How precise is climate modeling?

It is accurate to the extent that we get a good idea of how things will be in future. We can say that in 2050 or 2100 there will be more heat waves in Europe. Main climate change parameters like temperature and precipitation should not be seen in isolation. As tipping points are being breached in the form of permafrost thawing, vegetation change and coral deaths, it is becoming clear that climate feedbacks have significant impacts on Earth.


What does the paper say?

We are in an unchartered territory as far as the past 1.2 million years of Earth’s history is concerned. The new epoch, Anthropocene, has been proposed based on the differences between Earth system characteristics of the present time and those during Holocene, which started close to 12,000 years ago. Our findings indicate that we have already left the glacial-interglacial cycle of the past 2.6 million years and are heading towards a situation where we cannot rule out temperatures 4-5oC warmer than the pre-Industrial levels.


How far have we gone till now?

We have irreversibly crossed one tipping point, as we are no longer bound in the glacial-interglacial geological cycle. However, we don’t know where we are in relation to whatever new Earth system trajectory would be established later. Some of the Earth’s sub-systems are simple, and it is easy to estimate trajectories and tipping points, but for more complex ones, it’s challenging.


For instance, it is difficult to say how the monsoon will evolve as multiple factors affect it. We are going to see tipping points being crossed with far greater frequency now. Beyond the final point, we will see processes, pathways and conditions, which will likely to be inhospitable for humans as well as other species.


Do we know where this final tipping point exists in terms of temperature?

Unfortunately, we do not know where it exists. At 1.5oC above the per-industrial average (1850s), we would most probably not have breached this tipping point, but we do not know for sure how much warmer it must get for the Earth to spin out of control. We believe this point could be as low as the 2oC mark, which happens to be the upper limit under the Paris Agreement. We need to undertake decarburization, especially in economic sectors like electr4icity, transport, and to a large extent in other areas that currently rely on fossil fuels.


How do you view the IPCC report and the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is an important step towards concerted global climate action. It is our best chance of meeting the challenge, especially in terms of transforming our economic as well as energy systems.

Regarding the IPCC 1.5oC report, I think it is a timely reality check for the world. It is a critical piece of information, as it lays down clearly what is exactly required to steer the Earth towards a stabilized trajectory.

IT’S OFFICIAL now. In order to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, as prescribed in the lower limit of the Paris Agreement, nations have about 12 years to effect a complete transition in economy and society. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5oC (SR 1.5) is unequivocal in its assertion–unless net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are brought down to zero by 2050, warming above 1.5oC is practically inevitable.


The report was commissioned in the wake of the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 as the world wondered what exactly it had agreed to for meeting the 1.5oC and 2oC goals that had been set. Over the next three years, a total of 224 authors and review editors scoured more than 6,000 scientific publications in an effort to glean the facts surrounding the world’s state of climate. Following, 1,113 reviews from around the world, the eagerly anticipated report was released after week-long deliberations by government representatives from 130 countries and 50 scientists in Incheon, South Korea. Over 25 years, IPCC has been tasked with being the white cane to a world that seems determined to step over the edge of a cliff.


The world’s temperatures have already warmed by up to 1.2oC since pre-industrial levels and the impact of this warming is visible in the form of extreme weather events, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice (see ‘How warm is the world today’ on p37). This year alone, various parts of the world was battered by extreme weather events–be it heat waves and drought in Europe and China, forest fires in the US, dust storms and unprecedented rainfall in India (including the historical floods in Kerala) and high precipitation in Japan and other island nations. With a further 0.5oC warming, the effects would be more pronounced than what scientists had previously predicted.


Tipping points

A 1.5oC warmer world will see higher sea levels, higher temperatures and increase in frequency and intensity of precipitation, floods, droughts and heat waves. At 1.5oC, the world would reach some critical thresholds beyond which natural ecosystems would fundamentally change and, in some cases, take millennia to recover. For instance, the sea levels would continue to rise for centuries even if we cap warming at 1.5oC (see ‘Plan B for the planet’ on p82). The thresholds for irreversible, multi-millennial loss of ice sheets in Greenland and the West Antarctica may also be breached. The warming and acidification of the ocean will cause 70-90 per cent loss of corals and will put the survival of many marine species in jeopardy.


If 1.5oC warming will have major impacts, those at 2oC is manageable. Under the Paris Agreement, 1.5oC was put as an aspirational target and 2oC as the “real” target. But this report has turned our understanding of what would happen at 2oC on its head.


A 2oC warmer world will lead to 0.1 m greater sea level rise compared to 1.5oC. This will effectively inundate vast coastal areas, disrupting the lives of 10 million more people. Coral reefs face complete extinction at 2oC and 2 million km2 of permafrost will melt over centuries, risking runaway climate change due to high methane emissions.


Countries like India, which are highly dependent on agriculture, would suffer pronounced impacts in the form of floods, droughts, water scarcity and decrease in food production, exposing a greater proportion of an already vulnerable population to poverty, food and livelihood insecurity.


The difference between 1.5oC and 2oC also means decreased crop productivity and nutritional quality, increased risk of vector-borne diseases and a 50 per cent increase in the extinction rates for plants vertebrates and insects (see ‘Why the world should worry’ on p38).


A tight spot

Along with an estimation of what future warmer worlds would look like, IPCC was also importantly tasked with estimating the remaining carbon budget available to keep the world from warming over 1.5oC. Simulations included in the SR 1.5 show that when considering global mean surface temperature (GMST, which includes surface temperatures of land, ocean and atmosphere as parameters), the world has a total remaining carbon budget of just 770 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2), starting from the beginning of 2018, before it breaches 1.5oC, according to the median value of the simulations. At current emission levels, without the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, this budget would be exhausted by 2040 (see ‘What the world needs to do’ on p40). The report also highlights the fact that even its carbon budget estimate can be way off the mark owing to large uncertainties from earth system feedbacks historical temperatures and non-CO2 greenhouse gas (GHG) forcing.


The simulations also show that limiting global warming to 1.5oC with little or no overshoot would require net anthropogenic CO2 emissions to reduce by up to 45 per cent, relative to 2010 levels, by 2030 and attain net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The world emitted 35.75 GtCO2 in 2016. Since 1990, the rate of CO2 emissions has been rising at over 0.5 GtCO2 every year. Reductions recommended in SR 1.5 imply that limiting global warming to 1.5oC would require emission levels drop to 18.63 GtCO2 per year by 2030, a reduction of nearly 48 per cent from 2016. To limit warming below 2oC, SR 1.5 prescribes a 20 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and a complete phase-out by 2075. Of course CO2 isn’t the only gas with a warming potential that needs to be worried about. Authors of SR 1.5 have stressed that the success of the efforts also depends on a similar reduction of other GHGS such as methane, black carbon and nitrous oxides. However, the rate of increase of non-CO2 GHGS over the past three decades has been nowhere close to the rate of increase in CO2 emissions.


Achieving the cuts requires rapid and “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure, and industrial systems”. There is no silver bullet for deep emission reductions across all sectors it will require political action and significant scale-up of investment on a wide portfolio of mitigation options across sectors.


The energy sector, responsible for almost 90 per cent of world’s CO2 emissions according to the International Energy Agency, will have to meet the demand with lower energy use–including through enhanced energy efficiency–and show faster electrification of end use energy. Low-mission energy sources are projected to have a higher share than at present. Renewable, in particular, are projected to supply 70-85 per cent of electricity in 2050.


IPCC notes that solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have improved substantially over the past few years, signaling a potential transition in electricity generation. This transition in energy sector will require an investment of US$0.9 trillion annually, between 2015 and 2050. Average annual investment in low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency needs to scale up by roughly factor of five between 2015 and 2050.


SR 1.5 also provides the possibility of complementing fossil fuels with mitigation technologies. It, however, emphasizes that the use of coal should reduce steeply in all 1.5oC-consistent pathways and its share in electricity mix should be nearly stopped by 2050. For developing countries, which have planned dependence on coal to meet their growing energy needs into the 2040s, this statement indicates an urgent need for even greater realignment of energy policies with climate goals. The report indicates the need for a significant fall in the share of oil in energy production by 2050. However, it observes that 1.5oC-oriented mitigation pathways create risks for regions with high dependence on fossil fuels. At least from a scientific standpoint, therefore, the era of cheap fossil fuels for electricity is over.


The industry sector will have to reduce emissions by 75-90 per cent of 2010 levels by 2050. IPCC makes it clear that it is not enough for the industry to simply make improvements in energy and process efficiency. Real emission reductions, according to IPCC, can be achieved through a combination of new and existing technologies and practices, including electrification, hydrogen, sustainable bio-based feedstocks, product substitution, and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). It also notes that these options are technically proven but their deployment may be limited by economic, financial, human resource and institutional constraints.


The world also has to change its urban planning, and substantially cut emission in transport and buildings. The share of electricity in energy demand in buildings needs to be at 55-75 per cent in 2050. In the transport sector, the share of low-emission final energy must increase from less than 5 per cent in 2020 to 35-65 per cent in 2050. The report notes that “economic, institutional and socio-cultural barriers may inhibit these urban and infrastructure system transitions, depending on national, regional and local circumstances, capabilities and the availability of capital”.


In the land-use sector, 0.5–8 million sq km of pasture and 0-5 million sq km of non-pasture agricultural land for food and feed crops needs to be converted into 1-7 million sq km for energy crops. The world also needs to move from a 1 million sq km reduction in forest area to a 10 million sq km increase by 2050 (relative to 2010). This transition will create challenges in sustainable management of land resources crucial for human settlements, food, livestock feed, fibre, bio-energy, carbon storage, biodiversity and other ecosystem services. Mitigation options for limiting the demand for land include sustainable intensification of land use practices, ecosystem restoration and changes towards less resource-intensive diets, but this would require overcoming socio-economic, institutional, technological, financing and environmental barriers that differ across regions.


Developing challenges for India

The SR 1.5 roadmap can only be achieved if countries fundamentally realign their nationally determined contributions (NDCS) under the Paris Agreement as the current targets would effectively leave the world 3oC warmer. This is a crucial challenge for India, which is highly climate vulnerable and yet a major emitter. The country’s energy demand and emission levels are set to peak only after 2030 and yet, it is already losing about 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product every year due to climate change-related risks. Even the agriculture sector has witnessed 4-9 per cent dip in yield every year as a result of the current 1oC rise in global temperature. Allowing temperature to rise beyond 1.5oC would render India uninhabitable and even poorer.


