Water scarcity and flooding are products of our hubrisThe insatiable hunger for land has altered the flood plains into paved areas.
At the end of June, when the monsoon was delayed by almost four weeks in Nepal, farmers were praying for the rains to begin so they could plant paddy before it was too late. However, within two weeks of its arrival, the heavy rains started causing widespread damage. The emerging scenarios of contrasting water scarcity and flooding seem to have increased in their intensity to cause trouble. The question on everyone’s mind is: is there any respite from water scarcity during the winter and from flooding in the summer? The answer would be yes; but only if we understand why these phenomena have become more intense and, then, act accordingly. After all, water scarcity and flooding are two sides of the same coin.
What needs to be understood is that when water begins to disappear at existing sources over a wider area in the dry period, like we have witnessed lately across the mountains, or when floods become increasingly hostile, like that of Hanumante in 2018 or Balkhu now, it is time to realise that years of neglect, misuse and mismanagement of land have finally manifested. These severe impacts have started to surface, indicating that our actions against natural processes have surpassed nature’s resilient ability to bounce back. The fault lies largely with the encroachment of the flood plains in the valleys by land mongers for short-term benefits, or the destruction of waterways in the hills by politicians who carry out development works with the next elections in mind. Both scenes cost dearly in the long-term.
Instead of correcting the path of mismanagement, which may even include accepting the wrongs done for years and reversing it, policymakers start to address the problem with quick-fix solutions such as, in the case of water scarcity, tapping the last remaining aquifers by means of deep boring or investing in plastic-lined ponds to catch rainwater. These short-sighted actions have long-term consequences in nature. Deep boring takes away the last ounce of water in the lower aquifers that continue to feed the streams during the driest months, while plastic-lined ponds keep rainwater from entering the groundwater system. Similarly, embankments are constructed to control floods, which only provide a sense of protection for a short period. In the longer term, as we have seen time and again, they are not effective.
Let’s remind ourselves that the streams and rivers of mid-mountains and valleys are fed entirely by water stored in the mountains and groundwater, which are replenished every year by the monsoon rain, and not by snowmelt as is generally believed. Every bit of open space on the ground is actually a gateway through which monsoon rainwater seeps in and is held as groundwater. For this, the rainwater must have adequate time to seep into the ground. Unfortunately, we have disrupted the process of groundwater replenishment in the valley by sealing most of the open spaces by either paving them over or erecting buildings on them. What little wetland was left has been drained and occupied by buildings, while waterways in the mountains have been damaged or altered by roads and other infrastructure.
The distressing stories about water scarcity coming out of Chennai, the southern Indian city which is also flooded frequently, are a reminder of how policymakers who have been neglecting years of warnings made by experts can result in extreme conditions of water scarcity. The government has been forced to run water trains to bring water to the affected residents. Experts have, for decades, warned that groundwater, by nature, is a limited source; however, the growing economy of the ever-expanding city flourished by exploiting groundwater for all its needs. As a result, Chennai, which gets two monsoons, has gone so dry that it dominated most headlines globally.
Kathmandu has been reeling under similar water shortages for over two decades. Like in Chennai, where more than three-fourths of the water demand is met by the commercial water suppliers, a large part of the water in Katmandu is currently supplied by private vendors, who extract groundwater and supply it in jars. Water suppliers will continue to exploit groundwater even when Melamchi, a trans-basin water project being constructed to bring water to the valley, arrives because it won’t reach everywhere. In addition, the encroachment of flood plains and its sealing by buildings and roads will continue unabated. Continued extraction without any plan to replenish will lead to unrelenting depletion of groundwater. With more pumps sucking groundwater out, we may also start making headlines soon.
Two sides of the same coin
The encroachment of flood plains has two consecutive results: It seals the flood plain restricting the floodwater from seeping in, adding more water to the floods, while the narrow river channel increases the velocity of floodwater which has already increased in volume due to the sealing of the flood plains. Consequently, the high-volume, high-velocity flood water causes more damage to the structures and properties on the flood plains, while, on the other hand, when the rainwater flows out as floods, water stands no chance to go into the ground. But why have policymakers ignored this seemingly simple fact that these problems are two sides of the same coin? There is a reason.
Rivers, streams, springs and water pools are often misunderstood as independent and unlimited sources of water. But they are not. Rather they are an outcome of multiple aspects such as the climate, rainfall, topography, geology, elevation, and, finally, vegetation as icing on the cake. The combination of these factors, which are as varied as the landscape, makes the presence of water in any area incredibly unique. Change in any of these factors has a direct bearing on the waterscape in a particular area.
The growing economy and its insatiable hunger for land have altered the flood plains into paved areas, while the rainfall pattern seems to have changed due to climate change. The combination of these two changes has resulted in a new land-water dynamic. The overwhelming amount of water dumped by intense rain over a paved area is forced to flow out as soon as it hits the ground, which is evident instantly in small watersheds, such as that of Hanumante and Balkhu, in the form of intense floods and, of course, followed by acute water shortages later.
Since we failed to recognise the disruption we caused to the land–water relation and its consequences in the valley, we moved to foothills for sand mining and destroyed the hillocks without any hesitation. Now, mountains further up are being targeted for developing recreational projects. It won’t be surprising if intense floods also begin to occur in the bigger watersheds of Bagmati and Bishnumati in the years ahead. It seems like we have our own hubris to contend with before we manage scarcity and flooding.