Unlike many countries in the neighbourhood, India possesses a number of perennial rivers that drain the subcontinent. Of particular interest is the fact that most of these rivers begin and end within India, making us secure in the matter of potential interference with the supply, but also placing squarely on us the responsibility of keeping these rivers healthy.

But the increasing floods and drought each year remind us that we have failed miserably in that responsibility.

Where did we go wrong? Or, rather, where are we going wrong?

In order to understand this, we need to see rivers not in isolation, but as part of a climatic system.

Natural ecosystems

The regularity and quantity of precipitation is one of the important factors that decide how a river flows. For instance, in the wadis (valleys) of the Arabian Peninsula, rare, torrential rain causes dry gullies to flood and empty themselves within hours of the rain falling. While closer home, we have placid rivers like the Narmada that used to flow smoothly for most of the year, with an increase during the monsoon.

An additional factor evolved over millions of years to influence a river’s flow: natural ecosystems. These range from desert systems, which can lie dormant for years and spring up within hours of rainfall to cover the earth with plants and blossoms, to tropical evergreen forests that circulate thousands of cubic meters of water daily. In temperate zones, four-season deciduous ecosystems developed, to lie dormant during the winter months when it is too cold to function. In the tropics, three-season deciduous forests evolved, to lie dormant during the summer, which is the hostile season in these areas.

All this is known.

Yet, the simple connection that a certain type of forest evolved to exploit a given set of circumstances, notably rainfall patterns and latitude, appears to have evaded most planning processes.

Levelling forests for settlements

The development of animal husbandry and agriculture has led to the historical exploitation of natural resources. In places where those practices were unsustainable, there is desert today, for example, in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and parts of Lebanon. While in places where the practices were sustainable, the land continued to produce bountifully.

So what effect does a forest or a natural ecosystem have on a river’s flow?

In a nutshell, the desert wadi (valley) floods and drains itself within hours of rainfall because the rock does not let rainwater permeate into it. But where the rain falls on forests or even grasslands, a good part, if not all, of the precipitation sinks into the ground, to be released into streams and rivers over a period of months.

Where the precipitation falls on forests that evolved undisturbed over centuries in coordination with the local climate, there is no run-off and consequently, no flood. Remember, water is a valuable resource, not only to us but to plants, too, and every effort is made throughout nature to retain water as long as possible.

Forests retain water

The quantity of water retained is staggering. Recently, the Bhimtal basin in Uttarakhand received 20 cm of rain, yet the stream flowing into the lake remained almost dry. This means that the entire rainfall sank into the soil, to recharge underground water systems. Given a catchment area of around 10 km x 2 km, the amount of rain held by the hillsides is in the region of 1 lakh cubic meters from a single heavy downpour in a single Himalayan valley.

If one considers that the area receives more than 10 times the amount during the year, one will better understand the staggering amount of water being held on the hillsides of Uttarakhand and other parts of India too.

Conversely, where natural forest has been destroyed, this is the amount of water not being held on the hillsides. Instead, like a desert wadi, the water rushes down the hillsides, into streams and rivulets, that join together to form one of the most fearsome aspects of nature, a river in spate.

It was only when natural systems got disturbed that floods began. This is not a recent phenomenon. The forests of Uttarakhand were destroyed centuries ago, when settlers from the plains found the area to be a haven from disease and persecution. The equable climate ensured a large population, and vast animal husbandry and agricultural operations were undertaken. The few river valleys were soon occupied and terraces began to spread across hillsides. The major crops were wheat, millets and rice. Maize, tomatoes, potatoes, apples, stone fruit and other crops were introduced by the British during the 19th century. The point is that wheat, millets and rice are all grasses, so agriculture meant the conversion of forests to grasslands.

The manufacture of ghee meant that lots of cattle were raised. An old lady I spoke to remembered fondly that her father had a hundred cows. Buttermilk was in such excess that it used to be thrown away by the bucketful. Most important, not a blade of fodder was grown. The entire operation was dependent on the local forest. Is it a surprise then that floods in the Ganga are not new?

The same can be said for most South Indian rivers. The landscape has never been considered in India. Is it a surprise then, that an unmanaged landscape with a dense human population is causing disaster after disaster?

In the Kedarnath disaster of 2013, thousands of people died. In Rudraprayag district alone, more than 30 hotels were washed away. These hotels had been built in flagrant disregard of Supreme Court directives banning any construction within 200 meters of the high water mark of rivers. Yet, no one was prosecuted or punished for permitting such hotels to be built. When I raised the matter, I was shouted down for starting a “blame game” amid such sorrow. Therefore, the people largely responsible for such a large loss of life walked away scot-free, and now when there is a repeat of the scenario on a smaller scale, the government seeks funds rather than seeking culprits.

Disaster prevention, not management

The emphasis of our planning process is on disaster management and disaster response, not disaster prevention. We have never been strong on that front. In fact, that is why Lord Mountbatten came to be the first Governor General of Independent India.

During Partition, as trains from Pakistan continued to arrive full of corpses and the fires of religious upheaval spread throughout the country, Nehru and other senior Congress leaders asked Mountbatten to take over the reins of government. Mountbatten questioned the wisdom of the move, considering that he had just been representing Britain in the handover of power. But Nehru is said to have justified the move by claiming that the Congress was well versed in agitation, not governance.

Thereafter, Mountbatten took over, ordered the guards of the trains with corpses to be summarily executed upon arrival and other preventive and punitive measures. Order was soon restored.

In the last 30 years, miscreants and criminals had got into the habit of setting Himalayan forests on fire. Their apologists claimed that the forest fires were natural, that it was a part of animal husbandry practices, and that new equipment for fighting forest fires were needed.

When the government clamped down on forest arsonists in the first half of May after several forest fires, more than 200 people were arrested in Uttarakhand alone. The result was swift and resounding – there were practically no fires in the second half of May and June, when the entire western Himalaya was a tinderbox with freshly shed dry pine needles covering the ground.

Similarly, the solution to the flood problem will only be possible when we start looking to preventive, rather than damage control methods.