The current gap in climate ambition also presents an opportunity for India, which can take the lead globally and set an example of being an ambitious player committed to the climate change agenda. It needs to rapidly mobilize domestic finance towards mitigation and adaptation efforts, equally. It will, however, need financial and technological support from developed countries.


While emphasis on the need to reduce emissions urgently and drastically could not be clearer in SR 1.5, a running theme throughout the report was the need to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. The report states that the world needs to achieve carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to the tune of 100-1000 GtCO2eq over this century, although this is subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints (see ‘How much can the world save’). Still, authors have explored the potentials and costs of six different carbon dioxide removal, including conventional techniques like forestation and utilization of biochar. But it also includes newer technologies involving carbon capture and storage (CCS). The two techniques of CCS that have been included, bio-energy with CCS (BECCS, which involves carbon capture directly from bio-energy plants) and direct air CCS (DACCS, which involves sucking carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and storing it in geological formations), together have a carbon capture potential of up to 10 GtCO2 per year, but with prohibitive costs of up to $2.5 trillion. In fact, while SR 1.5 prescribes CDR up to 1,000 GtCO2 by the end of the century, present estimates suggest that the maximum total CDR potential estimated for mid-century, present estimated for mid-century hovers around just 25GtCO2, the corresponding costs are estimated to be as high as $4.7 trillion. These factors have contributed to a generally low level of confidence and high uncertainty regarding the future of CDR. Additionally, the SR 1.5 has noted that CCS “is largely absent from the nationally determined contributions and lowly ranked in investment priorities”, casting a doubt on the feasibility of timely upscaling of the technologies. By most indicators, investment into and economizing of CCS technologies is unlikely to happen any time in the immediate future.


To minimize the need for this highly uncertain option of removing around a 1,000 GtCO2eq, countries should focus on significant near-term emission reductions. The role of CDR necessarily increases if the world over-shoots 1.5oC and then tries to decarbonise. The report points out the danger of this approach: the world today has limited understanding of the effectiveness of net negative emissions in reducing temperatures after they peak.


The verdict from the world of science seems clear enough in the report: the world is set to breach the limits set in the Paris Agreement unless governments put into motion drastic and unprecedented change way over and beyond what has been pledged by nations already. As Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC’S Working Group III repeatedly emphasized during press conference on report’s release. “The IPCC’s role is limited to bringing forth the options; it is now up to governments to decide on how to act.” They can start by scaling up ambition on nationally determined contributions and agreeing to reporting requirements that will incentives ambition in the form of a strong Paris Rulebook. Both these processes face critical deadlines at the end of this year. All eyes will now be on the Conference of the Parties 24 in Katowice this December.



THE UNITED Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consists of scientists who can by no stretch of the imagination be called radical or activists. These are conventional scientists working in conventional research institutions–mostly from the rich world. When they issue an urgent warning about the dire and catastrophic impacts of climate change if the global temperatures exceed 2oC above pre-industrial levels, then we must take it very seriously.


Also because, what IPCC says in its just released report on 1.5oC is probably an underestimate of the kind of dangers that await a warmed world–many scientists say the report has not taken into account the spiral of events, called tipping point, which will be unleashed as temperatures rise. The news is not good. It’s time we understood this and stopped questioning the science of climate change.


IPCC has revised its previous findings; it now says the impacts of global warming will be greater than what was previously anticipated at a temperature rise of 1.5oC. It should not surprise us. The world–particularly the poor world–is already seeing devastating impacts when the temperature increase is 1.2oC. Climate change is in our face. We don’t need science to tell us anymore that it will happen. What IPCC tells us is that the situation will get much worse, and that we must not allow the temperature to increase by 2oC.


The question then is only one: What can and must the world do to keep the temperature rise to below 1.5oC? IPCC estimates that to stay below this temperature guardrail, the world has to cut net anthropogenic CO2 emissions by 45 per cent over the 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.


Let’s unpack this statement. Roughly half of the CO2 emissions generated though activities of humans need to be cut by 2030. But as these are “net” emissions, it means that the world can emit more but the emissions must be “removed” to achieve the targets. The “removal” of emissions happens through “natural sinks”–oceans, for instance, absorb emissions and are part of the world’s natural cleansing systems. Then forests are important “sinks”–they sequester carbon. But the report is also pointing towards technology-induced removal through carbon capture and storage (CCS), where emissions of CO2 are harvested and then pushed back to store deep under the earth’s surface.


Remember, this is when the world remains intensely unequal in its consumption of energy and so does its emissions. The challenge is to reduce and yet, at the same time, increase the use of energy by the poorest in the world. According to IPCC, the remaining global CO2 budget–how much can be emitted for the world to stay below 1.5oC–is somewhere between 420 giga-tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) to 580 GtCO2. At the current rate of emissions, this budget will be exhausted by 2030. Remember also that the bulk of the carbon budget has already been appropriated by the already-rich countries. By 2030, when the budget is over and if the world wants to stay below 15°C, then it must be in negative emissions. That is, it must emit less than what the world’s sinks can clean up. What will then happen to the developing world? Now that the cake is all eaten, even the crumbs have been gobbled up, what happens to the development needs of millions who do not have access to energy and the millions who still need growth.


Does this mean the world stops talking about equity in climate change? This is what the US has wanted for long. Its current President Donald Trump has taken it to the extreme–countries like India who want the right to development are the problem, he says. The US must be allowed to pollute more because it is its birthright. All this said as crudely as only he can.

There is no doubt that equity is now passé in many ways. Countries like India, as is reiterated in the IPCC 1.5oC report, will be the worst impacted by climate change. This is not the time to gripe about who has created the problem and who must solve it. That time is gone. Also, there is no point in crying over spilt milk–the carbon budget is gone. Countries have emitted and filled up the available space. None what is this talk of “equity”? What does it mean?


The fact is we have to operationalise “equity” in this changed scenario. This requires all countries, including India, to act. But it also requires much deeper cuts from the already developed world and financial and technology support to the energy poor to increase their emissions, if possible, differently and with lower carbon emission. This is not the time to point fingers at the victims of climate change–at countries like India for needing space to develop. This calls for enormous sagacity and leadership so that the world can jointly and collaboratively find ways of reducing emissions and providing growth. Dismissing the need for climate justice will not get us anywhere.


Let’s discuss what can be done. IPCC looks at the rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure–including transport and building sectors. These are big contributors to emissions.


So, what will it take to build a more secure future? Firstly, it means that renewable energy must supply 70-85 per cent of the global electricity by 2050. Currently renewable supply some 20 per cent of the electricity, with the bulk coming from hydropower plants. So, the challenge is enormous. How will this transition happen? The share of natural gas can be roughly 8 per cent in this mix, but even this must include CCS. Coal use must be close to zero per cent by 2050. This is a huge ambition–the world is still addicted to coal for producing electricity, in the rich as well as the poor parts. The developing world needs to provide affordable energy to large numbers of its people. How can it replace coal and yet provide this energy security? How? This is the question. But it is equally a question, how the rich world will completely de-carbonize its electricity? And al this in the times of Trump.


The challenge is ambition and equity in action. Drastic emission reduction keeping in mind the need for climate justice. Let’s keep our sights on this. Act. Act now. The time for prevarication and procrastination is over.


RAMJI TRIPATHI took bottles filled with Ganga water to the offices of the Kanpur Jal Nigam and the Ganga Pollution Control Unit to confirm his strong hunch. Tripathi is a seer and the national coordinator of kanpur-based Ma Ganga Pradushan Mukti Abhiyan Samiti, an outfit led by Swami Harchetan. When he started sprinkling the “holy water” on the officials, the police was called and he was forced to leave the premises. Tripathi says he did this only to debunk the claims of officials that river-cleaning operations were yielding results. “Why did they stop me from sprinkling holy water,” he asks. His organization is now going to launch a movement to boycott bathing in the Ganga in the next Kumbh Mela, which begins on January 15, 2019. After three decades of efforts to clean the national river, it is a sad state of affairs that the river is not even fit for bathing. According to a map of Ganga river water quality presented by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 2018, only five out of 70-odd monitoring stations had water that was fit for drinking and seven for bathing (see “The filthy stem’, p20-21).


Initiatives to clean the Ganga began with the Ganga Action Plan I in 1986. Till 2014, over  `4,000 crore had been spent. But the river has remained dirty. So when the National Democratic Alliance government launched the Namami Gang’ in mid-May 2015, there was a new hope. It was the big gest-ever initiative-over `20,000 crore was allotted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it his personal agenda and set a dead-line: “Ganga will be clean by 2019”, is has now been extended to 2020.


Namami Gange is being implemented by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), and its state counterparts–State Programme Management Groups. NMCG would establish field offices wherever necessary. The National Ganga Council (NGC) was created. And to give it utmost importance the Prime Minister was made the head of it. This council replaced the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). NGC would have on board the chief ministers of five Ganga basin states–Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal–besides several Union ministers and it was supposed to meet once every year.


The Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Ministry signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUS) with 10 other ministries to synergise the activities under the Namami Gange. The government said it would involve grassroots level institutions such as urban local bodies and panchayti raj institutions to implement the programme.


An Empowered Task Force, headed by Union Water Resources Minister, was created and it has on board the chief secretaries of the five Ganga Basin states. It was supposed to meet once in every three months. State Ganga CommIITees have been formed, which Ganga CommIITees have been formed, which would be the nodal agency to implement the programmes in a state. Besides, these commIITees would conduct safety audits of the river and take remedial measures.


The Centre had also said it would establish a 4–battalion Ganga EcoTask Force to spread awareness about pollution and protecting the river. The government is contemplating a legislation to arrest and fine those found flouting norms.


The government also tasked seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITS) to prepare a report on the best strategies to clean up the river. IITS batted for a Ganga basin approach, which meant not only cleaning the Ganga, but its tributaries as well. The report, Ganga Rejuvenation Basin Management Programme (GRBMP), submIITed in March 2015, says that instead of establishing a few projects on the stretch of the Ganga, the whole river basin–that is all the states coming under the main stem of Ganga and its tributaries–must come under the ambit of the programme.


