Flood fury

It will take years for Srinagar to recover from one of the worst floods it has ever witnessed

Flood fury
As the water level started rising in the posh locality of Raj Bagh in Srinagar on Saturday evening, Fahmida Shah, a retired principal of Polytechnic College, decided to shift all the belongings she could get hold of upstairs. But the way water gushed out from the nearby Jhelum, she could only think of herself and her husband, and other people in the house. They ended up in the attic, with no electricity and no communication with the rest of the world.

“Whatever piece of cloth of red colour I had in my house, I went to the roof and waved, seeking help to get evacuated,” she told me. “We thought there is no chance of survival, as the provisions we had were getting exhausted.”

Fortunately, a chopper made an appearance on Monday. “I was picked up, but not the male members of the house. I still don’t have any information about my husband but am told that they were evacuated a day later,” she said with a visible

sense of desperation on her face.

There are similar, more horrible stories of families submerged in the water. “I am dying with my family. Please save us!” a caller from Azad Basti Natipora told me on Sunday morning. I received at least 200 calls from acquaintances seeking help for evacuation but there was no one in the administration who could help. The rescue operations with boats arriving from Delhi in-fact began on Monday afternoon and by that time people had seen the worst. Air Force did press into service but their priority, according to some stranded locals, “was to pick up tourists from guest houses in Raj Bagh and other areas besides other non locals.”

Out of nearly 600,000 trapped people, only 70,000 to 80,000 had been evacuated by Wednesday evening, and there was no information available about the rest.

Raj Bagh is an posh neighborhood in Srinagar where affluent and influential people live. But Kashmir’s worst ever floods that came with incessant rains from September 2 onwards have displaced its residents forcing them to take shelter elsewhere. The magnitude of the floods was beyond imagination. Nobody would have thought localities like Raj Bagh, Jawahar Nagar and Gogji Bagh would submerge.

As I write these lines, there is no account of what has happened from South to Central Kashmir, an area within the radius of roughly 80 kilometers. Since Jhelum originates from South Kashmir, it hit the area badly and cut it off from rest of Kashmir. However, when Srinagar was badly hit and the local government virtually collapsed under the huge streams of water from all sides, even the worst affected areas (till then) of South Kashmir were forgotten.

[quote]Three major hospitals in Srinagar were also flooded[/quote]

As people were grappling with the crisis, phone connectivity was lost. That was the final blow to any impending rescue efforts. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told a news channel that he was not able to connect with 90 percent of his cabinet. Though restored partially on Tuesday night, connectivity on ground especially with the flood victims is zero. Relatives are desperate to know about the welfare of their near and dear ones and there is no mechanism in place to facilitate that. Besides the Army and Air Force the local volunteers are doing a commendable job in rescuing people and arranging for their food.

In absence of any authentic information, rumours are rife about the “disastrous consequences” of the flood. “Many bodies are tied with trees as there is no possibility of their burial,” according to one such rumour. But the fact is that according to official estimates, over 200 people have been killed across the state. Tens of thousands of people have been affected or displaced. Crops, factories, merchandise and business establishments have perished. “It is a huge catastrophe and it is difficult to imagine the impact and the aftermath,” said a resident of Jawahar Nagar. He said he had never thought he would have to witness such a tragedy.

Three major hospitals in Srinagar were also flooded. Sri Mahraja Hari Singh Hospital, the biggest in the city, Lal Ded Maternity Hospital, and GB Pant Hospital, the only one catering to children, were completely submerged throwing the patients literally at the mercy of the water. Till Wednesday evening (when I write these lines) there is no information about their functioning and the fate of the patients. The city’s main centre, Lal Chowk, is also inaccessible as the water from the nearby Jhelum converted it into a lake. Kashmir’s Civil Secretariat, the main centre of power, is also under water.

Jammu too witnessed the loss of human lives. Among the most tragic of the losses was when a 60-member wedding procession was washed away in Rajouri district. Most of them are still missing. The death toll in Jammu alone crossed 110. But the people were not trapped the way it happened in Kashmir.

It has been 50 years since floods of this magnitude have hit Kashmir. The cycle had reduced to a significant level but engineers had warned a few years back that the valley could face its worst floods soon. Severe floods, as the engineers recall, were witnessed in 1902, 1955, 1957 and 1959. In the 1902 floods, most of Srinagar remained inundated for nearly two years and there were enormous losses. The three other floods were less severe because of certain flood management interventions, but there were losses in areas near the lower Jhelum. But over a period of time, rapid urbanization, mostly unplanned, and the government’s lackadaisical approach towards augmenting measures to prevent floods, have contributed in making these threats real.

In case of the localities like Raj Bagh and Jawahar Nagar, the challenge is to de-water them and experts say that like in 1902, it may take years to return them to normal water level.

The valley’s drainage system runs around Jhelum – its main river covering 241 kilometers from its source till it enters Pakistan-administered Kashmir, connecting 11 less developed drainage basins on its right bank and six on the left bank draining 11,353 square kilometers. It emerges as a placid and sluggish stream, changes into a submissive, lazy and navigable river, and crosses the LoC with roaring might. Kashmir owes its lakes and loops to this ailing river, whose water is unfit for human consumption.

With people hoping against hope that things will get better, the real challenge to counter the situation will begin after the water level recedes and family’s are in a position to re-assemble. Tackling diseases and the complete rehabilitation of people, besides the compensation for the losses worth billions, will be a stupendous task the government will have to face.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the flood hit areas, has announced a relief of Rs 1,000 crore, but it is not the money that will matter. It is management in the post-flood situation that is more important. Given the capability of the present government that even failed to warn the government about the threat of flood, it seems difficult that the valley will wade through this challenge so easily.