Taming the beast of Jhelum

Living on the edge Will a parallel flood channel save Srinagar?, Photo: Faisal Khan
Living on the edge Will a parallel flood channel save Srinagar? Photo: Faisal Khan

“The Jhelum had gone crazy,” says Muhammad Abdullah Khan, a tenant at Rajbagh in Srinagar, as he drew the picture of the surging river between its banks on 7 September. “Like a mighty beast, it rumbled down Srinagar with great force, cut through borders and broke into homes, shops and godowns. It destroyed Srinagar, all in a day of madness.”

But a month later, as the water has receded to reveal death and destruction, Jhelum is sober again. Much like a caressed pet animal, the river, shrunken far beneath its flanks, flows inconspicuously through Srinagar. The menacing dark water is back to a gentle muddy green.

But the Jhelum has lost the trust of its people. Having seen its overnight transformation into a roiling sea of water, the people want the river tamed before it makes another go at Srinagar. Hence a rush to put together a workable plan to rein it in.

The Central Water Commission has initiated a study after Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah wrote to the PMO, requesting it to find out the reasons for the massive floods and means of prevention. A team of experts would submit their report by the end of this month.

There are several proposals on the cards, one of which and the most important is to build a parallel flood plain, which in times of excess water in the Jhelum will split the river. Though there is an existing short-distance flood plain from Padshahi Bagh to Narbal built by Maharaja Pratap Singh around a century ago, its carrying capacity has diminished over the years from 17,000 cusecs of water to 6,000 cusecs. That is why when more than 100,000 cusecs of water came rushing down the Jhelum, the state government had nowhere to divert it.

The plan to build a parallel flood channel for the Jhelum has a long pedigree, but lacking funds and will, successive state governments have delayed its implementation. In the late 1970s, the state government led by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah had mooted the idea of a long flood channel that will skirt Srinagar. In 1976, the government constituted a committee headed by famous hydrologist Dr HS Uppal.

The Uppal committee recommended various measures for flood control, one of which was the digging of an alternative channel that would extend from Awantipura in south Kashmir to Wular lake in north Kashmir.

Another plan conceived by the state’s engineers is a channel from Padshahi Bagh to Wular lake. “There is now a proposal to revive the plan,” says Chief Engineer (Flood Control) Javed Jaffar. “We are trying to figure out the most feasible way out.”

Though a parallel flood channel is the most ambitious part of the flood protection measures, experts are stressing the need to strengthen the river bunds and dredge the Jhelum. “We have ignored bunds for long. It was their weakness that proved fatal this time as they gave way at strategic spots,” says Saleem Beg, a member of the National Monuments Authority, adding that the deepening of the Jhelum was also important. “It has been years since we have dredged the Jhelum in Srinagar. This needs to be done in right earnest.”

There is also a plan to split the Jhelum through its course in Srinagar. But such an idea has found few buyers for the reason that this would deprive Srinagar of the Jhelum, an inextricable part of its culture and identity. “Srinagar can’t be Srinagar without the Jhelum,” says Beg. “If the river is split, it will leave a trickle in both channels.”

Efforts are on to conserve the Jhelum as well as manage its fury by creating alternative channels for the diversion of the floodwater during the river’s passage through Srinagar. “This can’t be done without generous financial help from the Centre,” says Jaffar. “We hope unlike the last time, New Delhi speeds up the process of releasing funds. This will help us begin the work in right earnest.”

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