Residents of the Kashmir Valley spent an anxious weekend after a spell of rainfall led to a rise in the level of the Jhelum river, resulting in a flood alert. By Saturday, at least two persons had drowned in floods in the Valley while three lost their lives in the Jammu region.

On Sunday, Baseer Khan, divisional commissioner, Kashmir, said the situation was being “closely monitored at all levels”. The local weather department warned of the “possibility of heavy rain” in some parts of the state on July 3. The Jhelum river, which passes through Srinagar district on its way to Pakistan, may just swell again.

Ever since the river spilled over its banks in 2014, leading to devastating floods in Kashmir, any sign of the Jhelum swelling has led to considerable alarm among local residents. At least 280 people were killed in the 2014 floods across the state, and property worth crores was also damaged.

Last year, panic struck when a flood alert was issued after heavy rain caused water-logging in parts of the Valley. A similar panic had also spread in September 2015, when Kashmir was still recovering from the 2014 deluge.

The state government’s response to the threat of flooding has largely consisted of dredging the Jhelum riverbed to increase its capacity.

In 2015, for instance, the government awarded a Rs 46 crore contract to a Kolkata-based private company to dredge the Jhelum.

BL Bhardwaj, superintending engineer of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department in Srinagar, claimed that dredging undertaken in the river over the last two years had ensured that it did not spill over when the Valley received heavy rain.

But has dredging really helped prevent the Jhelum from flooding?

Flood management plans

According to Shakil Romshoo, head of the Kashmir University’s earth sciences department, the drainage capacity of the Jhelum has significantly reduced over time due to massive siltation and because dredging has not kept pace with the rate of siltation.

Romshoo added that the loss of wetlands that absorb water during the floods have also reduced the storage capacity of the river basin. “As a result, the Jhelum swells up quickly after just 100 mm of rainfall in the catchment, as witnessed in 2015 and again last week,” he said.

After the 2014 floods, a sum of Rs 1,458.7 crore was approved under the Prime Minister’s Development Package for a two-phase flood management plan for the Jhelum. This plan also largely focused on dredging.

The first phase of the plan was allocated Rs 400 crore to dredge and build protection walls at various spots along the Jhelum – from Khanabal in South Kashmir to Baramulla in North Kashmir – and on various works on the existing flood spill channel.

According to a written reply to a question asked in the state legislative council earlier this year, the second phase of the plan is expected to improve the Jhelum’s water carrying capacity “to its maximum capacity of 60,000 cusecs [cubic feet per second] in South Kashmir”. In Srinagar, this capacity is to be increased to 35,000 cusecs. The remaining 25,000 cusecs is to be diverted through the flood spill channel, whose discharge capacity is also proposed to be increased.

The reply said that more long-term measures included the construction of water storage on tributaries of the Jhelum and supplementary flood spill channels. The flood monitoring system of the Jhelum basin would be upgraded “by installing automatic water level recorders, automatic discharge recorders and automatic weather stations etc”, according to the reply.

The flood control department, in collaboration with department of disaster management, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, has also floated an expression of interest for consultancy services to explore the feasibility of these projects and their implications for the environment.

Obstacle course

On the ground, however, there are problems. For instance, in Srinagar, which has seen most of the dredging work so far, the private company hired for the job in 2015 was unable to complete it.

According to Bhardwaj of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department, of the target of dredging 7 lakh cubic meters, about 6.80 lakh cubic metres had been completed. The work could not be completed because of local interference, he claimed. He added that his department was looking at procuring dredging equipment to undertake dredging itself as it is “a continuous process” that must be done “every year or at least every alternate year”.

Another engineer with the flood control department, who did not wish to be identified, said that local residents with political influence had prevented dredging work, particularly along the stretch of the Jhelum in South Kashmir. “Sometimes, locals claim the land is theirs,” he said. “There is no law and order here, it is difficult to work in such a situation.”

Mohammad Sidiq, assistant director with the department of fisheries, said the dredging was done without technical or scientific supervision. He said that any dredging on the Jhelum needed the clearance of the fisheries department as well as the department of geology and mining. “But they are against each other all the time,” he said.

Sidiq said that political support to the illegal extraction of sand and rocks from streams and rivers in the Valley had not only hampered the flow of water but also destroyed aquatic life. “The law we have, our main armour, is outdated,” he said. He also rued the lack of support from the police.

‘Waste of money’

Others have asked if crores should be spent to dredge the Jhelum as the benefits of such a procedure were minuscule.

Iftikhar Drabu, a civil engineer and former regional director for water at the British engineering consultancy, Halcrow, pointed out that no significant measures to contain flooding had been taken in Kashmir since the construction of the Jhelum embankments during Dogra rule before Independence. “Dredging is not the solution, particularly the way it was executed,” he said.

Drabu said any dredging would delay a spillover for barely minutes. He said this is because when the Jhelum river floods, it discharges water at the rate of 1.20 lakh cusecs, or four times its carrying capacity. Thus, even if the Jhelum was dredged properly, it would not be enough.

The government’s flood control plan so far has included dredging about 14 lakh cubic meters of the river, including 7 lakh cubic meters in Srinagar. But Drabu said: “Twelve lakh cubic metres of excavation would provide relief for [only] 20 minutes.”

Drabu said that encroachments along the river were also of concern. “Encroachments by private individuals or by government, through temporary bridges in the flood spill channel or the foot bridge on the Jhelum [in Srinagar], which is located on one of its narrowest reaches, create afflux, reduce flows and increase scour,” he said.

While afflux is a rise in water levels on the upstream side of a bridge, scour is the removal of sediment such as sand and gravel from around bridge abutments or piers by swiftly flowing water, which can compromise the integrity of the structure.

Further, the loss of the traditional floodplain, Kandizal – on which residential colonies have been constructed – has made Srinagar more vulnerable. “Kandizal is the natural floodplain and inundating it has been the traditional approach to flood protection of the city,” said Drabu. “It should be activated during floods and there should not be any politics about it. If you build in a floodplain you should be ready to suffer the consequences.”

Plan and prioritise

Romshoo pointed out that the Jhelum, with its 24 tributaries, is the only drainage system in the Valley and also provides drinking water and irrigation. “[It] therefore has tremendous socio-economic and cultural importance,” he said.

He had several recommendations for the government for a more effective flood management plan.

First, dredging the Jhelum in a scientific manner would have optimised the outcome of the actions and measures taken by the government, he said. “They should have concentrated on Wular [lake], and Jhelum downstream of Srinagar,” said Romshoo. “They did it everywhere in bits and pieces.” He also suggested that authorities could work towards delaying the flow of water from the Vaishav, Rambiara and other tributaries in South Kashmir, which race down steep slopes – which are also largely denuded of trees – to discharge their waters into the Jhelum at Sangam in Anantnag district. They can do this by by creating multiple small dams along their route, he said. Third, he said that flood control infrastructure needed to be strengthened in Srinagar and other major towns. Finally, flood storage infrastructure, as provided under the Indus Water Treaty, should be constructed, said Romshoo.