The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in its report in December last year, said, “The NMCG neither circulated GRBMP to different ministries/departments for consultation and seeking their opinion, nor finalized the GRBMP for initiating the long-term intervention on the Ganga.” The document on NMCG website which talks about the towns under consideration for pollution abatement belong to five states on the main Ganga stem–Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal–and not the ones which lie on the tributaries of the Ganga. Cleaning of the Ganga needs a strategy where the NGC has to find effective solutions to the challenges that the previous programmes have failed to address. This would entail addressing untreated waste that flows into the river, restoring the flow of the river, sludge management in Ganga basin towns, cost overruns in execution of projects and governance glitches.


Challenge I: Sewage treatment

Sewage treatment plants (STPS) have been at the centre of Ganga pollution abatement. As per Namami Ganga pollution abatement. As per Namami Gange targets, STPS with over 2,000 million litres a day (MLD) capacity had to be rehabilitated of which only 328 MLD have been done. A look at the status of all the projects undertaken makes one doubt whether the government would even achieve its revised deadline. As far as sewage infrastructure projects are concerned, 68 projects were sanctioned after the Namami Gange was approved by the cabinet and only six were completed till August. Till August 31, 2018 a total of 236 projects, including STPS, had been sanctioned out of which only 63 had been completed. The government has said that the new projects are delayed because land acquisition and other related activities were taking a lot of time. However, poor performance in rehabilitating old STPS does not stand the test of time scarcity.


The issue is just not with the construction or rehabilitation of STPS but also their performance. Every STP installed has design parameters for Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Total Suspended Solids (TSS). Consider the STP at Kanpur, which holds the dubious distinction of being home to the “most polluted stretch” of the Ganga. The 5 MLD domestic waste water treatment plant at Jajman in Kanpur had BOD and TSS level in effluents as 65 mg/litre (against design parameter of 30) and 92 mg/litre (against design parameter of 50), according to the April-May 2018 report of Kanpur Jal Nigam. The report says that BOD and TSS level of the effluent is higher than the norms because industrial waste and chemicals are illegally mixed with the influents in a plant not meant to treat industrial pollutants.


Another problem with STPS is that they are not able to get the total amount of influents, primarily due to lack of sewerage network in the city. A total network of 2,071 km of new sewer line projects was sanctioned after Namami Gange came into being but only 66.85 km has been laid. The STP that treats domestic waste water in Kanpur’s Jajmau has a capacity of 130 MLD but its April-March average was only 60.5 MLD. According to NMCG, all the existing plants in Kanpur have a capacity of 414 MLD but are getting only 230 MLD as influents.


For any city, STPS are being designed according to their sewage generation. The problem lies in the way sewage generation is estimated. “The estimation of sewage generation is based on the assumption that 80 per cent of the water supplied is returned as waste water. Some recent data compiled by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that actual measured discharge of waste water into Ganga is 6,087 MLD, 123 per cent higher than the estimated discharge of waste water,” says a paper authored by Raghu Dayal in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2016. V K Mishra, president of Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF), reiterates that the very methodology of calculating sewage generation is faulty. SMF was given the task of constructing an STP of 35 MLD near Assi Ghat at Varanasi in 2010. Mishra, who is also a professor in IIT-BHU, says, “We carried out a three-day schedule for the Assi drain and to our utter surprise we found that the discharge was 63.5 MLD. That was way back in 2010.” Mishra says that when the entire city is not having piped water supply, how can this become the criteria for calculating sewerage generation? Mishra’s argument also finds support in UP State Annual Action Plan (SAAP) 2017-2020, which says the coverage of piped water supply in Varanasi is less than 60 ”per cent. In Kanpur and Allahabad it is less than 60 and 40 per cent respectively. Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi are considered hot spots of Ganga pollution in the entire stem.


But domestic sewerage is not the only cause of concern. The industry, especially the tanneries in kanpur’s Jajmau area have several times attracted the wrath of both the Supreme Court and NGT. The government of UP said to NGT on March 30, 2017 that it has, in principle, taken a decision to shift the tanneries from Jajmau to some other place that is under consideration. However, the government was also open to the idea of installing appropriate anti-pollution devices, including a chromium recovery plant. It is mandatory that tanneries treat chromium either through their own small plant or a made in cluster and then transfer the waste to a Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) run by the government. According to submissions made by the UP government in NGT there are three clusters housing tannery industries–Jajmau, Unnao and Banther. Jajmau has the maximum concentration of 400 tannery industries and NGT wrote in its order, “The industries at Jajmau are discharging much more than 9 MLD industrial effluents, mainly containing chromium. There is no enforcement of consent conditions by Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board which requires all industries to send their chrome liquor to the Chrome Recovery Plant and pay for the treatment. Industries are finding it easy to dispose their entire waste, including the chrome liquor, in the common drain which carries both domestic as well as industrial waste.” NGT’s observations find eerie resonance in the April-May 2018 report of Kanpur Jal Nigam. It says that chromium concentration in tannery effluent is 110.2 mg per litre.


When Down To Earth (DTE) visited thee CETP, chromium had formed a separate layer over the waste water and was visible with naked eyes. Against the design parameter of 175 BOD per 100 ml and TSS 200 mg/litre the effluent had the former at 203 mg/litre. A visit to Jajmau and nearby villages unveils the reality on the ground. There is no board outside any of the four tanneries right on the bank of Ganga in Wajidpur village and they seem to be running almost anonymously. One can see that they are discharging waste into the Ganga. “Outlet pipes throw dust which we inhale every day,” says Chhotu Nishad, a resident, showing his pierced skin. Hair fall, skin infections, heart and lung problems are common in every family DTE spoke to.


Sheikpur village is located just a few kilometers away from the Jajmau tanneries. Lakshmi Shankar Nishad, a 50-year-old resident, shows his left foot on which skin has almost peeled off. “We are suffering from many more skin infection. This is because tanneries are discharging their waste water directly into drains and the water of drains directly into drains and the water of drains has mixed with groundwater which has become infected.” Another resident, Sri Krishna says people are becoming impotent in the village and doctors tell them to leave the area. “How can we? Our homes and farms are here,” he says.


Not sensing any progress in controlling pollution, NGT in July last year gave more than 100 specific directions related to 86 drains going into the Ganga, Ramganga, Kali and the Pandu rivers. “The government agencies have submIITed compliance report regarding most of the directions. But what I gather from the field is that most of the submissions are coloured,” says M C Mehta, who has been fighting cases on the Ganga in the Supreme Court and NGT.


Besides cleaning the Ganga, the Namami Ganga also talks about afforestation as an important activity as it helps groundwater recharge. According to NMCG, it has already spent `114 crore on afforestation but to no avail. Showing the plants being planted, assistant professor in Allahabad University Pramod Sharma says, “They have planted kachnaar and gulmohar plants. They can only be used for decorative purposes. What is required for the Ganga is bargad, peepal, gular and neem as they help in better conservation of water.”


Challenge II: Restoring the flow

There is another fundamental problem that will ensure the holy river remains dirty. A river is a self-purifying system only when water flows through it. The Ganga fails this basic test except during monsoons. So it’s not just about unclean Ganga. It is about the existence of Ganga, experts say. Vijay Dwivedi, an Allahabad-based activist, who has formed a Ganga Sena which takes up cleaning of the river regularly says that in monsoons the water level in Ganga is good enough. “But you should have come in April or May. There is not even knee deep water. People graze cows, learn driving and play cricket on the surface of Ganga.” Gopal Nishad, a boatman at Sangam says, “Even the fish die in summer due to lack of water. People coming to ghats usually don’t go for boat rides in summer and it hits us badly.”


B D Tripathi, in-charge of Banaras Hindu University’s Ganga Research Centre, says, “The water level in the river is going down at an unprecedented rate. Also if the flow in the river is maintained it can solve the problem of 60-80 per cent of organic pollutants and we may not require such an elaborate programme.” He also says that unlike other rivers, the Ganga has three special properties because of the path it treads naturally. “The Ganga has medicinal properties that can treat skin infections. These properties come due to medicinal plants on the path of Ganga. Also the Ganga is very rich in minerals and has bacteriophages which kill the bacteria. If you chain the Ganga with barrages and canal diversions and therefore alter its natural path, it will lose these properties.” He says due to restrictions and decrease in flow, the velocity of water decreases and siltation increases and therefore minerals of the water settle down at the riverbed.


All these surmises get credence in the paper published by IIT-Kharagpur’s Abhijit Mukherjee and others in August 2018 which says that according to their estimates the baseflow amount of the river has decreased by 56 per cent in 2016 as compared to the 1970s. the decrease in flow has led to an increase in groundwater extraction for various uses.


According to a report published by Wildlife Institute of India in May 2018, 16 existing, 14 ongoing and 14 proposed hydro-electric projects on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda river basins have turned the upper stretch of the Ganga “ecological deserts”. To deal with these projects, A K Gosain, professor at IIT-Delhi and a member of the panel that has drafted the Ganga protection law, says, “The designs of hydroelectric projects can be tweaked in such a manner that they consume less water. It may raise the cost of the projects but should be done for long-term preservation of the Ganga. It is now for the government to decide whether it comes out with such a mandatory policy or not.”


Challenge III: Sludge control

The river has another persistent problem that is going to be more pronounced. “I have a toilet in my home but the two pits under are overflowing with waste. How do I use it?” says Radhid Ali of Chhapri village in Allahabad district. He and his family is back to defecating in the open near the Ganga. Other villagers also narrate similar issues and say the construction of toilets has compounded their problems because the overflowing toilets have also made their homes dirty. The damming indictment is supported by many people living in cities along the banks of the Ganga.


A staggering 99.93 per cent villages lying on the banks of Ganga, also known as Ganga Grams, have been declared open defecation free (ODP) by the government under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). As per SBM data, more than 2.7 million toilets have been constructed in over 4,000 villages till September 17, 2018. Not surprisingly, CAG in its December 2017 report casts aspersions on the claim. The report said the state government was to verify the ODF status through its own teams or through a third party but 1,144 villages of UP AND Bihar didn’t get it done. The whole objective of making villages lying in the Ganga basin to be ODF was to reduce the faecal coliform levels in the Ganga. Against the standard of 2,500 per 100 ml, the faecal coliform ranged from 2,500 to 2,40,000 per 100 ml in the Ganga basin cities in May 2018, as per data provided by pollution control boards of five states along the Ganga basin.


