Nature intervened at its own last week when it stopped rains shortly before the waters spill over the banks of Jhelum River. But Kashmir can not be lucky every time given the possibility of a devastating flood looming large, a Kashmir Life report.
Given the behaviour of the Jhelum river, hydrologists and engineers at the Irrigation and Flood Control would tell almost everybody that a major devastating flood can come any time. “What we are witnessing are major deluges but a huge, almost unmanageable flood could hit us anytime because we live in a 55-year flood cycle,” M R Shola, the chief engineer warned. The severe floods, Shola and his engineers are referring to, 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. Though the quantum of floods was less severe in the three other similar cases because of certain flood management interventions, the losses were there albeit in areas inhabiting the lower Jhelum.
Kashmir’s drainage system runs around Jhelum – its main river covering 241 kms from its source till it enters Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK), connecting 11 less developed drainage basins on its right bank and six on the left bank draining 11,353 sq km. It emerges as a placid and sluggish stream, changes into a submissive, lazy and navigable river and crosses LoC with roaring might. Kashmir owes its lakes and loops to this ailing river, whose water is unfit for human consumption.
Each summer, on an average, the Jhelum river records a discharge of around 9000 to10,000 cubic metres per second ( cusecs) (at Srinagar) against the carrying capacity of around 30,000 cusecs of water. Recent floods have been bringing in water between 19000 to 28500 cusecs and it has been by and largely manageable. The 2006 deluge had a total of 28500 cusecs, in 2007 it was only 19000 cusecs, in 2010 it was 26000 cusecs and last week in 2011 it was 18800 cusecs. But the engineers are working to manage the big flood that can bring around 100,000 cusecs of water as happened in 1902. One option, they believe, is to remove encroachments within the river itself and increase its carrying capacity to 35000 cusecs.
“What we are desperately trying is to ensure is that certain basic interventions take place at critical levels so that the losses could be reduced in the wake of that flood,” Mohammad Aslam Zargar, an Assistant Executive Engineer with the Flood Spill Channel told Kashmir Life. “We have laid out the blueprint for what is to be done and we are implementing the part for which resources have been allocated to us. It is making a difference.”
Flood management systems and critical interventions in the area have been reactive and half-hearted of all the rulers in the state. They have been reacting to the floods at the time of occurrence and immediately after and then forgetting everything. The first major intervention took place soon after a 100,000 cusecs discharge in Jhelum triggered the devastating 1902 floods. It forced the Dogra rulers to take nature seriously if not the subjects they were ruling. Soon after the floods that trapped scores of Europeans for many days, a team of British engineers was summoned under the leadership of D G Haris that marked the beginning of the Flood Spill Channel. It took its own time to get ready but the next time a similar flood was reported; its severity was, however, lesser. It is the same channel that is at the focus of attention of Irrigation and Flood control for managing the next major flood.
Set up in 1903, the Flood Spill Channel is perhaps Srinagar’s only safety valve. It takes off ahead of Srinagar and takes a route that bypasses the city and rejoins Jhelum after covering 41.70 km. Though engineers dispute, records suggest that when it was laid it had the capacity of draining around 17,500 cusecs of water, a capacity that was reduced to 2800 cusecs because of massive siltation and choking of the watercourse.
The next major intervention was in 1959 when the government pondered over the routine inundation of the entire Sonwari belt. The policymakers, then, advised that since the roaring tributaries are getting massive amounts of silt into the lake, its draining system is not efficiently working. So the Flood Mechanical Division (FMD) came into being with its main base at Baramulla. Four suction cutter dredgers and a dipper drudger were imported with a lot of equipment including motorized scrapers, graders and draglines and a full-fledged workshop was started. Tasked to dredge out silt in the crucial 8-km length of Wullar lake’s outfall channel, the idea was to increase water velocity and draining capacity from 9,000 to 40,000 cusecs up to Pohru and 45,000 beyond that. In 1984, came the new policy intervention with the state banning dredging. All of a sudden FMD became idle. By then, it had excavated 1255 lakh cubic feet (cft) against the total estimated deposits of 1438 lakh cft on the crucial eight kilometres affecting its velocity. It, insiders said, is a long story of greed and loot and a battle between the civil and the mechanical engineers.
It cost the government heavily as most of the infrastructure (worth over Rs 70 crores) it had built over the years was destroyed. The silt drudger Suya (SD Suya) commissioned in 1962 drowned in Jhelum near Jagheer in November 1986. For months, there was nobody even to convey the government that one of its assets was lost. In 1968, three drudgers were commissioned – SD Wullar, SD Budshah and SD Jhelum. While SD Jhelum lost its balance and drowned, SD Wullar was dismantled on the orders of the then governor Jagmohan and reassembled in Dal lake. The 450-ton machinery was later abandoned for being an obsolete technology. SD Budshah, despite being very old still survives. During 1999, the employees tired of the enforced idleness revived Budshah. They would use it to suck 3696 cft of silt a day. They sold around 85000 cft of sand to raise some resource for its long term use. Departmental discouragement flattened the initiative. Interestingly, the sand that these dredgers were sucking to the banks was used by the lower Jhelum power project and the Uri power project as well.
In August 1968, the government commissioned 500-ton boulder-lifter drudger, Himalaya, in Baramulla that was imported from Holland. Equipped with 480 HP air start machine engine, it would produce 110 KW energy for its use. From the kitchen, to tug boats and floating bridges, it is a complete unit which is into disuse for a long time now. Officials say its use is out of fashion but they lack ideas to use some of its equipment and facilities. The only of its tugs was to fish out dead bodies in the last 20 years.
