Question mark over Srinagar

Under the deluge Srinagar’s famous Lal Chowk went under water during the recent flood, Photo: Faisal Khan
Under the deluge Srinagar’s famous Lal Chowk went under water during the recent flood, Photo: Faisal Khan

Until a flood protection plan is put in place, a prohibitively expensive proposition that offers a viable solution for the excess discharge in Jhelum, Srinagar seems to have become a sitting duck to the fury of the river. The city has a long history of floods, prompting one of its poets Hakim Habibullah to pen an anthology Sailabnama on the natural calamity.

As the rain-swollen Jhelum once again threatened to sink the city last week, a mere seven months after the apocalyptic September flood, the government came up with an elaborate evacuation plan for Srinagar.

Residents of Tankipora, Sutra Shahi, Balgarden and Karan Nagar were asked to assemble at Karan Nagar Crossing to be relocated to flood evacuee shelters at Old Secretariat, community facilitation centre (Chota Bazaar) and CFC (Basant Bagh).

Similarly, residents in Solina, Alochi Bagh, Sarai Bala, Magarmal Bagh and Kashi Mohalla were asked to gather at Bostan Restaurant, Iqbal Park to be moved to the shelters to a community hall in Nowhatta and another in Rosebal Khanyrar. And this is but a fragment of the elaborate evacuation plan for Srinagar.

With six months of hot weather ahead, including three months of summer, the possibility of recurrent spells of rain along with the high altitude snow-melt holds a scary prospect of yet another deluge for an already devastated city. And thereby hangs a big question mark over its future.

Due to sustained neglect over the past century, siltation and encroachment, the 47.10-km-long spill channel can now carry barely 12,000 cusecs of water. The channel was built by British engineers after the floods of 1897 and 1902. The channel had a carrying capacity of 17,500 cusecs of water. It relieved the river of its excess discharge before entering Srinagar. This is why when more than 1.20 lakh cusecs of water came rumbling down the Jhelum in September 2014, the authorities had no place to divert it.

Ever since the separatist movement broke out in the Valley in 1989, Srinagar has been witnessing a juggernaut of illegal constructions virtually choking the breath out of the city. Several unregulated residential colonies have come up in recent times with builders bribing municipal officials to get on with the construction work. So, what you have is a mass of cement and bricks taking shape in all its ugliness across large swathes of the orchards, green highlands, paddies, swamps, flood plains, canals and even on the Dal Lake.

“Jhelum’s flow capacity has reduced to 35,000 cusecs and the spill channel can carry only 12,000 cusecs. While we can handle only 47,000 cusecs, more than that will overflow into Srinagar,” says Javed Jaffar, chief engineer, J&K’s Flood Control Department. “We are trying to increase the capacity to 60,000 cusecs by the end of this year. But faced again with one lakh cusecs, we find our hands tied.”

The only long term remedy to flood is another spill channel extending all the way from Dogripora in South Kashmir, bypassing Srinagar and emptying into Wular, a major lake in North Kashmir. But the channel, which will cover a distance of 80 km, will need Rs 20,000 crore to construct. The cost is likely to escalate thanks to problems such as land acquisition. The channel will have a discharge capacity of 55,000 cusecs.

“The Dogripora-Wullar spill channel is vital as it can save Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir from floods in future,” Jaffar says adding the desiltation of Jhelum can also increase its flow capacity from 35,000 to 45,000 cusecs. The J&K government has received a green signal from the Union ministry of water resources to formulate a Detailed Project Report (DPR) on the channel.

But the creation of an alternative spill channel, Jaffar agrees, is a long haul. “It is an ambitious project that will take a long time to complete. And the cost too is steep,” says Jaffar. “We are still in the process of preparing a DPR. The start of the work will have to wait for the project’s approval by Centre and the release of funds.”

And until that happens, Srinagar cannot live under constant fear of flooding with its fallout on the city’s economic life. In September, the deluge sunk Srinagar’s major markets like Lal Chowk, Maisuma Residency Road, Hari Singh High Street and Karan Nagar under 10 feet to 15 feet of water turning the merchandise into slush. The flooded Lal Chowk, with the marooned Ghanta Ghar, a red-brick clock tower, became the defining image of the deluge. The destroyed stock lay outside shops in rows of giant muddy mounds — rotting rice, spices and dal, slush-soaked ready-to-wear garments, hotel waste, heaps of books and stationery, strewn TVs and desktops and scattered jewellery cases. The shopkeepers, who are the backbone of Srinagar’s economy, have not been compensated for their losses.