A back-of-the envelope calculation by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based non-profit, showed that about 180 MLD sludge would be generated in five Ganga basin states when they become ODF (see ‘Sludge crisis’, p22-23). And if proper faecal sludge management is not in place, it would invariably pollute the Ganga. What should cause further concern is that faecal sludge is a bigger pollutant than sewerage. While the BOD of sewage is 150-300 mg/1, that of faecal sludge would be 15,000-30,000 mg/1.


Experts say that while toilets were constructed, hardly a thought was given to management of sludge. According to a study conducted by CSE, most of the cities surveyed had twin-pit technology which is not recommended in low-lying areas. The National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) 2017 also anticipated the challenge as more and more toilets are constructed. As urban households without toilets obtain facilities under SBM, it is likely that many will acquire on-site arrangements like pit latrines and septic tanks in cities at locations where sewerage systems are not available. Thus, while the containment of human waste will be largely achieved, its safe disposal poses a huge challenge.


A sanitation expert who works with an international non-profit in Delhi says, “There has been no management at all. What was required along with construction of toilets was several interventions to manage sludge, which clearly did not happen.”


Even septic tanks don’t seem to be working out due to laxity. An International Water Management Institute (IWMI) paper published in January 2017 after studying three Ganga basin cities–Gangaghat, Mugalsarai and Unnao–says, “Most households (up to 97 per cent in Gangaghat) rely on septic tanks, but these are not properly maintained. Septage is collected every 10-15 years, even though collection every three years is the recommended practice for optimal septic tank performance. Consequently, septic tanks that could potentially remove 60 per cent of suspended solids and 40 per cent of the organic matter from domestic wastewater have almost no treatment capacity.”


The paper highlights another problem. It says that the pollution from the cities flows through a network of small and progressively larger open drains, which eventually flow into the Ganga. None of the three cities has a scheme for management of solid waste most of which is dumped in the streets, clogging open drains and adding to the pollution load. Only a fraction of this waste is collected by the Nagar Palika Parishads and dumped at the city limits without treatment or recycling. “Officials have come here several times. They go to ghats to survey how the beautification is going on and leave. This drain never catches their attention,” rues Govind Prasad Dikshit, a seer residing in Brahawat ghat near Bithoor.


Challenge IV: Cost overruns

Cleaning up the massive stretch of 2,525 km that the Ganga traverses is a programme where regulating the finances becomes as big an issue as any other. The UP SAAP 2016 says that the Ganga basin towns would require `5,794 crore just for the creation of sewerage networks in the state–more than one-fourth of the entire outlay of Namami Gange.


Another catch is with the finances of STPS. Now the government says that the new STPS are being constructed under Hyper Annuity Model under which the developer has to take care of the maintenance of the project for 15 years. As per this model, 40 per cent of the capital cost quoted would be paid on completion of construction while the remaining 60 per cent will be paid over the life of the project as annuities along with operation and maintenance expenses. This payment is linked to the performance of the STPS–the quality of the water treated by it. The report of the IIT consortium had also pitched for a model whereby the service provider receives remuneration for providing “reusable-quality water over a reasonably long contract period”. So are there enough monitoring machines installed to check the quality of the treated water? Highly-placed sources in NMCG say there aren’t. A detailed questionnaire, including one on this was sent to the Director General, NMCG, Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, but it went unanswered.


The IIT report predicted the cost of treating sewerage to be about 1 paisa per litre at 2010 price levels. However, the cost would escalate due to the fact that deadlines are not met. Many of the projects sanctioned as early as 2011 could not meet their deadlines even after they came under the ambit of Namami Gange. Sample the case of STPS to be built in Varanasi with the assistance of Japan International cooperation Agency (JICA). A close look at the development of the project has quite a story to narrate. It was sanctioned on July 14, 2010 at a cost of `496 crore with a deadline for completion in 2017-18, with some parts to be completed in 2016. Documents accessed by DTE reveal that there was absolutely no physical progress of the plant at the end of December 2014, the year in which the Modi government took over, with JICA concurrence for technical bid awaited. The situation was exactly the same by December 2015. STP construction was completed by 34 per cent in December 2016. Then the government issued a revised sanction of the project and pegged the cost at `641-19 crore with a revised deadline of June 2018. That deadline could also not be met and it was revised to October 2018. That is not one odd sample in UP. Bihar has similar cases. A 17 MLD STP was sanctioned in the state’s Begusarai district on March 8, 2010 at a cost `65 core. The project is aided by the World Bank. The NMCG documents reveal no progress took place till December 2017, the tender was cancelled. Revised sanction was issued in march 2018 with escalated cost of `230 crore and a deadline of January 2020 and it has now become a project of the Central government.


Besides, CAG also pointed out poor financial management for the programme in its December 2017 report. It said, “Only eight to 63 per cent of the funds were utilized during 2014-15 to 2016-17 for the river clean-up programme.” Acorpus of `198.14 crore (as of march 31, 2017) was available in he Clean Ganga fund. It is a fund under which entities or a commoner can contribute for the Ganga clean up. However, NMCG could not utilise an amount out of the Clean Ganga Fund and the entire amount was lying in banks due to non-finalization of action plan.


NMCG replied (on August 2017) that after its constitution as an authority and its operationalisation by December 2016, the pace of various projects has accelerated. This is likely to result in achievement of not only physical targets but also higher expenditure progress by the end of 2017-2018. However, NMCG documents reveal that till August 31, 2018 though projects worth `22,323 crore have been sanctioned but total funds utilized were only 23 per cent of it.


The CAG also came down heavily on Centre for spending injudiciously on media blitzkrieg. As per New Advertisement Policy 18 of Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), all Central Government Ministries/Departments/Attached and Subordinate Offices/Field Offices are required to route their advertisements through DAVP only. CAG observed that NMCG hired other advertising agencies for releasing print advertisements in leading national newspapers across the country and incurred an expenditure of `2.46 crore, which include `36.06 lakh and `5.23 lakh as agency commission and service tax. This was in violation of government policy and resulted in avoidable payment, the CAG said.


Challenge V: Governance glitches

The cleaning of the Ganga requires seamless coordination between the agencies responsible for carrying out different tasks. This calls for vision and a clear-cut governance strategy. The water resources ministry signed MOUS with 10 ministries for better implementation of Namami Gange. However, till date no detail is available as to how these ministries are functioning for better convergence. Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur who helmed the consortium says, “The Ganga Action Plans lacked the coordination of ministries. It is still lacking in Namami Gange. If the departments do not coordinate well, the programme will not achieve desired objectives.” Ganga Mahasabha’s head Swami Jitendranand Saraswati says, “After the memoranda were signed, nobody knows what they did. I tried enquiring often, but to no avail.”


The draft Ganga protection law is with the government but experts question its utility. “It is immaterial whether you come up with a new law or not. What is required is an autonomous body for the rejuvenation of Ganga which is independent of the government when it comes to its functioning. Instead of bureaucrats, it should consist of experts well-versed with the river,” says environmentalist G D Agrawal, the 86-year-old former IIT-Kanpur professor who is on an indefinite fast to save the Ganga from June 22, 2018.


The gazette notification by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, issued on October 7, 2016 read: “The NGC shall meet at least once every year or more as it may deem necessary.” A senior official in the ministry confirmed to DTE that not a single meeting of NGC has taken place since then. The lone NGRBA meeting chaired by PM Modi took place on July 4, 2016.


The Empowered Task Force led by Union minister of water resources has met only thrice after the gazette notification while it was supposed to meet once every three months. It has met twice under the chairmanship of the then minister Uma Barti and once under Nitin Gadkari, who took the charge of the ministry in September 2017. The mandatory exercise of conducting an annual Ganga safety audit has been done even once.


Also the top post of NMCG is working like musical chairs with seven senior officers appointed since 2014. The first head Rajiv Ranjan Mishra is back at the helm after five changes. A former head told DTE on the condition of anonymity, “Every chief came with his own micro-planning, the moment those plans would start taking shape there was a transfer. This is one of the prime reasons for the underperformance of NMCG.”


Tare says if the governance is to be improved the programme has to be decentralized. “It is highly centralized as of now with the government sitting at the top deciding what to do. People who are living in the Ganga basin have to be involved to achieve the required results. The programme can’t succeed unless it has a bottom-up approach.”


Almost four years since Modi’s promise of cleaning the Ganga, cities along the river remain highly polluted and data shows that people might be drinking partially-treated sewage. Will Ganga ever be cleaned and is there any deadline possible? Tare says: “It is not that easy a job that one can give such short deadlines. It may be politically correct to do so but not scientific. In fact, it is an ongoing process and will take many years for which I don’t think any deadline can be given now.”

ON WORLD Biofuel Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi fuelled a hope. “India can save `12,000 crore in foreign exchange in the next four years due to ethanol blending in petrol,” he said at a time when the country’s crude import bill has touched `8 lakh crore. Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has also been harping on the importance of alternative fuels. During a recent visit to Charoda in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district, he said the state has immense potential for biofuel, referring to India’s first biofuel-powered flight from Dehradun to Delhi on August 27 that used oil from jatropha (Jatropha curcas) seeds in Chhattisgarh.

While Gadkari has been lobbying for biofuel ever since he assumed office in 2014, his advocacy is seen with suspicion, given his long association with the sugar and ethanol industry. His latest hypothesis that Chhattisgarh could emerge as a biofuel hub echoes Chief Minister Rama Singh’s 2003 slogan, “Diesel nahin ab khadi se; diesel milega ab baadi se” (Diesel will no more be imported from the Gulf; it will be produced in the backyard). Years later, people realized it is not the “green gold” that it was madeout to be. Singh’s claim that by 2014 the state will be self-sufficient in biofuel production never came true. “One million people were supposed to get employment. However, the plan for establishing biodiesel industry did not take off. We are still buying fuel at `85 per litre,” says Tulsiramji Sahu, former sarpanch of Seoni Khurd in Dhamtari district. Lokdhar Sahu, a resident of Bhothli village in Dhamtari district, where the government had planted jatropha on 20 ha, says plantations affected paddy crops as they cut off sunlight and did not let rice grow.

