After September 2014 floods a number of majors were assured to clean the erring Jhelum of blockades. But almost three years later not much has changed on the ground, reports Saima Bhat
On April 24, 2017, at five in the evening, the office of Chief Engineer, Irrigation and Flood Control (I&FC) is abuzz with activities. The issue at hand is continuous rise in Jhelum’s level.
While the chief engineer is busy with back-to-back meetings, his subordinates discuss chances of Srinagar city surviving another catastrophic floods.
One of the officers suddenly suggest: dredging of Jhelum is not an option to save the city. Water should be allowed to move smoothly and not to stay. Another one complains about sluggish pace of dredging done by a Kolkata based company.
In spring, a few hours of rainfall gave Srinagar residents sleepless nights. “This will continue round the year,” said an expert.
Experts believe, Jhelum will continue to flow above normal throughout the years, as valley witnessed heavy rains and snow. Besides, the carrying capacity of Flood Spill Channel (FSC) has shrunken from 12500 cusecs to just 3000 cusecs.
Built in 1903, this 41.70 km long canal works as a safety valve for Srinagar city.
“First, we received 83 mm rainfall in April, and then snow is melting fast as temperature rises,” says Engineer Hanief Lone, Chief Engineer I&FC.
Er Lone blames unplanned urbanisation and massive constructions in water basins like Lasjan and Bemina, where water used to stay stored till 1995. “First we filled wetlands, then we cut down our forests, then we constructed huge bunds for railway and bypass road blocking natural passage of water. All this was done without an NOC from I&FC department,” said Er Lone.
Besides, nallas in Islamabad lack the capacity to retain water after excessive rains. “They discharge more than they retain,” said Er Lone.
At present, I&FC department working on the first phase of projects expected to complete by December 2017. (Box 2)
Around 400 weak spots on the bunds where Jhelum overflowed during September 2014 floods were treated, under SDRF.
The construction of a drainage channel in Hokersar is also in pipeline, for which 300 kanals of land has already been purchased from the wild life authority.
“We need 1759 kanals and 05 marlas. We will pay for propriety land and not illegal occupation,” said Imtiyaz Hussain, SE.
“We are in contact with Div Comm and revenue department to remove illegal encroachments along FSC.”
However, Er Lone blames post-Burhan Wani situation for delay in removal of encroachment. “In May, we had to take three police parties along for the demolition drive. We cut down trees on 5 kms. This was pending since last 30 years.”
However, Er Lone is not sure if they will be taking back the rivulets and shoals occupied illegally and converted into religious places like mosques, temples, graveyards, daru-ul-ulooms, and shopping complexes by both officials of Srinagar Development Authority and locals.
A mosque recently constructed its extension on Sonar Koel rivulet. “It is SMC’s job to remove illegal construction but people should also raise their voices against it,” says Er Lone.
I&FC department is presently working on a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for phase II, which is expected to be ready by December. Under phase II, all nallas and tributaries will be taken care of by increasing the capacity of FSC.
And under phase III, the water carrying capacity of Jhelum at Sangam will be increased to 60, 000 cusecs. It will enable I&FC to store and release water at will keeping in view the situation in Srinagar. Besides that an additional FSC at Dongripora, will also be created.
“Priority is to increase FSC carrying capacity which got reduced because of slit and construction of three illegal bridges at Mehjoor Nagar and Allucha Bagh,” said Er Lone. “None of the bridges has an NOC from our department.”
Er Lone is optimistic that once the encroachments like these bridges are removed, Srinagar will be safe forever.
However, experts believe dredging, if done scientifically, can solve most of the issues related to Jhelum.
Ironically, dredging in done in Srinagar when it should have been done in Wullar, where ultimately water gets stored.
Once considered as the major shock-absorber in Kashmir’s drainage system, Wullur capacity is reduced because of encroachments. At present Wullar’s level is recorded at 1578 feet, just six feet from its retention capacity.
