Voices Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - 05:30
C. Lupus The monsoons are due in the North in a few weeks. That’s where most of the important rivers of our country originate. We have seen mishaps and tragedies in the recent past where these rivers are concerned. Water released carelessly washed away 24 young people in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. Elsewhere, carelessly driven vehicles have fallen into the rivers and killed people. There is another spot of potential trouble with the rivers. (Does anyone remember Kedarnath, 2013?) Bad Luck? People may blame kismet, destiny, vagaries of nature’s fury or accidents. Sorry, but as far as I am concerned, an accident is something out of your control, like a tree suddenly falling on your vehicle. Driving badly, poor maintenance practices – and messing with nature – do not constitute accidents or bad luck. In the above picture we see how the Bhuntar airfield had encroached into the river’s wetlands. The area used to be marshy and overgrown with bulrushes once upon a time, and when we were kids we used to see Sarus cranes there. The airport took away the wetlands but the river had to go somewhere; so it came to the near-side. In the next picture we can see what it has done when it moved this way. Flooding Rivers Rivers are there because water has to find a way down to the sea; always were so. Now why the big deal about flood damage? Cloudbursts do cause damage, but these are always confined to a small area. The net input into the river isn’t so big that it couldn’t handle it. Then how are the rivers suddenly the villains destroying habitations and crops? If the river is a living being, then let’s say he (or she) is mad at being robbed and is taking revenge. Another bit of “reclamation”. On the opposite side of the river is the solid waste management plant of Kullu town. A commendable effort. But not for those living on the opposite bank. When the river water rises, it will erode the near side. And if the near side exposes hard rock, then the waste management plant is in for trouble. Wetlands The river banks don’t have straight highway-like edges. They meander, narrow down and form gorges, spread out in shallows, sweep around bends. There are also wide shallows at various points on the rivers where the land is swampy and home to frogs, water-birds, bulrushes, small fish and even quicksand. One would say: What a waste of easily irrigated, flat land! Fill it with rocks and soil, get an earthmover, and build an embankment to keep the river out. Let’s build a nice house and plant fruit trees, and grow crops. Yes, that’s exactly what many other people think too. And they don’t waste too much time putting it into practice. Not to speak of the sand mining that’s going on; they too find these places very convenient. They don’t realise it, but they are robbing the river of valuable wetlands. These wetlands are not, repeat not, a nuisance. They are the first line of defence against flooding. The water always tries to find the line of least resistance.  When the water level suddenly increases, the surplus water finds its way into the adjoining wetlands and spreads out. And when the level starts receding these wetlands feed the river and don’t let the water level go down excessively.                                                 In the picture above: The small town of Bhuntar on the banks of the Beas has spread out into what was once a wide and lush wetland. Now when the water rises, it will either smash through the crate wire embankments on the opposite bank and wash away the shanties and pucca houses; or it will sweep to the near side and wash off the road on which the photographer is standing. I have long compared a wetland to a capacitor in an electrical circuit. Now that there are no wetlands (known as bihaals here) when the water increases, it will have no way to go but straight ahead, and up. It will try and knock down any obstacles in its path. Houses, land, people, livestock, vehicles, you name it. Even bridges don’t get spared.  I am no expert on rivers, and as far as I know, the wetlands are not even on the experts’ radar. But having lived on the banks of the Beas river most of my life, this is what I have observed. These bihaals now only exist in revenue records. We can rehabilitate at least some of them. Or we can tell the disaster relief-wallas to stay on standby. C. Lupus is a Himachali blogger.
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