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Understanding flood events -- a critique of civil society responses

In the attached article published in "Current Science" magazine, Mr Chetan Pandit, a water resources engineer analyses civil society reactions in the media to flood events like the Bihar floods of 2008 and finds them wanting. Mr. Pandit posits that civil society orgs orgs and people are all too ready to take convenient positions eg. the cause of the floods is man's interference, technology based flood management paradigms are wrong and so on. Engineers are typically slow to react as they take time to study the facts and in the case of government technocrats and engineers, they are usually restricted from commenting freely. The net result is lack of healthy debate in the media, which ends up being loaded by one-sided anti-government and anti-technology commentary.

While the article was not written in the context of the current floods in South India, it has been published at a topical time by co-incidence.

We welcome a rebuttal of some of Mr. Pandits' more extreme comments and a debate on the broader questions as well as suggestions on how more interaction between NGOs and government engineers can lead to better management and decisions in the water sector. 

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  • Mr.Pandit has explicitly brought into light the importance of Hydrology, Open channel Hydraulics and river morphology in countering some of the existing beliefs.I appreciate his way of projecting various points, especially regarding the role of embankments, reservoirs and basic ethics followed by learned technical experts.It is essential for us to know that all the structures constructed across different rivers have been built using the then available data.Designing is done taking into consideration the maximum possible flood infloos, duration of a flood , flood intensity and the river morphology.When ever a design is made we invariably spell out the boundary conditions and the error limits, to help those who execute the works at the site to keep these factors in view in carrying out various works.Unfortunately, the technical aspects are given lesser importance , many a time, due to cost factors and political compulsions.In addition lack of instrumentally calibrated data prior to 19th century has hampered our judgement in designing the structures, leading to devastations when flood infloos go beyond the suggested maximum level.In addition, lack of regular quality maintenance measures leading to decrease of reservoir capacity and damage to gates and other man made structures due to siltation resultant problems enhance the problems.
  • We can not brush aside the damage done by flood resultant silt.Every one is aware of recent disaster created by silt in different parts of A.P.and Karnataka.
  • Nature can not be controlled.However, we can derive benefits by nurturing the nature and using it`s products by understanding our strengths and weaknesses.No genuine scientist or a technical expert has ever claimed that man can controll the nature.Only those who are known as scientific and technical managers, due to lack of indepth knowledge of the subject can only claim so.
  • Prediction and forecasting natural hazards are categorised into two branches
    • Long range based on over all scenario existing in a region ,following statistical data and
    • short range or pointed forecasting that is dynamic in nature as it involves variations with time and space.In this no statistical analysis can help.One has to use both technical and intuitive inputs through quality monitoring.
  • Experts are aware of these factors.Unfortunately, experts are either conditioned to change their strategy due to fear/ favour or not allowed to take decisions by the administrators/ politicians. Until this aspect is addressed properly it is difficult to expect any change even in future.
  • Disaster management has to be viewed as a a continuing process.Unfortunately, we forget the setbacks and norms fixed after a set back leading to repetition of such calamities.
  • Floods are basically natural causes.Man`s adventures and mis adventures do cause problems.But, his interventions, at the design and construction level(provided quality norms and area specific environmental hazards are addressed systematically) can at the best can be termed as a triggering mechanism .Unfortunately, this aspect is forgotten and we invariably try to find fault with one or the other, setting aside the basics associated with a model/design etc.
  • With the ongoing climate and monsoon pattern changes, due to global warming related issues, it is extremely essential that we have disaster management teams( comprising of scientists, technical experts, engineers, administrators, planning personnel and the common man)at vulnerable segments and monitor various time and space related dynamics.Postmortem is necessary but we can not extrapolate post mortem results of an event to other regions and to other structures as every event and every structure is unique by itself.To derive best possible results we need to keep this aspect in mind and try to exchange data with the basc aim of safe guarding the society`s interests.There is no use of criticising either governmental or NGO efforts, without pin pointing the mistakes/ defects.Media should help one and all in properly projecting the reality, rather than collecting irrelevant data and create stories out of the poor quality information and there by enhancethe problem.Such mis representations, during such disasters of significant magnitude,would not allow any one to come forward to do their best.This does not mean the experts are correct all the times.As pointed out above, it is paramount to have quality criterion in preparing designs and executing projects that have direct impact on large sections of our society.
  • In a society we have different segments of people.These different segments of people need to support each other, in carrying out developmental activities and in facing natural hazard related calamities.NGOs have contributed significantly in helping under previliged and needy segments of our society.It may be true that all the NGOs are not purely service oriented.Some of them may be commercial.To catogorise one and all as bad is not correct.There are different channels to monitor the activities of these organisations.We need to respect these organisations and support them, until we are confident that their activities are positive.

I believe in channelising our energies in the right direction, rather than wasting our energies in finding fault with others.Let us be optimistic and positive and co-operate with each other to enhance the quality of our lives.

Dr. P Ramachandra Reddy
Scientist G (Retd), P.I. USERS Project (DST) & Emeritus Scientist
National Geophysical Research Institute

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