So, when last week the torrential rain created conditions of another flood, the shopkeepers took no chances. All merchandise was loaded onto carriers and transported to safer locations. It wasn’t easy for the departmental stores with massive stocks, or for furniture shops or automobile showrooms. “It is not possible to run business in a recurrent flood scare,” says Siraj-u-Din who runs a chemist’s shop at Hazuri Bagh. “But we also can’t afford to ignore the weather like the last time.”

A similar chaos prevailed in the residential neighbourhoods along the course of Jhelum, all of them still under the hangover of the September flood. People moved their household things to the second and third floors. A significant number of residents fled to their kin at safer locations or sent their children and elder members, leaving the younger ones behind to keep watch. Similarly, those who had just returned to their flood-hit homes from their rented accommodation in safer areas thought of going back.

“I sent my children and wife to my in-laws and stayed back to look after the house,” says Farooq Ahmad Lone of Shivpora. The said area was badly affected in the September flood. Two of the three-storey house of Ahmad were under flood water for two weeks. “I kept awake throughout the night fearing that rainwater would enter the house anytime.”

The scare was most palpable at Jawahar Nagar, a posh Srinagar colony, which was inundated with rainwater. Some of the affected areas in the colony resembled a war site. In September, a 20-feet wall of water had left the residences tottering on their foundations. Many houses caved in, while others had half the structures standing, and those which looked intact had sustained gaping cracks in the walls.

Around 2.53 lakh houses were damaged in Valley during the September flood, making it the worst disaster in the history of the state.

September flood also hit tourism hard. Overnight the tourist arrivals reduced to zero with all hotel bookings up to early winter cancelled. This impelled the tourism department to embark on an aggressive publicity campaign to lure back tourists. The department held local level events, interactions with tour operators outside the state and festivals to dispel the notion that Kashmir was not safe to travel after floods. And just when the tourists were wending their way back, another flood scare drove them away in a big blow to already reeling hotel industry. Adding to the problems was the overflowing of Dal Lake onto a portion of the Boulevard, a tourist haunt that circles the lake and leads to the Valley’s famous Mughal gardens.

This led former CM Omar Abdullah to post a series of tweets urging the tourists not to call off their J&K holidays. “The tourist industry had a disastrous autumn and a bad winter because of the floods. Finally things were looking up in April,” he tweeted while appealing to tourists to not to cancel their hotel booking.

But the tweets hardly made a difference as the situation in the Valley did not improve. Local small and big businesses have to look for the alternative places at safer locations to shift in the event of an emergency. And same also goes for the large residential neighbourhoods where people think of either shifting their home or having an alternative home on a higher ground to go to.

This has created an abiding uncertainty about the city which only partially lifts when sky clears up. Over the past seven months, the focus has shifted to the daily weather forecasts in the state. In the past week as torrential rains augured another flood, a Radio Kashmir broadcast informed people about the hourly status of discharge in Jhelum. The weather analysis in Ladakhi-accented Urdu made people sit up and take note.

Meanwhile, weather experts are already sounding a warning. “If we are lucky this week, the probability of flood will increase with every passing day till September this year. This is primarily due to a very high groundwater levels across the Valley,” wrote Shakil Ramshoo, leading glaciologist on his Facebook post.

Should this scenario come to pass, what will happen to Srinagar? Can the city take another battering? No. Considering the abysmal state of its current infrastructure, the city will remain vulnerable to more drownings in the event of extreme turns in weather.

This brings Srinagar face to face with one of its most serious survival issues in its more than 2,000 years of history. But back then Srinagar was not as sprawling, congested and spread out as it is now, with a population of around 1.3 million. There is now a substantial chunk of its population living in the close vicinity of Jhelum, besides markets and the vital government installations such as health, administrative and security infrastructure that could once again be swamped.

“As things stand now, there is little to create confidence. The fear is greater if the weather takes an extended wetter turn, say for some years to come,” says Ramshoo who has warned for many years about the Valley’s melting glaciers due to change in the climate. “This is why the urgent need is to simultaneously work on short and long term measures to preempt another catastrophe of the scale of 2014. That could wreak havoc with the city.”

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