Layered challenges
Both the Centre and states had identified jatropha as “the most suitable tree-borne oil seed for biodiesel in view of its ability to thrive under a variety of agro-climatic conditions, low gestation period and higher seed yield”. However, this optimism was based on misunderstanding. “As jatropha is a resilient crop, it was planted on unproductive soils. Though the plant can survive droughts and infertile soil, it can’t produce many seeds under those conditions. To get a good harvest, it needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop,” says Charmaine Sharma, partner at Observing-i Ecotech LLP, Gurugram-based green technology firm. Even its gestation period of four years cannot be considered “low”. In 2012, a critical review of biodiesel promotion policies in India pointed out that unavailability of land dampened the prospect of large-scale cultivation of jatropha. The plantations also led to environmental problems. In Andhra Pradesh, they led to acidification, ecological toxicity, eutrophication and water depletion.

Under the National Biodiesel Mission, launched in 2009, jatropha and pongamia (Millettia pinnata) were planned on 500,000 ha over five years with a cost of `1,500 crore. Though petroleum companies signed memoranda of understanding with states to establish jatropha on government-owned wastelands or through contract faring with small and medium farmers, the yield was low. Due to the lack of commercial viability, three oil marketing companies–Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation–shut down the joint ventures they had started for jatropha cultivation to manufacture biodiesel.

It partly explains why India has been missing biofuel blending deadlines ever since the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2003 recommended launching of a national biodiesel mission to follow the mandate of 20 per cent blending of biodiesel with diesel by 2017. Now, even the revised target-5 per cent blending by 2080-looks ambitious given the lacklustre progress so far. Biodiesel blend in 2017 was less than 0.12 per cent “mostly due to limited feedstock availability and lack of an integrated and dedicated supply chain”. To expand the market by 2022, India needs 6,750 million litres of biodiesel and 4,500 million litres ethanol per annum. Government data shows ethanol production in 2017-18 was 1,410 million litres.

The National Biodiesel Mission, says Sandeep Chaturvedi, president of Biodiesel Association of India, did not yield results as there was no roadmap in place. The approach towards jatropha plantation was not scientific and farmers lacked technical knowledge on cultivating jatropha. There was also no mechanism for collection. Despite this, Chhattisgarh government believes that jatropha-based biodiesel project hasn’t lost its sheen. “The programme has unduly attracted negative publicity. We have to understand that these jatropha plantations were initiated as part of rural income generation schemes, and that purpose has been solved. Even today, 105 farmers came to sell the seeds,” says Sumit Sarkar of Chhattisgarh Biofuel Development Authority. But others are not convinced. “I do not see merits in reviving jatropha for biofuel. Since its leaves and fruits are poisonous, it can be used as hedges around crops to deter animals from damaging them,” says Sharma.

Some experts apprehend a different crisis. “Biofuels cannot go very far in our country. Rice and wheat straw, cotton stalk, cane trash and corn cobs; and the land used for jatropha have alternative uses that will be hit by encouragement to biofuels,” Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore opined in a commentary. Alok Shulda of nonprofit Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, too, believes that increased demand for fodder crops for biofuel diverts the attention away from food and feed sectors. Biofuel, he says, does not work in India where land availability is low. “Certain sugar companies in Nagpur, Gadkari’s hometown, are pushing for increasing production of ethanol from sugarcane. Gadkari should be aware of them. We have limited land and water. If we use them for ethanol, then we will have to import more food. It is better to depend on imported energy than on imported food,” Jhunjhunwala says.

Every year, millions of people around the world are affected by natural or human-made disasters. With the advancement of science and technology, and better management, the number of deaths due to natural disasters are decreasing over the years. However, disasters like earthquake, cyclone, drought and flood are posing serious threats (Below, 2017; Guo, 2010) to mankind. In fact, earthquakes, cyclones and floods and other related natural events are the leading cause of death in recent years.


The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events, coupled with poor governance and lack of awareness, cause severe damage in many parts of the world. The impact, in terms of loss of life, livelihoods, and displacement of population, is particularly high in developing nations. The rescue and rehabilitation needs of the community affected by any disaster depends on both the intensity of the disaster and the efficiency o the governance mechanisms in place.


We are fortunate that in the present day agencies around the world are constantly observing the occurrences of disasters across the globe, and analyzing their pattern, origin and the damages caused. These determinations are frequently shared among scientific bodies for better preparation of upcoming events and the learnings from similar events are also shared freely. Finding reliable and accurate data is crucial. It plays a vital role not only in disaster preparedness, but also in post-disaster management. As such, domestic capability gaps can often by ridged to a large extent by establishing good networks and communications systems with such global entities.


The efforts of the European Space Agency (ESA) is a good case in point. When a disaster strikes, a group of international space agencies, pool their resources and expertise to support relief efforts on the ground (ESA, 2017). Also, several organizations across the globe work on specific disasters, some of which even offer data about the natural disasters in the open domain to promote more scientific research. International centres are sharing datasets for particular disasters – for example, the global earthquake model (GEM) holds a global historical earthquake catalogue from the year 1000 to date.


India is home to 1.3 million people (UN, 2018) which accounts for almost 17.74 per cent of the world’s population. The growing frequency and intensity of extreme events, combined with uncontrolled, rapid urbanization and poor governance makes the country extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. In India, about 60 per cent of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of various intensities; over 40 million hectares is prone to floods; close to 5,700 km long coastline out of the 7,516 km, is prone to cyclones; about 68 per cent of the cultivable area is susceptible to drought (NDMA 2018). The Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the East and part of West coast are vulnerable to Tsunami. The deciduous/dry-deciduous forests in different parts of the country experience forest fires. The Himalayan region and the Western Ghats are prone to landslides (ISRO, 2017).


India has an institutional framework in place for dealing with disasters which is rapidly growing in capability. The nodal agencies for disaster management in India are the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) and International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). These agencies, along with state disaster management authorities are responsible for disaster management. Research institutes like the Indian national Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), national Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF) and Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) are continually conducting scientific research and providing data to disaster management authorities.


The key to preventing or minimizing the scale of disasters we face lies in these agencies being able to deploy the latest scientific tools and knowledge available, nationally or internationally, in a timely and systemic manner to predict the likelihood of extreme events and translate this knowledge into response action needed by the administrative set up. Neither the lack of data or knowledge nor the lack of coordination among various agencies responsible for timely response action can any longer be an acceptable excuse for avoidable high losses, particularly in terms of lives lost.


Prime Minister Modi had declared that “In India, we are committed to walk the talk on the implementation of Sendai Framework” during the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in New Delhi, in November 2016 (PIB, 2016). India has all the technical capabilities it requires to ensure that we are indeed able to walk the talk, and build/strengthen any gaps that may exist. Modern technologies like satellite imaging (for imaging the extent of impact), Internet of things (IOT) (informed decisions), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) (surveillance and rescue), Decision Support Systems (timely decision), GIS technologies (spatial enabled decision), crowdsourcing (disaster management and rescue) and artificial intelligence (inference and learning and decision making)–all of which can contribute to better disaster preparedness–are available in India.


The need of the hour is for the government to strengthen the institutional framework for disaster management by requiring every state to have a disaster preparedness and response network comprising (i) Academic and research organizations that could model vulnerabilities to relevant extreme events in a state bearing in mind the underlying socio-ecological contexts therein (ii) Weather forecasting agencies that have the capability and must take responsibility, for forecasts at relevant time and geographical scales (iii) Large infrastructure service providers that are themselves vulnerable or can add to vulnerability (iv) municipal and state functionaries who would need to lead preparedness, and enforce it, on the basis of precautionary principles, and finally (v) the agencies that would be involved in relief and rescue operations such a network would need to be coordinated by a small empowered committee and chaired by a professional in the rank of a minister. Cross-border coordination must be ensured by the chairmen of the empowered state committees. The onl remaining barrier to a more effective mitigation of disaster consequences is one of application.



The past two decades in India have been witness to recurrent episodes of urban floods. Extreme weather events, coupled with the intensified phase of urbanization in 2001-11, which has contributed to spatial expansion of urban extents, has greatly increased their frequency (AMRUT, 2017). One can recall the floods that occurred at the beginning of the 21st century, in the month of August 2000 in Hyderabad. Following the floods in Hyderabad, urban floods were recurrently reported across the cities of Delhi in 2002 and 2003, Mumbai in 2005, Surat in 2006, Kolkata in 2007, Jamshedpur in 2008 and Guwahati in 2010. The most recent urban floods were recorded in Srinagar in 2014 and Chennai in 2015 (AMRUT, 2017). During the 2014 floods in Srinagar, over 200 people lost their lives and water reportedly stood at a depth of 12 feet in low-lying areas. In 2015, floods in Chennai brought the entire city to a standstill, with a death toll of 280 (Iyengar, 2015).


Urban flooding is fast becoming one of the most frequently occurring human induced disasters. The problems posed by urban floods can range from localized or contained incidents, where the damage to life and property is minimal to far reaching that cause widespread inundation and brings life to a standstill. This leads to temporary relocation, threats of outbreak of epidemics, loss of livelihoods and impacts civic infrastructure adversely. Urban floods are likely to be more severe as compared to those occurring in rural areas, as urbanization can increase the risk of flooding by up to three times (Rafiq et al., 2016). Dense population clusters in cities impact a larger number of people and severe losses are incurred by industrial and commercial establishments.


Urban Floods: The Causes and Effects

Floods are defined as the submergence of a usually dry area by a large amount of water that comes from sudden and excessive rainfall, overflowing of river or lake, melting of snow or overflowing of river of lake, melting of snow or exceptionally high tide (AMRUT, 2016). When occurring in urban areas, the effects of floods increase manifold, causing massive damage to life and property–crippling commerce and basic civic facilities.


By their very nature, urban floods can be categorized as human induced disaster, caused by constant meddling with natural streams, watercourses, encroachment of water bodies, and unchecked urbanization (NDMA, 2010). Factoring in climate change, the effects of urban floods are likely to be exacerbated in the near future. Research suggests that climate change will lead to increase in short duration precipitation, cause short bursts of intense rainfall and pose major challenges to storm water design (Ali, Pai and Mishra, 2014). In the years between 1901 and 2010, only four of the total 57 urban areas have shown a significant trend in monsoon maximum rainfall (MMR). However, in the period between 2010 and 2060, MMR is likely to increase significantly at 1 to 3 day durations. The number of urban areas where increased rainfall is likely to occur is far larger than the number of areas that experienced these changes between 1901 and 2010 (ibid). The current practices of urbanization in India are not conducive to prevent or mitigate urban floods.