It has been 27 years since then and the costs have been enormous for retaining the staff that was hired for the specific task. “At one point of time there were 650 employees and then it started reducing and now we have 57 staffers,” Afaq Ahmad, Executive Engineer FMD said. “Some of them are working on excavators in Kupwara, Handwara and Sopore on irrigation canals and most of them have no productive job other than being on watch and ward.” FMD paycheque is Rs 23 lakh a month.
In 1975 a decision to improve the FSC was taken and in 1983 a Central Water Commission project worth Rs 17 crores started getting implemented. Aimed at increasing the channel capacity to 31000 cusecs, the government spent Rs 8.27 crores on its first phase. New Delhi stopped resources and in Srinagar, the interest evaporated. Nothing much happened beyond the statements issued by the politicians.
For the last many years, there have been efforts to revive the entire exercise and to reinvent the wheel. “With an eye on floods, we had prepared a detailed report for the management of Jhelum in 2007 and submitted it to the central government,” Shola said. The project, according to Imtiaz Ahmad Dhar, Executive Engineer FSC, would take care of almost everything in the river including increasing its carrying capacity. “The project is under consideration but the centre has provided us an interim grant of Rs 97.46 crores to make critical interventions.” Implementation of this project started in December 2010.
Apart from a number of elements, the interim project has two critical features – helping the FCS to increase its capacity and reviving the FMD. Shola’s team says though they have spent only Rs 23.90 crores of the grant, it has started making a difference.
Take the FCS, for instance. Dhar and his assistant Aslam say the carrying capacity of the channel was barely 2800 cusecs and it has improved to 4500 cusecs. The channel remained ignored for a long time since 1973 which silted up the channel. Engineers first started laying a two-meter deep cunnette – a channel within a channel – with a width of 25 to 40 meters for 23 km. Apart from flushing the channel during routine low-discharge days, the cunnette offers direction to the water during floods and increases its velocity as well.
For almost a year, the department excavated 9.75 lakh cubic meters of earth and silt of which 6.44 lakh was from cunnette alone. “We sold 150 thousand cubic meters of the earth for one crore rupees to the public, used around half a million cubic meters for raising and strengthening the embankments and the balance material was dumped in low lying areas free of cost,” Aslam said.
Engineers say they are working to achieve a target of the FSC having a carrying capacity of 25000 cusecs at Padshahi Bagh that can eventually reach a target of 39000 cusecs at the tail end of the river. There are a number of rivulets and streams joining the FSC during its course thus increasing the discharge during floods. Idea of making the FSC take more water (against the initial design of 17000 cusecs) is to prevent any damage to the localities that have sprung up against the law of nature in various flood basin belts of the river within Srinagar and in the immediate peripheries.
They are panicky over what is going to happen to Sonawari that has as many as 18 weak spots. At one point in time, it would remain inundated for months that cost its agriculture heavily. Part of the poverty that the belt lives in owes much to the successive crop failures for decades because of the deluge. It was during the reign of Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad that a process of creating embankments on the river started. It helped the area to a large extent. But now engineers say the bunds are sinking naturally and their height is getting down necessitating a new process of helping the region.
One part of the management process is the revival of the FMD in Baramulla. Wullar has historically remained the major shock-absorber in Kashmir’s drainage system. But it is under intense pressure. Massive encroachments on its banks and conversion of the vast area into plantations are major crises for the lake ecosystem. Engineers at the flood and irrigation department say the lake’s dead capacity is 100 million cubic meters of water that, at the most, peaks to 470 million cubic meters during floods. But Kashmir needs a little more capacity. The capacity will fall short of requirement further when the NHPC -owned Kishanganga power project will add most of the Neelum river (in Gurez) river into the lake through one of its tributaries. Massive silt load that Jhelum and its tributaries get into the lake make Wullar shallower by six inches every year. Shola refers to another survey suggesting the lake gets 2400 acre-feet of silt every year. It creates a stagnant impact and triggers backwater waves during floods when water comes in fast but leaves very gradually.
FMD was created with this purpose of helping the outflow channel to have a better velocity. Now it is being revived. “The carrying capacity of the outfall channel is 28000 cusecs and we intend to improve it to reach 35000 cusecs,” said Shola. That essentially means removing around 14 lakh cubic meters of slush and sand that is the main source of the shallowness of the river in the outfall channel.
Irrigation and Flood Control Department has already signed an agreement with a US-based dredger manufacturer for supplying two state-of-the-art dredgers with US’s oldest manufacturers of dredging equipment, the Ellicott Dredges. Shola inked the deal in June with Peter Bowe, president of the manufacturer. The company has been supplying dredges to Kashmir for a long time and the first machine that was procured by J&K government for conservation of Jhelum was also supplied by them. It was formally thrown open by the then Prime Minister J L Nehru. “It is Rs 25 crore deal and we have already made half of the payment,” Afaq Ahmad, Executive Engineer FMD said. “We have ordered a water master and it is on way and right now in Punjab.”
Officials say the new machines are computerized and less labour intensive. They can be handled by two to three persons, unlike the earlier ones. These machines, they say, will help to remove shoals of silt and gravel that, at a number of places, have deviated the watercourse of the river.