Scrutinising disasters

  • 14/06/2002

Scrutinising disasters Flood Studies in India brings to fore several aspects of this natural disaster that are not yet conventional wisdom in policy circles. The book looks at floods from a variety of expertise areas, such as civil engineering, meteorology, hydrology, remote sensing, geomorphology and geography - the only way to do justice to an area that is the point of intersection of several disciplines. The 12 papers in the book raise a number of issues that need resolution through inter-disciplinary study, as also create space for engagement between specialists and policymakers. It is obvious that the discipline is at an exciting period of development.

The South Asian region is characterised by extreme events, where perhaps half or more of the average annual rainfall occurs in a single cloudburst. These have been experienced but not measured, either because they happened at times and places where no measuring devices were in place, or the available devices were incapable of recording events of such magnitude.

Several papers highlight this problem, and discuss what needs to be done to increase reliability of forecasts. Two papers in particular, one by Colorado scientists studying a glacial lake outburst in Nepal in 1985, and another by Polish experts examining a cloudburst in Sikkim that delivered "600-1,000 mm rain in two to three days", conclude that more input from extensive palaeo-flood studies would provide better understanding for planning purposes. Such events in recent history must have led the Teesta, a tributary of the Ganga three centuries ago, to swing east and now present itself as a tributary of the Brahmaputra. A paper by Hyderabad-based remote sensing experts highlights how this new technology would help better understand such events.

Perhaps the most significant thread in the book is the widely-accepted view among earth scientists that embankment construction, especially in the alluvial plains, has largely failed to provide flood control. Embankments, they believe, "have merely transferred trouble from one place to another, and given the people a false sense of security". This message has not filtered to the policymakers in India. Furthermore, among specialists, there seems to be some degree of confusion as to the alternative solution: almost reflexively, many of them write that upstream deforestation is a primary cause that needs to be tackled with watershed management. The paper by a Swiss geographer effectively challenges this myth, showing how it is Meghalaya, and not the Himalayas, that contributes to the Bangladesh floods.

Even though this volume is richly multi-disciplinary, it does not include the social sciences, not even human geography proper. Although it does cover technical disciplines, the book does not indicate the manner of interaction between them. Only the concluding paper by the editor strives to bring together the debate with a policy prescription that is "more river friendly and less interventionist", and which treats each river as unique.

The closest that the volume comes to addressing social science issues as they pertain to floods is in one remarkably candid paper from Roorkee's Hydrology Institute, and in another from Pune's Water and Power Research Station. The former highlights the failure of centre-inspired flood control commissions, which "have become non-functioning bodies now". The latter admits that 100 per cent protection cannot be provided, and emphasises the need for 'flood management' rather than 'flood control', and goes on to list non-structural measures that should be adopted. Unfortunately, half of them are really structural measures.

In the final analysis, though, the Geological Society of India ought to be congratulated for producing a valuable volume that easily qualifies as a state-of-the-art report on floods in South Asia. Perhaps the next task is a sequel, which includes interaction between earth scientists and social scientists (economists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, lawyers and social geographers). This would help arrive at an understanding of how officially mandated 'non-functioning bodies', such as flood commissions, can be metamorphosed into effective institutions capable of understanding and managing societal response.

Related Content