The idea of Jhelum has remained central to the existence of Kashmir. Key to the Vale’s prosperity, the river has been the principal destroyer as well. Khalid Bashir Ahmad has written in detail about the destructions that floods caused in the last century. Saima Rashid has copied the following chapter from his magnum opus, Jhleum: The River Through My Backyard, for the Kashmir Life readers.
The flood of 1909 was disastrous for crops, considering the remissions proposed by the government which amounted to Rs 69,765. The total loss was estimated at Rs 98,393. The flood of 1912 occurred in the month of May when the Spill Channel again played a great role in minimising the extent of damage that otherwise would have been caused by a swollen Jhelum. Many bridges between Baramulla and Chakoti (across the LoC) were washed away. There is no authentic information available about the total loss by the flood except that twenty-one lives were lost.
The flood in the summer of 1950 was devastating in terms of damages it caused in the valley. The right bank of the bulging river gave in above Batwara Custom Station around midnight preceding the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Azha. The flood waters quickly engulfed the area downstream from Batwara and swept away whatever it could, including houses, shops, timber logs, petrol barrels, and within no time the whole area upto Sonawar was submerged. The water entered the ground floor of the houses that resisted the flood onslaught. Boats, rescuing people, were freely rowed through these houses.
The pressure of the current was so great that it breached the embankment of the nallah at Sonawar, uprooting and sweeping the huge Khazir Khanen Boen (the Chinar of Khazir Khan, a vegetable seller whose shop was close to the tree), oil mill and shopline. The menacing waters posed great threat to the civil lines of the city when it breached the right bank of the Tsont kol at Rustum Gari near Drugjan, an old city locality. Immediate protective measures, however, saved the situation but could not prevent the flood waters from entering the Dal Lake resulting in considerable damage to the floating vegetable gardens on it.
My mother who has bitter memories of the flood that also damaged our ancestral house at Sonawar, told me that people ran for their lives leaving behind everything and the force of the flood water was so enormous that a stone mottar, weighing around two quintals, was carried away from the compound of a house to a distance of 300 meters.
Seven years later, in 1957, another major flood in the Jhelum took place. The water level in the river was alarming, higher than in the flood of 1950. The water overflowed the right bank of the river in uptown Srinagar though no damage was caused to the embankments. The low-lying areas below Srinagar were inundated and crops and property damaged. The water level in the Jhelum was said to have been the highest thus far. A red mark on the building wall of the Squash Courts at Sonawar measures it about a storey high. The widespread damage caused to the standing crops resulted in a famine whose bitter memories are still fresh in the minds of the people.
The other major floods in the Jhelum during the last four decades include those of September 1966, May 1969, August 1973, July 1975, August 1976, August 1985, May 1986, June 1987 and September 1988. The water level in the river during these floods varied from a low of 24.80 feet at Sangam and 18.40 feet at Munshi Bagh to a high of 31.75 feet and 22.00 feet, respectively at the two sites. The Sangam and the Munshi Bagh are the two important gauge sites maintained by the Flood Control Department on the Jhelum to record the rising and the receding trend of the river during floods so as to forewarn the public and the concerned official agencies about an impeding flood. There is also a gauge site each at Asham and Ningli. The highest water level recorded at the latter size was 17.65 feet in 1987.
In recent years, two severe floods occurred in the Jhelum in September and July of 1992 and 1995, respectively. The damages to property, crops and life were great. The highest water discharge during 1992 was recorded as 65,500 cusecs at Sangam and 41,000 cusecs at Munshi Bagh, while in 1995 it was 60,000 cusecs and 45,000 cusecs, respectively. The highest flood level recorded in the Jhelum also belongs to these floods. In 1992, the Sangam gauge recorded the highest level of 32.60 ft while at the Munshi Bagh in uptown Srinagar; the gauge level was 22.20 feet. In 1995, the water level at these gauge sites was recorded at 32.30 feet and 22.60 feet, respectively.
The flood of 1992 was unprecedented both in terms of the water level touching an all time high at Sangam and losses to life and property. The cumulative losses caused by the flood in the Jhelum, as well as in its tributaries and other mountain streams across the valley, were enormous. As many as 899 villages were affected in Kashmir. In terms of the human losses, 103 persons were killed with the highest of 40 in the district of Baramulla. The injured and the missing accounted for 24 and 8, respectively. The total number of the affected persons was 8,95,117 including 3, 14,000 in the district of Anantnag and 74,235 in Srinagar district. The total number of fully and partially destroyed residential houses was 7,380 and 19,735 respectively with an estimated value of Rs 119.84 crores. In addition, 15,761 cattle sheds valued at Rs 12.74 crores were fully or partially destroyed. The calamity also took a heavy toll of livestock, then mostly in the highland pastures where the mountain torrents turned killer streams, killing 24,464 cattle, 9,605 sheep and goats and 12,600 poultry birds.
The damage to crops was also extensive. In all, crops over an area of 75,985 hectares were damaged whose value was estimated as Rs 91.25 crores. The Pulwama district suffered the most with over 75 per cent damages to the crops while in the districts of Budgam and Kupwara it was 70 per cent and in districts of Anantnag, Srinagar and Baramulla 62 per cent, 30 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively.
