Poor dam management, manipulated flood lines in Maharashtra leave people living along riverbanks at the mercy of raging waters during monsoons

  • The rainfall pattern is getting erratic by the day, where dry spells are widening and days of torrential rains increasing, which exposes people who live close to the rivers to further flooding.

  • In February 2015, the National Green Tribunal asked the irrigation department to come up with flood lines for all the rivers in Maharashtra.

  • Between 5 and 8 August last year, western Maharashtra witnessed unprecedented rainfall, which led to the overflowing of rivers Panchganga, Bhogavati, Koyna and Warna.

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on Maharashtra’s water management process. Read Part I here

An L-shaped, half-baked, brick-walled structure stands amid a pile of debris and a worn-out plant. Three construction workers are busy plastering the structure with cement. Sitting right across, Vijay Patil supervises the revival of the house that was his fully functional home only about eight months ago.

“The budgeted expense is around Rs 30 lakh,” he said, wearing a track pant and a t-shirt. “The house was entirely underwater for almost a week in August. It collapsed after the water receded and we could not recover anything from inside. After managing to put together some amount via loans and borrowings, we began constructing the house recently.”

Patil’s story mirrors the story of his tier two town of Sangli, which is limping back to normalcy after ravaging floods ruptured people’s lives in the first week of August 2019. Cracks on the floor of homes, dampened walls of the cafes and the flood levels daubed in blood red on a school building testify that this town in western Maharashtra is still reeling from the aftermath.

 Poor dam management, manipulated flood lines in Maharashtra leave people living along riverbanks at the mercy of raging waters during monsoons

Vijay Patil's house collapsed soon after the floods last August. Image courtesy Parth MN

Between 5 and 8 August last year, western Maharashtra witnessed unprecedented rainfall, which led to the overflowing of rivers Panchganga, Bhogavati, Koyna and Warna. These rivers are basically tributaries of Krishna, the largest river in Maharashtra that flows through Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur before meeting the Bay of Bengal. The three towns and around 600 villages located along Krishna were worst affected with 50 deaths. It even rendered more than 2 lakh people displaced, 10,000 families homeless. The then chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, had asked for an aid of Rs 6,813 crore from the Centre to carry out the rehabilitation process.

Recollecting the horrors of those days, Patil, a sugarcane farmer, said he swam through the lanes to rescue some of the cattle owned by him and his neighbours. “My wife and kids stayed with her parents,” he said. “And I stayed at a friend’s house that was located up the hill. The devastation and the force of nature still give me nightmares. It is something I have never seen before.”

The last time western Maharashtra experienced severe flooding was back in 2005. People who lived through thought that they had seen the worst. In the village of Padmale, merely 4 kilometres from Sangli town, residents said when the water levels started rising, they moved their precious belongings to the “safe” elevated level, which the 2005 floods had not breached. But the 2019 floods made a mockery of it.

Yasmin Mulla, a resident of Padmale, located along the river Krishna, said they had to take a boat to get out of the village to a safer place. “When we came back, the pungent odour had spread across the village because of the death of livestock,” she said. “It took us 15 days to merely clean the house. Our onion harvest had been floating around, the sewage water had entered the kitchen, and dead rats had been hanging on the gate. We even found little crocodiles and snakes in the water that had ruptured our house.”

Yasmin Mulla, a resident of Padmale, located along the river Krishna, had to take a boat to get out of the village to a safer place during the floods in August last year. Image courtesy Parth MN

Yasmin Mulla, a resident of Padmale, located along the river Krishna, had to take a boat to get out of the village to a safer place during the floods in August last year. Image courtesy Parth MN

The green walls of her tin-roofed, one-room apartment are still damp. The brown floor has cracks like an old man’s palm. “By the time we had done cleaning up, our feet had injuries because of constantly being under dirty water,” she said. “The smell did not leave the shack for a month.”

After touring the affected areas post the floods, Fadnavis had held a press conference in which he virtually blamed nature for the disaster.

“In 2005, Sangli experienced 200 percent rain in 31 days. In 2019, 750 percent of rainfall occurred in nine days alone. In Kolhapur, 31 days of 2005 recorded 160 percent rainfall while in 2019, Kolhapur saw 180 percent rainfall in nine days. The rainfall all over was unprecedented. The combined effect of the Krishna, Koyna and Panchaganga rivers caused the current flood situation,” he told reporters.

The torrential rainfall did play its part, largely owing to climate change. But experts believe it was a human-made disaster, exacerbated by shoddy dam management and urbanisation along the rivers that minimise the capacity of catchment areas to hold and absorb rainwater.