The relatively flat terrain on either side of the river channel that get submerged during floods–the floodplains, are areas where a variety of riverine features are built by sediments which are derived from the upper reaches of the drainage basin and deposited further downstream. Floodplains are also responsible for groundwater recharge. Unchecked construction of buildings, temples and highways has transformed the natural soil cover into concrete surfaces, considerably reducing groundwater recharge. This in turn creates impervious surfaces that obstruct natural floodways and increases the rate and volume of runoff (Raymahashay and Sinha, 2016). Increased frequency of floods is a direct consequence of fields or woodlands turned into roads and parking lots–concretized surfaces do not have the capacity to absorb rainfall. Conversion of water bodies to residential layouts has intensified this problem by removing the interconnectivities of water terrain.


A case study in the city of Bengaluru has noted that the lack of planning and unchecked urbanization has caused the filling up of floodplains, reduction in catchment area and narrowing of waterways (Ramachandra, Aitha and Kumar, 2012). This has subsequently caused recent flooding in areas that do not show any earlier records of being flooded. Further, lakes in the city have been appropriated for developmental activities, disrupting the natural movement of water between different areas of the city. Analyses of drainage networks between Ulsoor and Bellandur, for instance, revealed that after the Challaghatta Lake was converted into a golf course, the drainage network between these two localities had been lost (ibid). In the 19603, 262 lakes existed in the city, but presently, not even 10 are in a healthy state (Sengupta and Sengupta, 2016). Field surveys of lakes in the city have shown that over 66 per cent of them are sewage fed, 14 per cent are surrounded by slums and 72 per cent have shown a significant loss of catchment area (ibid). Last year, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) overlaid maps of the city from 1965 over those from 2017 and found that while earlier there were at least 1,397 km of drains in the City, the figure had been later reduced to 1,105 km (Rao, 2018). While effects have not yet been felt at a large scale in Bengaluru, experts have warned that this unchecked urbanization is likely to have major repercussions. During the recent floods in Karnataka, Kodagu district was ravaged by 1,657 mm (till August 21, 2018) of rainfall (TNN, 2018). On August 17, 2018, the district received 300 mm of rainfall in a single day. If Bengaluru receives even 10 per cent of this rain, it could potentially devastate the city; in fact a mere 30 mm of rainfall of 30 minutes is likely to cause flooding, especially in the low lying areas (Rohith, 2018).


Past experiences strengthen these dire predictions. In July 2005, when Mumbai received > 200mm rainfall (classified as ‘very heavy’ by the Indian Meteorological Department), various parts of the city were inundated to varying degrees and 419 human lives were lost. The underlying causes for the rapid flooding in the city were the erection of slums along places of outfalls and loss of detention ponds to development (Gupta, 2007).


The case of flooding in Chennai in the year 2015, where the death toll was 218 and economic losses computed at INR 15,000 crore serves another example of the dangers of rapid urbanisation (Thangavelu, 2015). The rainfall received by the city in the month of November 2015 was ~48 inches, with mismanaged urban development compounding the effects of an extreme weather event caused by warm seas and long distance effects of the El-Nino (NASA Earth Observatory, 2015). In the years between 2006 and 2016, Chennai has witnessed seven episodes of urban floods (Sengupta and Sengupta, 2016). In 2014, an analysis conducted by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) found that since the 19705, urbanisation in the city increased almost 20 times. Consequently, the city has lost over one-fifth of its greenery (Aithal and Ramachandra, 2015). Green areas were converted to concrete surfaces that increased the runoff and created water logging in the absence of proper drainage. The primary floodwater sink in the city, the Pallikarni marsh, which was around 5,000 hectares (ha) at the time of independence had been reduced to a mere 600 ha by 2011 (Gopalakrishnan, 2016). A complete disconnect between hydrology and urban planning were found in Chennai, which caused steady drop in the water table. Moreover, recharge structures like lakes, tanks, ponds and other wetlands have been disregarded and the natural course of water has been stymied. This has been one of the major causes of flooding in the urban and peri-urban areas (Sengupta, 2015). Speaking with G’nY, Anant Maringanti, Director of Hyderabad Urban Lab, notes, “The problem arises with the unchecked development of real estate in cities and infrastructure creation that does not take into account gradient and topography. Older agricultural practices have disappeared–wetlands serve no economic purpose today and we have been unable to find and alternative use for them. Since it is not possible to bring in older practices into the city, it is pertinent that we develop newer practices that can reinforce recharge and minimise risk.”


Legal framework

There is an urgent need to preserve city catchments to curb incidents of urban flooding. Corrective measures need to be taken immediately else urban floods are likely to become a norm rather than an exception (Bhushan, 2016). The first step to check incidents of urban flooding is the preservation of urban lakes and catchments, which needs a robust legal framework. At present, no such framework exists to challenge encroachment of lakes, floodplains, or other catchments in urban areas, despite the fact that this issue has been raised by the Supreme Court, most significantly in the case of Vasundhm Pathak Masoodi vs Union of India, where it was observed that massive encroachments and erection of many structures and hotels have led to the reduction in the size of lakes in Srinagar. The River Regulation Zone, conceptualised on the lines of Coastal Regulation Zone in 2012, is still to see the light of the day. There have been numerous judicial interventions where the Courts have ordered to declare a no development zone in floodplains and riverbeds. In July 2017, the national Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered that an area of 100m from the edge of the Ganga between Haridwar and Unnao was to be a no development zone. Dumping of waste within 500m of the river and into the river was prohibited and nay violators were to be fined INR 50,000 (NGT, 2017). Despite this ruling, the practice continues uninhibitedly–over 1.3 billion litres of waste flows into the river everyday (Jadhav, 2018).


But examples of courts noting the importance of floodplains and wetlands are not recent. In 1992, a proposal for the construction of World Trade Centre was challenged in the Calcutta High Court (HC). It was held that bheris–as wetlands are termed in Bengal–are important for maintaining ecological equilibrium and the state government was directed to stop all encroachment occurring in wetlands in order to preserve their nature and character (Calcutta HC, 1992). Judicial orders, however, can only intervene in individual incidents of encroachment. To put an absolute check on encroachment of floodplains and wetlands, a legal framework needs to be put into place. But the law alone will not suffice. “We also need a change in our institutional framework to ensure preservation of wetlands. Certainly, a low needs to be developed to set up this framework, but this will be only the first step. We need to rethink our culture of governance and institutions, which, in their present state are completely incapable of dealing with the problems. Take the example of accountability for wetlands–there is no one institution from whom this can be sought. The irrigation department is responsible for drainage in the city, the revenue department maintains land records and there are similar bodies that are assigned different functions. This practice needs to change,” Maringanti adds.



It is therefore safe to conclude that the central problem, as far as urban floods are concerned, is the rapid disappearance of wetlands and catchments. Urbanization and development, which includes the setting up of concrete structures and buildings, paying no heed to the spaces in cities responsible for maintaining ecological equilibrium, needs to be challenged. New practices, including that in governance and city planning need to be developed. In the absence of these, as extreme events occur due to climate, the occurrence of urban floods is bound to increase.









Flooding occurs most commonly form heavy rainfall, when natural watercourses lack the capacity to convey excess water. It can also result from other phenomena, particularly in coastal areas, by a storm surge associated with a tropical cyclone, a tsunami or a high tide. Dam failure, triggered by an earthquake, for instance, will lead to flooding of the downstream area, even in dry weather conditions (UN-SPIDER, 2014). Various climatic and non-climatic processes can result in different types of floods: riverine-, flash-, urban-, glacial lake outburst- and coastal floods (UNISDR, 2017). In addition to inland rivers, a few originating from neighbouring countries–Kosi in Nepal are also adding to the flood risk in states such as Bihar.


Urban vulnerability to hazards is high given the rapid growth. That is characterized by concentrated economic activity, unplanned development, and growing slum populations. High population densities, not only in urban areas but also along large rivers and coasts has compounded the vulnerabilities. Rampant and unplanned urbanization has added to the risk of flood hazard and the situation has slipped out of the control of local government.


An analysis conducted using the aqueduct flood tool, developed by the World Resources Institute shows that India leads the list of 15 countries that account for 80 per cent of total population affected by annual floods–over 4.84 million lives are affected in India each year (Luo et al., 2015). India also tops the list of countries with highest GDP per cent exposed to floods–approximately 14.3 billion USD, with Bangladesh as a distant second at 5.4 billion USD (ibid). It is estimated that INR 1,805 crore is lost each year to floods, computed as damage caused to crops, public utilities, houses, not to mention the loss of lives. In fact, about 7.55 million hectares of land is annually affected (CAG, 2017).


The 4th assessment report of the Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the incidence and intensity of flood, drought and cyclone events are going to increase throughout the world in the future. The report highlights some key trends for India, notably a general increase in temperature with high seasonal variations in rainfall pattern (IPCC, 2007). Recent (2015) unprecedented floods in Banaskhanata District (Gujarat) and Chennai (Tamil Nadu), followed by the Kerala deluge over a very short span of time seems to confirm the IPCC predictions.


Techno-Legal Arrangement for Flood Management

Disaster management in India is the responsibility of respective state governments. The central government’s role is to provide technical and financial aid to lower governmental units. Central agencies do not step in and take over a situation–they stay in the background, provide general guidance, financial support, technical assistance, and coordination across governmental units.


The National Government issues policies and guidelines from time to time for streamlining and strengthening disaster preparedness at all levels. A partial list of guidelines issued by the Union Government on flood management includes:


  • National Disaster Management Act, 2005
  • National Guidelines on Flood Management, 2008
  • National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009
  • National Guidelines on Urban Flood Management, 2010
  • National Water Policy (1987, 2002, 2012)
  • National Disaster Management Plan, 2016
  • A report on 21st Century Institutional


Architecture for India’s Water Reforms (2016). The Guideline on Flood issued by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in the year 2008 were the first comprehensive document to provide direction for planning and developing flood mitigation capacities at various levels. This included recommendations on structural and non-structural measures, including strengthening/revising flood forecasting and early warning systems, flood proofing of new developmental projects, building knowledge-skill-abilities (KSA) through awareness, education and training, improving compliance regime and flood emergency response capabilities at various levels (NDMA, 2008).