The damage to the roads, bridges and buildings was to the tune of Rs 34.84 crores. The losses in the sector of Public Health Engineering, responsible for the supply of drinking water and maintenance of water supply schemes, were to the order of Rs 12.71 crores. In the irrigation and Flood Control sector, 495 irrigation and 422 flood control works, costing Rs 62.39 crores were damaged. The highest numbers of irrigation works damaged were 137 in the Baramulla district and the highest number of flood control works damaged were 291 in the Srinagar district.
Valley plunges into darkness
The entire Valley plunged into darkness as the power generation, transmission and distribution system came to a standstill on September 10, 1992. All the power projects, including the then largest one in the valley, the Lower Jhelum Hydel Project and the Udhampur- Pampore Transmission line were severely damaged and continued to be non-functional for over a month. The Lower Jhelum Hydel Project and the Mohra Power Station, on the river Jhelum, were out of generation due to slush and breach in feeding canals. The losses in the Power sector were estimated at Rs 11.68 crores.
In view of the great calamity, the government announced relief measures such as ex-gratia assistance of Rs 20, 000 to the next of kin of the bread-earning dead and Rs 10, 000 in case of the death of a non-bread earner. For a fully damaged house, the owner was paid Rs 5000 while the compensation for a partially damaged house was paid at Rs 1,000. Besides, free ration and subsidy on cost of seeds and fertilisers was also distributed among the affected population.
The July 1995 flood was no less a disaster and claimed 54 lives, including the highest number of 17 in the Baramulla district and the lowest of 1 in Budgam district while the Srinagar district recorded fifteen deaths. The number of injured persons in the valley was 20. While 2, 454 residential houses, including 911 and 743 in the districts of Baramulla and Srinagar, respectively were fully damaged, the total number of persons affected by the flood in the districts of Srinagar and Anantnag alone, where damage to crops was 75 per cent or above, was 4,22,221 comprising 54,607 families.
By the end of the year 1995, the Government released an amount of Rs 20 lakhs to six districts of Kashmir for meeting the expenditure on emergent relief and rescue measures undertaken during the flood. As ex-gratia relief to the next of undertaken during the flood, an amount of Rs 2.65 crores was also released at the rate of Rs 20,000 in case of a bread earner’s death and Rs 10,000 in case of a death of non-bread earner. In addition, Rs 50,000 were sanctioned in each case from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The injured too were paid relief money which was also extended to those who left their live stock in the floods. The Irrigation and Flood Control sector itself suffered a loss of Rs 51.75 crores as a result of damage to various irrigation and flood control works.
The flood in June 1996 was different in the sense that even as the water level in the Jhelum did not touch the high of 1992 or 1995, the river refused to recede for about a week after the rains had stopped. This was somewhat unprecedented as the Jhelum usually begins to recede within 24 hours of the termination of rainfall. The flood level remained static for the period, causing heavy damages to the residential houses that were inundated. In the Srinagar city and its outskirts, about 10,000 houses were flooded for over a fortnight.
Another interesting feature of this flood was the prolonged inundation of the Boulevard on the bank of Dal Lake. Since the water level in the Jhelum remained constantly higher than in the Lake, the flood gates on the Dal could not be thrown open. On the other hand, the incessant rains and feeding nallas kept the lake rising and it overleapt its present boundaries, submerging the Boulevard and several city localities on its periphery. The prestigious road was about two feet below water, terminating communication to and from Nishat, Shalimar and other villages in the lap of Zaberwan hill. The boats rowed freely on the Boulevard and Shikarawallas made a fast buck by ferrying people to and from their homes.
The danger level
The water level in the Jhelum at which alarm is sounded is 18 feet at Sangam and 17 feet at Munshi Bagh. The danger level at the two sites at which flood duty is declared is 21 feet and 18 feet, respectively. In normal times, the average minimum water level in the Jhelum is 13.50 feet at Sangam and 11.50 feet at Munshi Bagh during summer and 7.30 feet and 2.60 feet, respectively in winter. With such a low water discharge during winter, the Jhelum looks like a small stream unlikely to be causing the widespread damages it does in summer when it is in spate.
For some years now, gradual decline in water discharge is being observed in the river. However, due to a prolonged dry spell in the valley. The all time lowest water level in the Jhelum was recorded on February 12, 2001 at 6.06 feet at Sangam and 0.40 feet at Munshi Bagh. Earlier, the river touched the lowest water level in the summer 1999. On June 7, that year, the level at Munshi Bagh gauge site was recorded at mere 0.90 feet while at Sangam it was 7.10 feet. The level was even lower than recorded in winter months when there are no rains and the snow melt is months away to arrive from the mountains. This was an unprecedented situation to be witnessed in summer when Kashmir’s streams race down brimful to merge with the Jhelum. Prior to this, the lowest water level during winter was recorded at 1.50 feet at Munshi Bagh on December 29, 1998. In 1999, the water discharge in the river was drastically reduced and in Srinagar city the decline was as much as 70 per cent. The river looked like a narrow stream so much so that at Pandrethan children were seen crossing it in knee deep water in the month of July.