert committees spanning from 1954 to 2012. They cover so many things – forecasting and warning, flood control, augmenting flood protection, utilization of land and water resources, funds, flood plains zoning and flood prevention. Structural measures (embankments, storage dams, detention basins) and non-structural measures (flood forecasting, flood proofing) ‘to reduce the recurring expenditure on flood relief’ have been suggested.

So now, the second scenario is the permutations and combinations of a flood control measure’s success rate – that moment when you are hooked to all computer screens in the internet centre eagerly awaiting your semester results. Picture this case scenario about embankments presented by Ramaswamy R. Iyer in the article ‘Of floods and fortifications’ and also in the NDMA website :

DEFINITION: Embankments confine the flood flows and prevent spilling.

PROS

  • Considerable protection at low cost.
  • Provide communication linkage and reliable surface network.
  • Cheap, quick and most popular method of flood protection.

CONS

  • A properly maintained embankment might still give way in case of an exceptionally heavy flood.
  • They might also cause other problems like increase in the velocity of waters, flooding in ‘protected areas’ etc.
  • Considerable cost on raising and strengthening works and anti-erosion measures.

Just like this, with every flood control measure there are pros and cons with various variables like geographical location, capital investment, adequate maintenance funds, people’s involvement etc.

The third point, the one where the common man is directly involved, is relief measures. Our news channels with their flashing and scrolling breaking news sections fill our minds with enough graphical data. You see parents carrying their kids, men pulling a makeshift boat with victims huddled in it with their belongings clutched to their chests, stray animals swimming through neck-deep water and bemused young kids who are picking up their school books from the water swirling around in their homes. For a middle-aged man to walk in waist deep water is difficult – imagine an elderly person or a blind kid or a pregnant woman or a patient.

Kavita Narayan, a disaster management expert trained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote 111 pages ‘Hospital Standards Safety Committee’ policy document, in conjunction with doctors, structural engineers and hospital design specialists. It was submitted to NDMA in December 2013. It talks about fire safety norms, exact location of emergency equipment storage, avoiding flooding in critical units etc. There is also the National Disaster Management Guidelines on Hospital Safety brought out in January 2016. It focuses on hospital structure safety, maintenance and inspection, licensing and accreditation and disaster preparedness and response. This borrows from various other policy documents, Indian Public Health Standards, Bureau of Indian Standards etc.

What activists lament mainly is about the lack of inclusivity of the differently-abled in such disaster management measures. Vidyasagar, a Chennai-based NGO, wrote a letter to the State Disaster Management Authority mentioning the same.

Anything related to flood, be it prevention, maintenance or relief measures is not black and white at all. There are complex grey areas with dependencies from too many sources that a venn diagram depicting the same would look like a scribbled mess.

The expression ‘fallacy of flood control’ is the irony that we all face. In a policy statement placed before the Parliament on 27th July, 1956 it was mentioned that ‘absolute immunity from flood damage was not physically possible even in the distant future. We shall, however, be able to curb and confine the floods’. We have a problem; we have the solution. The scales will tip in our favour only when we act. Being a mute, road-side spectator, with an it-doesn’t-concern-me attitude is only pushing us toward the wall of destruction. So be it the ‘babu’ in the seat or the ignorant common man – everyone needs to pull up their socks. The flood management trio – prevention, relief measure and maintenance need to link hands permanently to contain floods.

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The author, Yamini Abhinaya Balasundaram, is the mother of an innocently naughty son. An avid reader and writer, she would love to sprout a few more hands.

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