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Floods kill over 300 in India, Pakistan

Flood waters raging across the disputed Kashmir border between India and Pakistan show why cooperation over transboundary river basins is better than confrontation
Flood waters wash away the Doru Verinag bridge in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir (Image by Press Trust of India)
Flood waters wash away the Doru Verinag bridge in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir (Image by Press Trust of India)

Over 160 people have been killed in India and a similar number in Pakistan as rivers of the transboundary Indus basin have flooded their banks for nearly a week following heavy rainfall in the western Himalayas.

Srinagar – the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in north-western India – has effectively turned into a lake with the Jhelum river overflowing its banks and the waters showing no signs of going down. Floodwaters have entered homes in many parts of Srinagar, with people being forced to live on rooftops and communications severely hampered. Most of the deaths have occurred due to house collapses.

Military and civilian rescue personnel have already evacuated over 17,000 people from their homes in various parts of the Kashmir valley and adjoining parts of Jammu. India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state on Sunday and thereafter called the floods a “national disaster”.

The situation is just as grim in Pakistan to which the rivers flow. Jhelum and Chenab – two of the main rivers of the Indus basin – are in spate well before they enter Pakistan, while the Indus itself is hugely swollen by heavy rainfall in the Himalayas and the Karakoram range in Pakistan.

In Srinagar, the state government secretariat, the high court and many hospitals are among those inundated. There has been no electricity since the weekend. With phone lines down, desperate residents are flooding social media with SOS messages in those fleeting moments when they can connect to the internet.

Other towns in the central and southern parts of the Kashmir valley – including Pulwama, Anantnag and Shopian – are completely cut off, as roads and bridges have been swept away by the flood waters. The main highway that links Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of India has been closed, as parts of the it have been washed away, and vehicles are being forced to take a long detour.

Due to constant heavy rain, the authorities were unable to drop relief material from helicopters in the first days of flooding. But as the rain let up on Sunday, food packets, water, medicines and blankets were being dropped onto rooftops, with the Indian Air Force deploying 29 aircraft for the purpose.

After Modi flew over some of the flooded areas in a helicopter and met state government officials including Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, he said the floods were a “national level calamity” and promised an immediate aid of Rs 1,000 crore ($166 million) from the central government. “I would like to assure the people of the state that it is not their crisis alone. It is a crisis for the whole country,” Modi said.

Abdullah asked the stranded residents not to panic. “I know the circumstances are bad but request them to stay on upper floors. We promise to reach them,” he said.

Those stranded in various parts of Kashmir include a large number of tourists, and their worried relatives have been flooding social media channels. The central government has set up a control room to provide information. Voluntary organizations have started collecting relief material for the flood victims.

An almost identical devastation has hit Pakistan-administered Kashmir – where the death toll has reached 62 with 1,600 people rendered homesless – as the floodwaters swept down the mountains. With over 160 people killed already, the swollen rivers are now overflowing their banks as they reach the plains in Punjab and are threatening to flood downstream Sindh as well.

English daily Dawn said Punjab government officials reported further destruction on a large scale, washing away houses and livestock across 600 villages in the Gujranwala and Sialkot regions of Punjab on Sunday.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department has warned of a major flood sweeping down the Indus in Sindh by the coming weekend.

Pakistan army’s Inter Services Public Relations has said that army has set up a relief camp with medical facilities at Chelum near Astore, one of the six districts of the Gilgit- Baltistan province in the Himalayas). On Sunday, at least 400 marooned villagers were rescued from Deosai in the province, one of the highest plateaus in the world. The floods have killed 11 people in Gilgit Baltistan. Meanwhile dozens of villages of Bakot circle in Abbottabad district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province remained disconnected from the rest of the country as well as Pakistan-administered Kashmir for the sixth consecutive day due to landslides.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif surveyed the flooded areas by helicopter on Sunday, and the central government is coordinating relief efforts. The Pakistan Army has asked people on river banks and in low lying areas to vacate their homes, as roofs continue to collapse – the main cause of deaths so far.

Ghulam Rasul, Pakistan’s Chief Meteorological Officer, has also warned that due to the heavy rainfall, lakes at the snouts of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Karakorum mountains could burst, causing more flash floods downstream.

See Floods kill scores in Pakistan

Also see No lessons learnt in flood-hit in Pakistan

The floods have led Modi to reach out to Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, and offer assistance in flood relief operations in “across the Line of Control” that divides Kashmir between the two countries.

Modi told the media in Srinagar, “While reviewing the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, I was informed that the damage to life and property is equally, if not more, severe in areas across the Line of Control as well. In this hour of need, I offer any assistance that you may need in the relief efforts that will be undertaken by the Government of Pakistan. Our resources are at your disposal wherever you need them.” Modi wrote to Sharif to this effect, and the Indian High Commission in Islamabad released the letter to the media.

In response, a spokesperson of the Pakistan foreign ministry said the government was “ready to help in whatever way possible to mitigate the suffering of the people affected by the floods,” referring to Jammu and Kashmir.

The mutual offers of assistance are a ray of hope for better coordination in the transboundary Indus basin, at least in matters of exchanging information of impending disasters. The offers come as a welcome departure from earlier reports in a section of the Pakistani media, which had alleged that Indian authorities had opened the gates of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab and had thus worsened the flood situation in downstream Pakistan.

Those reports were promptly debunked by top officials on both sides of the border. Asked about the media reports, Mirza Asif Baig – chairman of the Indus Water Commission on behalf of Pakistan – told thethirdpole.net, “No, these floods are caused by rainfall in the basin of the Chenab river.”

The Indus Water Commission – with co-chairs from Pakistan and India – looks after the implementation of the Indus Waters Treaty between the two countries.

A similar reaction came from India.

“Where is the question of opening the dam gates in a run of the river hydroelectric project,” Mehraj Ahmad Kakroo, Managing Director of Jammu and Kashmir State Power Development Corporation (JKSPDC), told thethirdpole.net when asked to react to the media reports. “The gates are not closed at all. Except in mid-summer when the water flow is at its minimum, they are kept open all the time.”

JKSPDC runs the Baglihar hydroelectric project, of which the first two phases have been built, and are generating power. Kakroo, the head of the corporation, said on the morning of September 6, “We are constantly monitoring the water flow in the Chenab at the dam site. The average flow at this time of the year (early September) is 2,400 cumec (cubic metres per second). Due to the heavy rain, the flow has now gone up to 3,200 cumec, but that is not enough to cause flooding downstream.”