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Floods in India: Lessons to learnt [Mains Article]

Kerala in 2018 witnessed one of the worst floods in its history. Twelve out of 14 districts were affected. However, no disaster response is useful without learning lessons.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
August 13, 2019


  • Why it was in news?
  • Causes of irregular weather pattern
  • Steps need to be taken by southern coastal states
  • Link between Heavy rainfall and floods
  • Suggestions
  • Constructive steps taken during the Kerala flood
  • Conclusion

Floods in India: Lessons to learnt [Mains Article]

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Why it was in news?

In what has now become a familiar pattern, the monsoon began feebly in June but lashed back in July and the first week of August, claiming over 50 lives in Kerala and displacing at least two lakh people in western Maharashtra, northern Karnataka, Kerala and coastal Karnataka.

floods_in_india_3 IASToppers

Causes of irregular weather pattern

  • Weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable with every passing year, causing episodes of extreme heat, cold and flooding.
  • This points to the effects of climate change caused by years of carbon emissions and exploitation of natural resources.
  • Construction booms of the past few decades have adversely affected the wetlands and river valleys across states.
  • Excessive use of concrete and the illegal encroachment of river banks and lakes have constricted natural drainage systems.

Steps need to be taken by southern coastal states

southern coastal states IASToppers

  • Mining and quarrying continues in the hilly regions, as a result of which the Malappuram and Wayanad regions of Kerala have been hit by landslides regularly.
  • Kerala have brought riverbed sand mining under some control, with crushed stone being used instead for construction. But it is time for these States to take the Gadgil Committee, which suggests that 64 per cent of the Western Ghats be declared an ecologically sensitive area, more seriously.
  • These States have yet to accept even the Kasturirangan panel’s report which prohibits any activity for 37 per cent of the Western Ghats region.

Link between Heavy rainfall and floods

Heavy rainfall and floods IASToppers Floods in India: Lessons to learnt [Mains Article]

  • It has been reported that extreme rainfall events are increasing over India and widespread floods have increased threefold over the last several decades from an average of two events per year to six events per year.
  • There is scientific evidence that global warming is leading to more moisture loading in the atmosphere, which, in turn, is causing more extreme precipitation events. However, there is no clear evidence that this is leading to any increase in floods.
  • A new study by Australian and American researchers confirmed that increased extreme rainfall events do not necessarily lead to increased floods.
  • Many hydraulic factors such as physiography, drainage, catchment size and vegetation cover are critical for peak flood conditions. There are also several unexpected factors that affect flood response to extreme precipitation.
  • For example, in the United States, on an average only 36 per cent of the time extreme rain events led to extreme river discharge. Much depended on how wet or dry was the river catchment area before the extreme rainfall.
  • If the catchment area was wet prior to the extreme rainfall event, extreme discharge occurred much more frequently than the average. Hence, soil moisture heavily influences flood response to extreme rainfall.

Extreme rainfall

  • One of the most important factors for extreme rainfall is the rate at which atmospheric moisture is increasing with global warming. The capacity of air to hold moisture increases by seven per cent for each degree of warming.
  • The increase in extreme rainfall is due to a combination of this increase in moisture as well as changes in atmospheric circulation.
  • For India, the impact of extreme rain on rivers and streamflow is complicated by dams, reservoirs, urbanisation and other land use changes as well as increased evaporative losses due to global warming.
  • Himalayan-born rivers in India carry some of the highest sediment loads in the world. Sediment loads have a nonlinear relation with streamflow which means these loads can increase more rapidly beyond a certain threshold of streamflow.
  • In addition, extreme precipitation events have increased over parts of the Himalayas and more of the precipitation may arrive as rain instead of snow in a warming world. This would again change the seasonality of peak stream flows.
  • These multitude of natural-human system interactions over India point to the urgent need for a better understanding of the complexity of the relation between extreme precipitation, stream flows and floods especially where human action may escalate flood risks.


Be prepared for possible mega-disaster

  • Often, disasters come without clear notice or warning, and hence India need to be prepared to launch a large response involving multiple stakeholders at different levels all the time.

Learn ways to manage water

  • A large part of India is prone to hydrological disasters on account of drought, floods and cyclones. Hence, at various levels, there is need to learn to manage scarcity as well as excess water.
  • Government needs to take a careful look at integrated dam management, proper contour and precipitation inundation maps, formulate effective land management laws and ensure their enforcement.

Disaster management instruments

ndma IASToppers

  • The 2005 Disaster Management Act enacted by Parliament, 2016 National Disaster Management Plan from National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), various Guidelines from NDMA, state government acts and notifications are some of instruments for effective disaster management.
  • There should be a concerted effort to put these guidelines and plans into action.

Better forecast and effective synergy

  • Weather forecasting needs to become more effective. To achieve this, not only the science of forecasting but also its dissemination and follow-on actions after the forecast need to be improved.
  • Agencies such as India Meteorology Department (IMD), Central Water Commission (CWC) and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) should have pre-notified national and state-level agency liaison protocols for appropriate information and warning.

