Flood fury

  • 14/10/2001

Flood fury Hope was the most precious commodity for drought-rava-ged Orissa a few months ago. So when the monsoon of 2001 reached the state on time, there was jubilation. But incessant rains for 40 days starting from the first week of July ebbed this jubila-tion. In its worst ever flood recorded in the last century, 25 of the 30 districts were inundated affecting one-third of its 30 million residents.

Nobody expected the flood. In fact, Gulapi Bag, a resident of Baudh dis-trict’s Kapasira village and Manglu, her husband voluntarily withdrew from the government’s food-for-work pro-gramme under drought relief operation to till the land in the hope of a bumper harvest. “Rain was abundant until it took a killer proportion,” says Gulapi. The seeds she bought and sowed were washed away as river Tel, the largest tributary of Mahanadi, swelled after incessant rain in its catchment. The couple is in distress today. “We are left with nothing. We sit staring out at the vast swathes of waterlogged land,” says Manglu.

Ironically, the monsoon precipita-ted over the parched Kalahandi district. Within a week of the monsoon’s arrival, the district got half of its average annual rainfall. The state experienced nine bouts of flood within a span of just 15 days, and 15 floods in 30 days from July 8, 2001 till the end of August, 2001.

This year’s floods caused collosal damage submerging areas with no his-tory of floods such as districts in western Orissa. Traditionally, the undivided dis-tricts of Cuttack, Balesore and Puri in the delta are flood-prone. Kalahandi, Koraput and Phulbani never experi-enced floods but when they did, the dis-trict administration was caught unawa-res. At a recent meeting organised by the United Nations Development Pro-gramme (UNDP), the state government officials admitted that the emergency plans of these districts never mentioned a line about floods.

Moreover, the state government agrees that the 2001 floods were more devastating than the 1982 floods. The 2001 floods were deadly because the Mahanadi, the Brahmani and the Baitarani rivers, sharing a common delta, flooded simultaneously (see table: Jammed! ).

Orissa"s four major rivers drain into the sea through a common delta which is only 6.02 per cent of their combined catchment. This makes the coastal region extremely flood prone

River Length (km) Catchment basin (million ha) Delta (million ha) Protected from flood (million ha) Embankment (km) Deltaic area in per cent of catchment basin
  Mahanadi 853 13.26 0.764 0.345 880.0 5.76
  Brahmani 702 3.64 0.222 0.068 208.0 6.10
  Baitarani 344 1.04 0.171 0.075 120.0 10.47
  Subarnarekha - 1.95 - 0.025 39.0 -
As the flood inundated upland Kalahandi and moved towards the coastal districts, a hapless state govern-ment resorted to knee-jerk decisions. Astonishingly enough, it allowed the Hirakud reservoir to fill upto the brim despite reports of heavy downpour in its upstream. As a result, when the safety aspect of the dam was raised, the dam authority had to open 51 gates which added more water to Mahanadi which by then had already crossed the danger mark. In 1994 too, the government had done something similar. It had filled up the reservoir till its maximum level and later had to release water causing devas-tating floods in the coastal areas. “The government has not learnt anything from the past,” says Jagdanand, a flood expert based in Bhubaneswar.

Between 1834 and 1926, the state experienced six major floods with an average interval of 3.86 years, says a study published by the Bhubaneswar-based Council of Professional Social Workers (CPSW), which brings out the report on Orissa’s environment. The report says that immediately after the great famine of 1866 due to massive pond digging activities, flood occurrences were reduced till 1870s. “But by the 1930s, its impact petered out and the long run forces of ecological erosion had taken over with shrinking periodi-cities of floods between 1926 and 1955,” says the report. During this period, the frequency of flood was one in a decade. But between 1961-2000, floods had become an annual affair.

The floodwater in the state is yet to recede. But the debate over the role of the state’s largest flood control instru-ment, the Hirakud dam on Mahanadi, has intensified. While a group of state officials and a former chief minister lobby for another big dam on Mahanadi to control floods, a group of environ-mentalists say that there is no point in building any other big dam because the Hirakud dam has failed to control floods.

“The Hirakud dam has been utterly ineffective in flood control,” says Arta-bandhu Mishra of Sambalpur Univer-sity’s school of environmental studies. This dam was built in 1958 to control floods in the coastal districts. But with heavy siltation, the dam’s purpose has been defeated (see box: Opening the floodgates ).

Besides, the long chain of embank-ments, built before and after indepen-dence, aggravate the flood situation. In the current floods, 591 breaches were reported in these embankments and res-idents forcefully stopped government engineers trying to create artificial breaches in at least 20 places. “Embank-ments have divided people in the coastal areas as it protects one section but takes a toll on the other,” says Bhagwan Sahoo, a farmer of Damarpur village in Kendrapada district whose fields have turned fallow.

These embankments are supposed to provide protection against low inten-sity and flash floods. But as floods become more fierce in both intensity and duration, the embankments have failed to control floods. “The current floods prove that embankments create more flood-affected areas than what they protect,” says Jagdanand.“But con-struction of embankments has not stopped due to the nexus of contractors and politicians. Poor quality of the new ones and the poorly-maintained old embankments result in breaches and devastation,” says Manoj Pradhan, director, CPSW, and a member of National Climate Change Network, a network of NGOs dealing with climate change and its repercussions.

The history of floods in Orissa has reinforced one fact: big dams and embankments have failed to control flood. In fact, they have aggravated it.

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