NDMA delinked urban flooding from the subject of (riverine) floods and channelized its efforts to come up with separate guidelines for it, as they understood that strategies on flood disaster management largely focused on riverine floods, which were specific to rural areas. The National Guidelines on Urban Flood Management, issued in 2010, provides a comprehensive elaboration on the steps to be taken by various stakeholders for enhancing national urban flood resilience. The national guidelines precisely define the respective roles of key players including Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), the national guidelines precisely define the respective roles of key players including Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and the Central Water Commission (CWC) (NDMA, 2010).


CWC and MoUD are charged with responsibilities associated with flood management in general and urban flood in particular. CWC holds the general responsibility of initiating, coordinating and furthering consultation with state governments and initiating schemes for the control, conservation and mutilation of water resources in the respective state for the purpose of flood risk management, irrigation, drinking water supply and water power generation (CGWB, 2016).


In addition to its other responsibilities, MoUD is also mandated to be the nodal agency for flood management, tasked with establishing the urban flood cell I the ministry; state nodal departments and ULBs and facilitate urban flood risk assessment, forecasting and warning both at the national level and state/UT levels through the required mechanisms (NDMA, 2008).


IMD’s role has been extremely vital, both in rural and urban flood management. The agency is responsible for establishing and managing automatic rainfall gauges (ARGs) for real time monitoring, with a density of 1 in every 4 sq km in all 2325 class I, II and III and towns; deployment of the Doppler Weather Radar Network to cover all areas for enhanced ‘local-scale forecasting capabilities’ with maximum possible lead-time, development of a protocol for watershed based sub-development of a protocol for watershed based sub-division of urban areas and issue watershed delineated rainfall forecast. Local-scale forecasting has become more relevant in the current scenario with extreme variability in rainfall within small geographical areas (ibid).


India did not have a National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) until 2015. NDMP addresses how the nation, at all levels, will develop, employ, and coordinate core mitigation capabilities to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. Mitigation actions include all structural and non-structural risk treatments appropriate to hazards, and leverage or incorporate new, existing and developing disaster risk reduction programmes.


Disaster Management System in Kerala: Floods 2018

Kerala is one of the few states in India that has an established institutional system with qualified and trained human resources. As mandated in the National Act, the State has a State Disaster Management Plan (SDMP) and District Disaster Management Plan (DDMP) developed on the basis of the risk foot prints. In addition, the State had taken multiple initiatives for flood mitigation, such as Operation Anantha led by the chief secretary (PTI, 2016). Kerala is also a unique example in planning and establishing a well equipped State Emergency Operation Centre (SEOC). But the quantum of losses inflicted by the recent floods put a question mark on the State’s disaster preparedness and its effectiveness. A closer look at the floods shows that there was gradual onset–not an event akin to a flashflood, where there is no time to issue an alert. Following the incessant rainfall, the State was forced to open the gates of 35 dams to release the flood runoff. For the first time in 26 years, all five flood barriers of the Idukki were opened (CWC, 2018). This caused a cascading effect, aggravating the flood situation. The NDRF and army were deployed and relief teams pulled in for rescue, as flooded hospitals struggled to provide care to the injured and sick.



The river basin area and houses in Kerala were submerged with incessant rains, combined with water released from reservoirs. Any release of water from dams/reservoirs would aggravate flood situation in the command area downstream of the dam site but under unusual conditions releasing water is the only way to reduce pressure to prevent ‘dam ‘failure’. As per the standard practice, dam authorities follow, the rule curve for maintaining water level in reservoirs at the onset of monsoon. Keeping minimal permissible level as per the rule curve will provide flexibility to the operator for using the reservoir space for flood moderation. A very tight collaboration between IMD, CWC and dam authorities is essential for effective water and flood management. A holistic review of the situation suggests that an absence of integrated and transparent mechanism connecting IMD forecasts, CWC’s predictions of daily inflow into reservoirs and Dam management plan resulted in a situation where the dam authority was forced to release a huge quantum of water. The situation worsened in the absence of effective alert and warning system in vulnerable areas. National agencies, along with dam authorities responsible for performing their specific role in implementing flood disaster mitigation measures failed to a great extent in Kerala.


With most of the land in the state inundated and service infrastructures non-functional, response (search, rescue and relief – SRAR) operation was a humongous task for the Union and State agencies in the aftermath of Kerala flood. Standard flood disaster response plan did not work in an unanticipated scenario with widespread flood occurrence (at the same time) in majority of districts in the State. Lacunae and shortcomings become obvious when the joint response team are put into an unknown situation with an unexercised and untested incident action plan in their hands.



Urbanization and Disasters: Unprecedented challenges faced by the administration for water management, including urban floods, would need to be addressed, keeping rapid urbanization in consideration. At the current pace, the number of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to twice the current figures, and reach 800 million by 2050 (United Nations, 2014). City and town land use planning need to be revised based on these estimates and climate change effects on temperature and rainfall variability.


Aggradations of Rivers and Reservoirs:

Reducing capacity of rivers, reservoirs and dams by excessive aggradations leads to inaccurate flood forecasts and adds to flood vulnerabilities. The majority of the Indian rivers and reservoirs need a reassessment of their existing capacity for planning and implementation of dredging operations.


Inter State Flood Riske: State need to work together to prepare, mitigate, respond and recover from common hazards and risks that may affect them jointly or independently. The Union Government should plan and establish an inter-states hazard profiling and mitigation management mechanism to address cross border hazards, including river and dam management for controlling floods.


Science and Technology (S&T) in Disaster Management: S&T plays an important role in flood risk monitoring, measurement, analysis and forecasting. New Internet of Things (IoT) based solutions, connected with simulation models, are required to be planned and designed for supporting flood risk mitigation objectives.



Flood Mitigation Funding: India has a well established funding mechanism (NDRF/SDRF) for disaster response and relief assistance operations. However, a National Disaster Mitigation Fund (NDFMF) is yet to be established. As an out-of-box solution, this NDFMF scheme should be planned and established in the country for reducing flood risk and vulnerabilities in time bound manner.


Flood Risk Mapping: The central government should undertake the responsibility for developing and disseminating integrated flood hazard maps for the whole country covering all floods and secondary hazards associated with it. NDMA, in close collaboration with ministries and departments in the Indian government, state and local level agencies should develop and update flood risk map both for rural and urban areas in the country. separate risk mapping should be done for interstate and cross border flood hazard.


Risk Transfer: A national flood risk map should form the basis for planning mitigation measures including risk transfer. The common citizen should be taken as the base criteria for risk transfer insurance at the domestic level. All public infrastructures in risk zones should be integrated with a ‘selective risk insurance mechanism’ (government insuring its public finance and public and private assets etc.) to provide cover from impacts due to calamities.


Core Capabilities: The national disaster management system should re-define preparedness standards for core capabilities including hazard identification, institution, infrastructure, logistics, training and education, alert and warning etc., along with providing measurable key performance indicator (KPI). Sendai framework (2015-2030) provides a good basis for identification of core capabilities and performance indicators for countries where core capabilities and performance indicators have not been defined so far (UNISDR, 2015).


Accountability and Audit: As per the CAG report on Schemes for Flood Control and Flood Forecasting, against a target for the 12th Five Year Plan for installation of 219 telemetry stations, 310 base stations and 100 flood forecasting stations, only 56 telemetry stations had been installed as of August 2016 by CWC (CAG, 2017). Most of the telemetry stations installed during the 11th Five Year Plan period were non-functional, owing to which real time data was not available at these stations. It has become necessary for the central government to plan and establish standard mechanism for “accountability and audit” of investments on disaster preparedness. Funds utilization/performance audit should be made mandatory for disaster risk management activities to ensure responsible utilization of funds and to measure accomplishments or performance.



A lot has been written about the Kerala floods already and most of the blame has been put on exceptionally heavy rainfall, that higher than normal between June 1 and August, 19, 2018 (Devasia and Menon, 2018). Why this excess rainfall was not predicted despite tall claims of having state of the art facilities in the country and why the state did not predicted despite tall claims of having state of the art facilities in the country and why the state did not prepare for this are still open questions for which no satisfactory answers have been forthcoming so far. However, we may leave this debate for now. There is no doubt that extreme rainfall was the triggering factor for this unprecedented flood but the impacts could have been minimized had the rivers flowing through Kerala been taken care of in terms of developing a process-based understanding. The Kerala flood is a classic example of long term ignorance of several important factors in river management–river dynamics, sediments and ill-planned interventions. This article highlights these issues. While the article chooses to argue for the river, it does so from a human perspective.


Crossing of ‘threshold’

Kerala is dotted with 44 rivers out of which 41 are west flowing (Kerala Irrigation Department, 2017). Most of these small and seasonal rivers have high to moderate slopes and short length from source to sea. This results in flash discharge, bringing significant amounts of sediments from the fragile Western Ghats. The rivers are extremely dynamic and even a subtle change in slope due to sediment accumulation can change the direction of the flow. A river maintains its natural course as long as the longitudinal (down valley) slope is higher than the lateral (cross valley) slope, but the moment the lateral slope becomes higher than the longitudinal slope, it leads to a ‘gradient advantage’ (Mackay and Bridge, 1995) and the river will switch its course, a process termed as ‘avulsion’. The phenomenon is known as ‘crossing of thresholds’ in technical terms and rivers such as the ones in Kerala have very low thresholds that can be crossed very easily and suddenly. The addition of excessive sediments from extreme events and landslides adds to the problem and triggers the switch. During the 2018 Kerala floods, such incidences were documented in several rivers such as Chaliyar (Mudur, 2018) and Karuvannur (Ramavarman, 2018) that led the river to go haywire, resulting in large scale inundation occurring in areas way beyond the normal course of the river. Heavy rains, coupled with release of water form overfilled dams added to the problem. it is important to note that such threshold crossing can produce enormous changes in river morphology and can change the course of the river permanently. In the long run, a river may adjust to a new equilibrium, but may never revert to its original condition unless through engineering interventions.


The August 2008 floods in the Kosi river, draining through Nepal and north Bihar, may be cited here. Excessive sediment influx and confinement of the river within embankments and obstructions, caused by the barrage raised the bed level of the river through time. This led to the breaching of the river through time. This led to the breaching of emvankment and large scale inundation (Sinha, 2009a). Interestingly, this flood occurred at a discharge of 144,000 cusecs, which was much lower than the design capacity of 950,000 cusecs for the Kosi barrage (Sinha, 2009b). The river sin Kerala are much smaller than the Kosi and presumably have a much lower threshold, so they are likely to be more prone to such dynamics. Such process-based understanding is unfortunately missing in designing river management strategies in our country and rivers in Kerala are no exception.


