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Experts highlight that instead of focusing on creating embankments, the government must direct its attention to protecting the catchments area of major rivers.

Why constructing canals is not the solution to floods in Punjab?

  • The state has received normal rain this monsoon season so far
  • With extreme rainfall events on the rise, the disaster potential for flooding in major rivers has only increased

New Delhi: As Punjab government announces a major plan to canalize all rivers of the state to avert another flood-like situation in near future, environmentalists warn that the move could trigger more severe flooding and damage along the flood plains.

The state has received normal rain this monsoon season so far, however the extreme rainfall event around August 17 in the state and adjoining Himachal Pradesh where catchment areas of Satluj river is located caused heavy inflow into the Bhakra Nangal Dam, leading to discharge. The river recorded its highest ever flow in last three decades, carrying nearly 75,000 cusecs more water beyond its capacity of around 2 lakh cusecs.

As many as 14 districts were put on flood alert, as villages were evacuated and crops were damaged. “It was an extreme rainfall event, and these events are on the rise over the last few decades," said Kuldeep Srivastava, Head of Regional Weather Forecasting Centre (RWFC), IMD, New Delhi.

Bhakra Dam, which normally gets filled to its permissible storage level of 1680 feet by September, was overflowing in August, for the first ever time ever.

Post the floods, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh that the government would canalize all rivers of the state with technical support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He said the move to realign river streams and courses, besides strengthening and widening of the river embankments would serve as a ‘permanent solution to the problem of floods’- a claim widely criticized by experts.

“When embankments along river Yamuna could not prevent floods in Delhi, how will it save Punjab? River needs space to flow. If we interfere with its flow, we will face repercussions," said noted ecologist Dr Brij Gopal, former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

There are concerns that permanent embankments would lead to more human settlements along the flood plains, causing more damage once the breach takes place, which are “too common".

Citing example of Kosi River in Bihar, retired Indian Forest Service officer, Manoj Mishra who leads the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan said, “Embankments create an illusion that people living alongside them are now safe from floods. More people settle in the floodplains. But look, what has happened in Bihar? The floods have been devastating. Why don’t we learn from our mistakes?"

Experts highlight that instead of focusing on creating embankments, the government must direct its attention to protecting the catchments area of major rivers. “If we had protected our catchment areas well enough, all this damage could have been controlled," said Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy expert based in Punjab, “It is more important, amid concerns of these rivers going dry due to climate change."

It is not the first time, that any state government has proposed constructing canals as a solution to control floods. Uttar Pradesh too, undertook a major project in 2015 to straighten and shorten the Gomti river channel and control the width of its riverbed.

Professor Venkatesh Dutta from Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow who studied this riverfront development said this not only led to decline in freshwater species and deposition of silt in flood plains but lowered the groundwater tables in the city reach.

“Let the river takes its own course. The best we could do is to restore the natural drainage patterns, the wetlands and small rivers which have gone dry. Put a long-term flood management plan by creating a drainage master plan for every river basin," he said.

Dr Veena Srinivasan from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, says the concept of concretizing rivers arose from the West, where authorities built embankments to protect the low-lying areas (below sea-level) from flooding.

“But, none of the cities where the embankments were successful witnessed the kind of extreme rainfall events that we have. In almost all such cases, the rainfall has been largely uniform throughout the year, but in India, rainfall is concentrated during the four months of monsoon," said Dr Srinivasan.

With extreme rainfall events on the rise, the disaster potential for flooding in major rivers has only increased. The pace of development has changed the land-use patterns, especially along the rivers, with increasing number of people living in low-lying areas. Experts highlight that overreliance on concrete based solutions is a cause of concern, especially when it is preceded by lack of any serious evaluation of whether this solution is effective or not.

“Flood is a natural phenomenon, but we have converted it into a disaster. The need is to go to the root cause of the problem. It is a misplaced assumption that dams and constructing canals can prevent floods. Flood plains are meant for passage of water. One cannot alter the natural flow of rivers," said Mishra, "let the rivers flow."