Plan for critical infrastructure

  • Significant public resources are invested to set up critical infrastructure such as airports, railway stations and others. They need to have appropriate disaster management plans to ensure they are well protected from disasters.

Ensure better coordination

  • There is also a need to strengthen Incident Response System (IRS) training and its implementation during disaster response. Establishing a Unified Command consisting of multiple responding agencies is one of the strategies discussed in IRS.
  • This is pertinent in large disasters as multiple agencies such as Military, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Fire Services etc. come together for search and rescue operations.
  • Unified Command involving these agencies will help in common planning and clear demarcation of geographies for effective rescue and response action.

Promote support to NGOs

  • Due to their flexibility, NGOs are able to address the specific needs of the survivors. However, NGOs need resources to undertake their efforts and the government should help NGOs and promote their efforts to enable them to raise resources.
  • One way the government can support NGOs is by creating a level playing field by provisioning tax exemptions to the donors on par with the tax exemptions available for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.

Strengthen local capacities

  • There should be clearly articulated efforts to strengthen community capacities to cope with disasters. Suitable system and operational procedures should also be in place to extend government support to local community efforts during disasters.
  • For example, the fishing community of Kerala moved quickly and participated in rescue operations with the national rescue agencies during 2018 Kerala floods.

Fund-raising from media houses

  • Many media house are supporting fund-raising for the Prime Minister’s relief fund, Chief Minister’s relief fund as well as for NGOs. Multiple media appeals for different funds and NGOs may potentially confuse donors.
  • When government also actively raises funds, then many big donors, such as companies may also consider political appropriateness rather than actual use of funds while donating.
  • To avoid this confusion, media companies could come together and formulate one single appeal and then go on to work with NGOs with the resources they raised.
  • Experiences of this kind have greatly facilitated fund-raising from the public in the UK.

Diseases Prevention

  • Water, sanitation and health are major issues in the aftermath of cyclones and floods.
  • An increased amount of stagnant water increases the risk of mosquito- and waterborne diseases.
  • A speedy response is crucial to prevent the spread of diseases as floods are often followed by epidemics.

Mock Drills

  • Drills should be regularly organised to inform people what to do if an alert is issued: lock up their homes, keep their cattle in a safe place, and take few clothes and important documents with them.

Reaching out to the vulnerable and marginalised

  • Some disaster victims and survivors are more vulnerable than the others.
  • A government’s priority should be to ensure that relief efforts reach the most marginalised and vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, elderly people, poverty-stricken etc.

Responsible construction

  • Government must make sure that the land on which the civil construction is taking place, should not blocking a nala that flows only in the monsoons and should do not dig up hillsides or cut down trees.
  • Building in such a heedless way could very well de-stabilize the soil and cause a landslide or block the natural flow of water and cause flood later.

Improving mental health

  • A little noticed consequence of the floods is the mental stress on those who have lost all their possessions. A wide-ranging set of emotional distress often follows.
  • The government should directly interact with the affected families for their mental rehabilitation.

Improving Logistics

  • Volunteer networks and NGOs who transport relief materials ought to find ways to coordinate with local law enforcement.

Airports built on water bodies

  • Most of the busiest airports in India are frequently flooded when the rains are heavy, leading to large-scale economic losses
  • The flooding of the Kochi airport during Kerala flood is an example of poor planning leading to disastrous outcomes. The airport was built on the paddy fields and wetlands adjacent to the Periyar river.

Constructive steps taken during the Kerala flood


Depoliticising rescue operations

  • The Kerala flood rehabilitation efforts shows that it is possible to de-politicise rescue and relief operations.
  • Political parties in Kerala accept that a huge natural calamity should not be politically exploited.

Officials on the ground

  • During the flood, the top officials, from cabinet ministers to opposition leaders, were seen on the ground aiding the rescue operation.
  • This sent out a powerful reassuring message to flood victims and shows serious intent of the Kerala government for management of rescue operation.

Social human capital

  • During the flood, the social human capital aided the state government in rescue operations. Local people proved to be differentiating factor between disorganised and competent rescue operations.
  • Temples, mosques, churches all turned into relief shelters. The fishers of Kerala turned into rescuers.

Information transmission

  • Accurate, credible and regular information makes a critical difference between panic and relative calm.
  • The Kerala CM held a televised news conference every day and spoke directly to people and kept lines of communication open to receive distress calls which were passed on to the National Disaster Response Force teams, the Army and other defence personnel involved in the operation.


  • Many media networks did not broadcast regular ads to focus on the flood coverage.
  • TV channels also became collection points for calls from people stranded in flood water and passed on the information to the CM’s office.


  • India has to pay special attention to its institutional capacity for disaster mitigation and relief, the nodal agencies for which need to be kept well-funded.
  • With the late onset of the monsoon having become the norm in India, it may be time to consider delaying kharif sowing as well.
  • For India, it is time to redress the environmental imbalance that has played a major role in intensifying the damage.
  • How well a country mobilizes resources to tackle disasters, natural or otherwise, is a sign of how advanced it really is. India has made progress, but our efforts need to be stepped up.


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