Engineering interventions and drainage congestion

Given the large number of rivers draining through Kerala, the spatial distribution, and the unique profile of the flows and gradients of these rivers, it is important to understand and link these with engineering interventions to explain the causative factors of the recent floods. Apart from their unique hydrology, the rivers in Kerala are also witness to unprecedented interventions in the form of dams and hydroelectric projects. The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed way back in 1895 (Ghosal, 2018) but a series of hydroelectric projects started in 1933, the first of which was the Pallivasal project (Kerala State Electricity Board, 2015). A total of 33 hydroelectric projects, 57 dams and the associated infrastructures on and around the Kerala rivers call for a much stricter reservoir operation policy for efficient discharge of flood runoff. In a single district of Idukki, that lies in the Western Ghats, there are eight reservoirs–Mullaperiyar, Idukki arch dam, Ponmudi dam, Anayirangal, Mattupetty, Kundala, Idamalayar and Bhoothathankettu. It has been argued that given the amount of rainfall and the live storage available, it was essential to make releases from the reservoir (CWC, 2018) but perhaps this could have been done in a more efficient and controlled manner and with sufficient warning to the local people. Further, the infrastructure developed over the years have significantly damaged the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats. This is reflected in decreasing forest cover and instability of the mountain slopes. The overall forest cover loss in Western Ghats has been estimated to be 35.3 per cent of the total forest cover in Kerala between 1920 and 2013 (Reddy, 2016). The damage has been so severe that the Supreme Court had to intervene and pronounce a ruling against the felling of trees in 1996. Deforestation and development of associated infrastructures to support these projects have led to rampant and unplanned construction activities resulting in modification of slopes, excavations and quarrying (Sangmola, 2018). It is easily understandable how disastrous these activities have been in terms of the destabilization of natural slopes caused by removal of vegetation cover, culminating in failures and landslides. During heavy rains such as the one in 2018, sections of these slopes washed way, adding a large sediment flux in the rivers.


Apart from causing slope instability, many structures such as roads and bridges downstream tend to either block the natural pathway or reduce the width of the river and act as a ‘barrier’ to the flow of water and sediments. This creates severe ‘drainage congestion’ as more often than not, there is not enough width to allow for safe passage of flood waters. With time, the aggravation of channels with sediments adds to the problem and the situation worsens leading to disasters like the one we have witnessed in Kerala in July-August 2018.


Encroaching the ‘river space’


The physical form of a river primarily consists of its channel and floodplain that has also been used to define ‘river space’–the space required by the river to perform its myriad functions, which include channel migration, sediment/nutrient transport, and support to riparian vegetation and ecosystem. Most developed countries have consciously committed to preserve river spaces through several measures such as defining the desirable land use in this zone (also called river corridors) and promulgating legislations to protect this space. Amongst several benefits such as providing fertile land for seasonal farming and supporting riparian fauna and flora, this measure provides for reducing the flood risk by (a) accommodating a large part of food waters during high flows including groundwater recharge, and (b) not allowing people to build settlements very close to the river. As with many other places across the country, haphazard and ill planned development in Kerala has seen significant encroachment of the river space through rapid urbanization gradually converting the fertile and permeable floodplains into human settlements. This has not only reduced infiltration of flood waters for groundwater recharge and accommodation of excess rainfall, but has also put a large population and infrastructure at a huge risk. Kerala has an extremely varied terrain that offers limited potential for urban expansion and therefore a delicate balance must be maintained between human need and riverine ecosystem protection.


Although this idea has been proposed in the Indian context as well through research papers and reports submitted to the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, there are no serious efforts underway to implement it. Any ecosystem based approach for river management must implement ideas that have multiple benefits including risk reduction of flood disasters that have recently occurred-Indus floods (2010), Uttarakhand floods (2013) and Jammu floods (2014). Such incidents keep reminding us that river management in this country requires a paradigm shift.


Impact assessment and way forward


While the rivers of Kerala continue to ravage different parts of the State during the monsoons, there is a huge task ahead to repair the physical, social and economic damages that have incurred during the 2018 event. While a lot of planning in terms of rebuilding the infrastructures may be going on already, it is pertinent to reflect upon the long term impacts on the rivers and the measures that may need to be taken to avoid such disasters in the future.


Given the diversity of rivers across the Kerala state and the fact that 13 out of 14 districts of Kerala were affected by 2018 floods, the impact of these floods are not difficult to visualize. The topmost scientific priority of the water resources department of the Kerala state should be the development of basin-specific flood forecasting and flood management plan and its dissemination. This task is easier said than done, but a concerted effort must start.


As mentioned before, several rivers may have undergone significant morphological changes during this event and some of them may now be more prone to flood risk than ever before. Therefore, complete morphological evaluation of these rivers in terms of their morphodynamics must be undertaken and immediately followed up by necessary measures to restore their equilibrium. A few stretches of the rivers have moved to new courses and it may be worthwhile to examine the flood risk in these stretches. Apart from focusing on the downstream reaches of the river, it is equally important to look into the fundamental causes of the problems that are likely to be different in different regions and then plan a remedial measure. The use of modern technology such as repetitive satellite images and drones can provide insights for these investigations.


Another area of concern is examining the efficiency of hydraulic structures and in particular their role in aggravating the flood risk in this particular event, if any. The identification of specific bridges, barrages, embankments and other infrastructures that hindered the safe passage of flood waters must be identified and suitable measures must be taken up to avoid such problems in the future. Sediment management and channel improvement around these structures and other stretches could be one of the important steps that need to be undertaken during the lean flow period apart from an extensive rehabilitation programme. Restoration of hydrologic connectivity of channels disrupted by ill-planned structures should be one of the long terms strategies for the state government in the coming years.



This event should also be taken as a stark reminder that the river space must be clearly demarcated for all rivers and the existing land use in this zone identified. The Kerala government must consider the protection of the river space through a scientifically designed plan rather than randomly selecting a buffer zone on both sides of the river as has been proposed in some states recently (1 km wide buffer zone along the Ganga in Uttarakhand as per NGT directive dated Nov, 5, 2015). There are similar rules prohibiting constructions near water bodies in other states in India too, but there is no uniformity and there are no considerations of river diversity across the states. Such regulations could be either unproductive or counter-productive depending upon the situation. While the rehabilitation programmes are being planned in Kerala, there may be an opportunity to revisit such regulations to restrict the permanent settlements in the ‘river space’. This might require designing a scientific and possibly a legislative framework as well.






The 2018 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), edited by Mycle Schneider, provides a detailed and summative description of the significant changes underway in the nuclear industry across the globe. The report emphasizes the issues of nuclear power generation throughout the world and provides a robust data series on specific countries. According to the Report, at present 31 countries generate power using nuclear reactors of which, five (China, Iran, Russia, Hungary and Pakistan) have achieved their greatest ever nuclear production for the year 2017.the total nuclear energy generated throughout the world in 2017 is estimated to be 2,503 net terawatt hours (TWh) which is one per cent more than the previous year but 4 per cent below the historic peak in 2006. In the first half of the year 2018, four more reactors were started in the world, of which three units were connected to the grid in China, which included EPR (Taishan-1) and the first AP1000 (Sanmen-1). The other two reactors Leningrad 2-1, and Rostov-4 were started in Russia.


The Report also throws light on India’s rising inclination towards hamessing atomic energy for meeting its energy demands. There are 22 active nuclear power reactors in India with a net generating capacity of 6.2 GW in 2017. However, two nuclear reactors Kakrapar 1 and 2 have been put under the long term operation (LTO) category and Rajasthan-1 has been permanently shutdown. The remaining reactors generated 34.9 TWh in 2017. In the first half of 2018, no new nuclear was commissioned in India. However, the construction of two new reactors, the third and fourth units of Kudankulam, was officially started in the later part of 2017. Along with the Kudankulam units there are five more reactors under construction in India which hold a total net capacity of 4.8 GW. Apart from this, India is also seeking to import reactors from the United States and France. A recent agreement was signed by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) and Electricite de France (EDF) for the implementation of six EPR nuclear power reators units at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Also, the visit of US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, in April 2018 was an attempt to revive the stalled nuclear project between India and USA’s Westighouse Electric Co. that plans to deliver the six nuclear reactors to India.


However, there are concerns that nuclear reactors are not entirely environment friendly and pose serious threats to health as well as the ecosystem. As per the Report, six AP1000s from Westinghouse proposed for the Mithi Virdi site in Gujarat faced a strong opposition from the local farmers, which eventually led to relocation of the site to Kovvada in south eastern India. Speaking with G’nY, S P Udaykumar, an anti-nuclear activist and writer from Tamil Nadu, stated that with the installation of so many nuclear reactors across the country, radioactive waste disposal will be a daunting task, as the half-life of this waste is around 24,000 years. He further stated that the government has not yet devised effective plans for the disposal of nuclear waste and therefore in case of Kundankulam reactors, the Supreme Court has extended the deadline of for the construction of dumping ground and storage facility for spent fuel waste to April 2022 from the earlier period of May 2018 (Singh, 2018). Apart from issues of radioactive waste disposal there is the probability of a nuclear accidents. “The tragic nuclear accidents of Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl, the consequences of which have not been completely dealt with, are still fresh in our memories. Nuclear accident, brings forth a damage so massive that generations ahead would need to contain radioactive emissions in a vicinity of 30 or more kms. We may thus needs to exercise caution with nuclear energy,” says Kumar Sundaram, and anti-nuclear activist, during a live show with G’nY. “We absolutely cannot compromise the health of our future generations to meet the present day electricity problem,” adds Udaykumar. “Therefore, there must be stricter and robust rules to ensure the proper disposal of the hazardous radioactive waste generated from nuclear reactors.”


There are two critical take-aways from this Report. First being the fact that the nuclear power predicted (22.5 GW) to be generated by the year 2031 in India, is much less than the 63 target proposed by the Indian government at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the year 2032. Secondly, the Indian government doesn’t seem to be working towards reducing the risks to life and the environment surrounding the nuclear reactors