Till June end this year, the government was worried about how to cope up with back-to-back drought. But by the second half of August, the scene changed dramatically and several states were in the spate of floods. In Bihar, more than 5 million people have been affected and 650,000 displaced from their homes; in Assam, 1.8 million people were affected with 240,000 displaced; and in UP, 870,000 were affected. Floods also occurred in areas which were earlier not considered flood-prone, such as the cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and southern districts of arid Rajasthan. Even in Madhya Pradesh, 300,000 people were affected.
There is a growing concern that floods cause large-scale damage to crops, cattle, property and even human lives, and this trend is increasing over time. As per the estimates of the Central Water Commission (CWC), the cumulative damages from floods during the period 2000-13, converted at 2014-15 constant prices, stood at a whopping Rs 2,63,848 crore. While in 2003 alone the damages were Rs 23,045 crore, the same escalated to Rs 46,802 crore in 2009 floods (both at 2014-15 prices).
Most of the floods in India occur in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak basin as the distance between the world’s highest peak in the Himalayas and the outlet at the Bay of Bengal is short and the contributing tributaries like Kosi, Gandak, Ghagra and others disgorge large volumes and devastate the fertile plains of eastern Uttar Pradesh, northern Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. For these states, flood control is a development as well as a humanitarian issue. The options are limited but need to be given a fair trial with adequate resources.
The key question is: How best the problem of floods and droughts can be addressed, so that the losses are minimal and the system becomes more resilient?
In this context, one important point that needs to be noted is that India gets “too much” water (about 75% of annual precipitation) during 120 days of monsoon season (June to September) and “too little” for the remaining 245 days. This skewed water availability has to be managed and regulated for its consumption throughout the year. No wonder, leaders of Independent India quickly embarked upon a number of large multi-purpose river valley projects such as Bhakra-Nangal, Hirakud, Nagarjun Sagar, Rihand, etc, to store water for smoothening supplies throughout the year. But, unfortunately, very soon they lost interest in further developing such river valley projects, partly due to changed priorities towards heavy industrialisation since 1956, and partly due to wide-spread inefficiencies and corruption in large irrigation projects. Later on, the issue of resettlement of displaced people became a rallying point for many NGOs to oppose these projects, leading to drying up of funds from the World Bank.
As a result, in 2015, India’s per capita water storage capacity through dams was abysmally low at 194 cubic metres (m3). In contrast, China’s per capita water storage capacity was three times that of India at 590 m3 (2013). Amongst other BRICS countries, Brazil was at 3,370 m3, Russia at 5,587 m3, and South Africa at 569 m3, all in 2015 (FAO). Further, the US was at 2,254 m3 and Australia at 3,395 m3 (see accompanying chart).
So, it is amply clear that India is way below in storing water when it falls in abundance, resulting in floods during monsoons and deficiency of water later. This also lowers cropping intensity (less than 140), meaning less than 40% of India’s farm land is double cropped.
So, what are the policy options now? Nitish Kumar, in his meeting with the PM on flood situation in Bihar, asked for de-silting of Ganges and removing Farakka Barrage, as it was causing accumulation of silt flowing from the Himalayan rivers and making the flood situation in Bihar grim. He had a point, but this seems to be only a partial and temporary solution.
The more lasting solution lies in “buffer stocking of water” during monsoon months and releasing it during lean season. This “buffer stocking of water” can be done over ground through dams or underground by recharging aquifers. Recent studies by the World Bank indicate that about 18% of the peak flood volumes can be safely stored in the existing and planned dams along the India-Nepal border. A holistic approach at basin level, encompassing credible resettlement policy for displaced people, and supported by proactive hydro-diplomacy amongst riparian countries can render rich dividends.
Time is also ripe to crank up the Ganges Water Machine through ‘Underground Taming of Floods for Irrigation’, where surplus flood water is directed to aquifers through well-designed structures placed in ponds and other depression areas, and evacuated through large-scale pump irrigation during dry season.
Flood control strategies also need to include the use of smart geospatial techniques for flood forecasting and construction and strengthening of embankments at critical locations. The Modi government is also talking of inter-linking of rivers, which can begin at intra-state level, particularly within Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
Further, on the demand side, there is a need to promote flood-tolerant ‘scuba rice’, sugarcane, jute and high-value aquatic crops in this region; access to affordable crop, livestock and asset insurance products; and education and preparedness to live with the floods.
Finally, with increasing urbanisation, agriculture will have to shed its current share of 78% in water to, say, 70% by 2030. This calls for focus on ‘more crop per drop’. Research indicates that rainfed areas covering pulses, oilseeds and nutri-cereals can give high productivity, if they get even two irrigations. Cascading check dams, drips and sprinkler irrigation can also help. PM’s Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) talks of all this, but with paltry resources (Rs 5,767 crore), one wonders how long one will have to wait to see the objectives of ‘har khet ko pani’ being met.
Gulati is Infosys chair professor, ICRIER and Sharma is scientist emeritus, International Water Management Institute and senior visiting fellow, ICRIER