Friday, August 25, 2006

Flood control and the lack of it

Flooding is big news this monsoon in many parts of India, on a scale much larger than the notorious Mumbai flood of 2005. Flood control is also big news this season in the Central Valley of California, though in a far less drastic way. A proposed State Assembly bill titled AB 1899 and seven other bills related to flood control were shelved yesterday since it seemed apparent that the Governor would veto them if tabled. The minor uproar that has resulted in the regional press has accused the building lobby of pulling strings to sabotage the bills. Among other things, the bills would have restricted development of new houses and businesses in flood-prone areas, and would have made local governments accountable for allowing such developments. Smells like the good old builder-politician nexus, huh?

As an Indian, it is tempting to get a wicked feelgood kick out of this, to think that flood control here is as much plagued by vested interests as in India. Recall that after the 2005 Mumbai flood, commentrators had blamed rampant construction by developers in the floodplain of the Mithi river coupled with BMC's oversight as the main reason for the flood. Unfortunately, the analogy is too far from the truth. The California flood-bill-sabotage (or the New Orleans flood disaster, for that matter) is only a dropped catch compared to flood control in India, which is a case of the team not turning up for the match at all!

There are many ways of representing the difference in effectiveness of flood control in India and the US; I choose to put it in terms of 'democratization' of flood control, because it not affected by how rich or resourceful a state is and thus offers an even comparison.

In the US, flood control at the federal level is the prerogative of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). USACE has developed its capabilities over more than a century, learning important lessons from big flood disasters (read The great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America). Hydraulic research centers run by USACE not only do studies for large project with federal/state mandates, but are actively involved in developing technical resources like manuals and hydraulic softwares for 'democratic' use, i.e., 100% of this stuff is available for free download or free mail order from USACE and is widely used by citizens. FEMA, which administers flood insurance in the US, offers PDFs of countrywide flood maps online - any citizen can log on and momentarily find out if his community has a flood risk, if the risk of the flood is 1% of 0.2%, and whether he should buy flood insurance or not. If there is a creek or river in your town, there is a good chance that the US Geological Survey offers real-time and historical flow data for it.

The point is that in addition to the large scale public works like building flood control dams and levees, these agencies have ensured that information and awareness percolates downwards. Thousands of town and country governments use these technical resources to regulate development around floodplains in their jurisdiction, and millions of citizens use it to protect or insure themselves against floods. (So that the discussion doesnt get skewed, note that all this info was freely available in print form since long before the internet came into common use.)

On the other hand, in India, flood control is mostly perceived only in terms of flood relief, or in terms of big-ticket physical flood infrastructure. The former is illustrated by the recent demand by the Gujarat CM for Rs 2000 crores to mitigate flood damage, the latter by President Kalam's post-flood musing that the river inter-linking project might help prevent such disasters. 'Soft' measures for pre-emption or mitigation such as long-term regulation of construction in floodplains, development of affordable flood insurance, or development of better flood forecasting and warning systems are rarely talked about and never implemented.

On the bueaucratic front, the forerunners in India on the flood front are National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) and Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) (water is a state subject in India, so there is no direct equivalent to USACE). Both these esteemed organisations treat their knowledge bank as a heavily guarded state secret. The NIH website proudly announces that their technical studies are "widely circulated free of cost to state and central organisations", but offers no simplified or otherwise information for citizens; apparently, for them hydrology is none of your or my business. Ironically, the most downloaded paper in the international Journal of Hydrology is written by a NIH scientist and can be downloaded for $30. But can an Indian citizen living in India easily lay his hands on a NIH study, paid or otherwise? No. When I worked in Delhi, I made a request to IMD on behalf of my office to buy historical rainfall and wind data for Delhi. But when they slapped us with an estimate of Rs 90,000 for the data, we decided to forget about it (my employer wasnt some MNC, it was a 100% local enterprise).

The concept of democratization of water is of course not new. Noted water economist Tushaar Shah often calls groundwater a "democratic resource" (because it is far easily accessed than waiting for the state to build a dam) and the late Anil Agarwal had used the catchy phrase "Making water everybody's business" for CSE's water campaign. While the thriving club of traditional water harvesting advocates in India will insist that hydraulic knowledge actually flows from the bottom upwards, I believe that a top-down approach of loosening up state institutions as far as knowledge goes, and active engagement of flood-managers with the citizenry and local organisations would do no harm to the situation.

Update: Commentary on the IMD in Frontline, via David

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