According to a popular legend, during Suya’s reign, gold coins were thrown into Wullar so that people will clear slit in order to retrieve them. This helped in dredging the lake.
After 1903 great floods devastated most of Srinagar city British engineers suggest two options: construct a Flood Spill Channel (FSC) that can handle a discharge of 17500 cusecs and bypass Srinagar city. Second, start dredging of river bed between Sopore and Baramulla to increase water velocity.
Engineers considered removal of silt from Wullar’s mouth i.e. between Sopore and Baramulla, as key to save Kashmir from floods. To implement the plan American machines were imported to dredge the river. Around same time Mohra power station was set up to power these machines. These machines dredged out 6100 acres of slit from the river bed, which increased its velocity.
Once the job was done the entire machinery was sold as junk in 1917. Since then just one major intervention took place. In 1959, after newly formed Flood Mechanical Division (FMD), acquired modern gadgetry, dredging was resumed.
However, in 1984 dredging stopped after they just removed 1255 lakh cfts against the total deposits of 1438 lakh cfts on crucial 8 km stretch that would affect river’s velocity.
By the time, FMD wanted to revive its work most of its hardware had drowned.
Same year a new policy was formulated by the state government ordering ban of dredging. All of a sudden FMD was out of work. The closure cost government loss of around Rs 70 crore in terms of machinery and infrastructure.
The silt drudger Suya (SD Suya) commissioned in 1962 drowned in Jhelum near Jagheer in November 1986. 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. But the departmental discouragement flattened the initiative.
In 1975, a decision to improve the FSC was taken and in 1983 a Central Water Commission project worth Rs 17 crore started getting implemented.
Aimed at increasing the channel capacity to 31000 cusecs, the government spent Rs 8.27 crores on its first phase.
Then, the dredging was again started by Congress minister Taj Mohiuddin which improved the capacity of FSL, reduced to 2800 cusecs. But soon he was shifted to another ministry in 2013 and dredging stopped.
Er Lone believes Sumbal was saved during 2014 floods because of Taj Mohiddin’s continuous dredging efforts as minster.
Since then no major dredging has been done to clean the river of huge slit. “It should be a continuous process,” said Er Lone.
Two years back, I&FC approached the Dredge Corporation of India (DCI), who refused saying they don’t have dredgers available.
“They wanted a proper tendering process but we had no time,” said an official.
In 2017, I&FC once again approached DCI but this time the corporation said they will take either execution or project part, not both. According to sources finance minister also met DCI official and asked them to take up this project.
In past, engineers laid a two meter deep cunnette, a channel within a channel, with a width of 25 to 40 meters for 23 kms in the FSC to increase the water capacity.
“Apart from flushing the channel during routine low-discharge days, the cunnette offered a direction to the water during floods and increases its velocity as well,” recalls Abdul Majeed, 57, a contractor and local resident in Barzulla. “During our college days we used to play in this FSC, it had green grass and mulberry trees. This smaller channel was a store house of chestnuts with mirror like clear water, which continued till mid nineties.”
Majeed recalls earth dredged from this cunnette was used to raise and strengthen the embankments. Rest of it was dumped in low lying area free of cost. “Since it’s free sale was stopped, see the condition of FSC now,” said Majeed.
At present I&FC is working to raise FSC’s carrying capacity to 25000 cusecs at Padshahi Bagh, which will eventually reach 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.
I&FC blames people and politics for ruining the Jhelum.
Left side of the bund was lower than the right side in height on purpose. The idea was if the water level in Jhelum increases, it will automatically spill over towards the left side. This side was mostly paddy fields thus would have caused less damage to the property. “However because of politics the left side of the bund too was raised,” says an I&FC insider. “Water has to find a way out and it now spills both ways.”
In 2015, Srinagar faced flood like situation at least six times.
Er Lone is hopeful that Phase II and Phase III can provide much needed relief to the people. “But the water level will remain high in coming months too. I am also apprehensive that we will receive good amount of rainfall in monsoon season,” said Er Lone.