The reality behind the statistics and headlines of man made disasters are too grim for words.
Flooding has always threatened human habitation, but it is happening too often in recent times with disastrous consequences in unexpected places. Much larger in scale than in the past, urban floods have become a serious phenomenon. If floods had taken water-stressed Chennai by surprise in 2015, it had shell shocked planned city of Chandigarh in 2017, and had aamchi Mumbai reeling under its impact in 2019. The repeat occurrence of devastating Kerala floods of 2018 has exposed ‘once-in-a-100-years’ flood theory to serious questioning. The havoc that the floods wreaked this year in several parts of the country clearly indicate that there is more to come, perhaps even worse. That floods don’t just happen but are caused adds another twist to the long tale of floods in the country. Piecing together the collective failure of the authorities to protect its inhabitants from an avoidable tragedy in Chennai in 2015, Krupa Ge brings to life the agony of the trapped in a touching account of those unforgiving waters of the city rivers, relentless in reclaiming their rights over their course in Rivers Remember.
In what reads like a virtual charge sheet on those responsible for water (mis)management, including storage, distribution and disposal, Ge is clear in her indictment on how violation of provisions for effective urban planning were compromised for the worst to occur. Such is the nature of polity and governance that none gets penalized for making thousands to suffer for no fault of theirs! Armed with responses to several RTI applications, the narrative provides an authoritative reading on how not to manage water whatever be the situation.
Rarely have lessons been learnt though, as callousness coupled with absolute arrogance remains prime in the abuse of nature. In his travels through the ecologically rich landscape of the Western Ghats, journalist Viju B found striking evidence of such attitude in the devastation unleashed through mining, quarrying, and deforestation in Flood and Fury. Combining travel writing and reportage with readings of history and literature, the author elaborates the way floods have been shaped into the region by blocking natural channels through structural changes in land use.
Written with an investigative flair, these timely books on the experience of being flooded are a forewarning as the planet warms and the waters rise. With several places experiencing submergence under 12-15 feet of water in recent times, the challenge of managing disaster in the present reality is too hard to ignore. In their no-holds barred explanation, Ge and Viju mince no words to proclaim that public institutions are caught in a time warp – nowhere close to matching the speed, enormity, and ferocity of water-induced disasters.
The reality behind the statistics and headlines of such man made disasters are too grim for words. As relentless rains over a shorter window become a recurring phenomenon, enhancing storm drains’ capacity and improving dam outflow management to buffer sudden spike in monsoon outbursts has never been more compelling. Ironically, the political-economy of investment in water sector only encourages obfuscation of investigations on the causes of floods, and any directives on promoting conservation over development get glossed over.
Chennai and Kerala disasters bear testimony to the business-as-usual approach, which not too long ago consumed 280 and 483 human lives respectively. Both books remind us that these were not isolated, freak incidents to be lost to history. Instead, these signal something graver as human interference and alterations to the natural landscape is forcing nature to become bitterly hostile all across. Humans may have short memories but not rivers, which remember to follow their course whatever be the situation and dislodge any obstruction that comes their way.
Krupa Ge digs into the history and culture of the Cooum, Adyar and Kasasthalaiyar rivers to construct the why and how of what befell the city in 2015. Her investigations do not auger any optimism for the future though, as things have begun to regress to inanity. For Viju B, the gross indifference to the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has led to its undoing in Kerala in particular, and the Western Ghats in general. Both books are wake up call for planners and politicians to see beyond short-term vested interests.
Rivers Remember and Flood and Fury are welcome addition to limited books on the subject. While basin-level planning, eco-restoration of catchments, and improving the drainage systems are all but known, use of remote sensing in predicting weather and forecasting floods alongside effective inter-agency coordination can help minimize impact of manmade floods. Without doubt, there is a need to go back on the drawing board to manage swirling waters in the 21st century.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)