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Shortly after the flooding, the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRAP) released a report stating that the disaster could have been averted with better dam management since the spells of heavy rainfall came with a warning.

The floods in Sangli and Kolhapur transpired at a time when water from three major dams of Koyna, Warna and Radhanagari in the upper Krishna basin was released. The report noted that the irrigation department might say they had no choice but to release the water since the dams were full, but the moot question is why the dams were full when the IMD had predicted heavy rainfall in the coming days.

After the 2005 floods, the SANDRAP report pointed out, the government had appointed a committee but its conclusions were never released in the public domain. “We need to ensure that the water stored in dams is judiciously released to make way for possible high rainfall incidences and release schedules should be strictly followed. The information needs to put in public domain so that accountability can be fixed,” it said.

The report further blamed our obsession with “development”, which reduces the rivers’ water carrying capacity. “We need to focus on creation of local water harvesting systems, wetlands, forests and other groundwater-recharging,” it said.

Elaborating that point further, some of the activists in Maharashtra held a press conference on 20 August 2019, stating how Fadnavis allowed the builder lobby’s access to the “no development zone” by ignoring the flood lines around Panchganga river in Kolhapur. The claim was made after an RTI query revealed that the authorities had been using the flood levels as flood lines in Kolhapur’s development plan since 1999 when the two are supposed to be different markers.

Flood levels refer to the levels attained by excessive water at the time of flooding. As far as Kolhapur is concerned, it had recorded the flood levels for the deluge of 1984, 1989, and 2005 based on a social survey.

Flood lines are of two kinds: blue and red. The red line refers to the maximum water level possible once in 100 years. Blue line, on the other hand, is the maximum flood discharge in an average of 25 years. The lines essentially demark the “no development zone”.

In February 2015, the National Green Tribunal asked the irrigation department to come up with flood lines for all the rivers in Maharashtra. In June 2018, when the department surveyed Panchganga – the river near Kolhapur that flooded the city – the flood lines turned out to be further than what Kolhapur’s development plan had been assuming.

“Because they had been using the same marker for flood levels and flood lines, 500 hectares of land, or 1,250 acres, were therefore considered as a development zone when it was actually a prohibitive zone for construction,” said architect Sarang Yadwadkar, who, along with seven others, brought out the information under RTI. “Floods that ruptured Kolhapur did not have any space to flow and disperse because of the constructions. Obstructions in the river are like the cholesterol in our arteries. It compounds the flood levels.”

Because substantial investments had already been made in that no development zone, the developers got nervous, for they realised many of their investments suddenly fell in the no-development zone.

The Krishna river. Image courtesy Parth MN

The Krishna river. Image courtesy Parth MN

In October 2018, the Contractors and Real Estate Development Association of India (CREDAI) took note of it. Its Kolhapur division wrote to the then chief minister protesting the expansion of “no development zone”. The letter pointed out that the work carried out by the irrigation department is being done through a private company.

“All the development projects have been cleared based on the flood lines used in Kolhapur’s development plan,” the letter read. “It uses the flood levels of 1989 as a benchmark. It does not seem prudent to draw new flood lines. It can create panic within the citizens of the city.”

Soon after, in April 2019, a new proposal regarding the marking of the flood lines came into being. The estimated water discharge for the blue line, which was 2,14,395 cubic feet per second, was brought down to 97,186 CuSecs. Regarding the red line, it was pegged at 1,22,400 – down from 3,14,088 CuSecs. The following month, IIT Bombay approved the proposal.

“IIT runs a software, which looks at the assumed water flow, and determines if the flood lines are drawn accordingly,” said Yadwadkar. “It does not look at whether the water flow was scientifically decided. It is obvious that the no-development zone would shrink once you lower the estimated water discharge during floods. The contested 500 hectares were kept out of the flood lines. The same area was submerged in these floods.”

Experts believe that such skulduggery only worsens our chances of dealing with a climate disaster. The rainfall pattern is getting erratic by the day, where dry spells are widening and days of torrential rains increasing, which exposes people who live close to the rivers to further flooding.

Back in Sangli, Sindhu Sakhare, living in Matang wada located 200 feet from Krishna River, had to see her house collapse during the 2019 floods. She now lives in a rented place just a few blocks away. “It is only a few months before the monsoon begins,” she said while washing clothes not too far from her collapsed house. “I make my living by doing household chores. And I now have to set aside Rs 1,500 a month for the rent. Last year’s floods cost me a lot financially. I cannot afford another one of those.”

The author is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India’s ‘WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme

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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2020 01:23:05 IST