What Triggered The 2014 Kashmir Floods?

17 October 2014
Greater Kashmir
Shakil A Romshoo

Srinagar: The widespread and intense rains observed in the state from 1 to 7 September, 2014 are mainly attributed to the rare combined effect of the Western Disturbance (WD) over J&K and its interaction with monsoons, which seems to have intensified in its last phase in the valley that predominately receives the precipitation from Western Disturbances. The high rainfall in the south Kashmir and along the Pir Panjal mountains gives credence to the influence of the monsoons in the observed extreme rainfall preceding the 2014 Kashmir floods. With the urbanized and mismanaged floodplains of Jhelum lending impetus, the situation attained disastrous dimensions due to the prolonged extreme precipitation events observed over the entire Kashmir valley during the first week of the September, exacerbated by the higher snowmelt runoff from the extensive snow-packs observed in the mountainous regions this year. The frequency of the extreme rainfall events and floods has increased worldwide and in the Indian Himalayas as well. Kashmir valley received widespread and abnormally high rains from 1-7 September 2014 triggering the unprecedented flooding in Jhelum basin. There are also reports of several cloudbursts in the upper reaches of the Jhelum basin during the period and the sudden and drastic increase of the water levels in the Jhelum basin have been ascribed to these hearsay cloudbursts. The cloudburst reported in the Sonamarg area is said to have increased the water level in Sindh nallah by 75 cm in just 2 hours. Similarly, the cloudburst reported in Kounsarnag mountains in south Kashmir is believed to have drastically increased the turbulent flow of the Vishav nallah causing tremendous damage to infrastructure and crops along its banks. However, there is no instrumental or satellite data evidence of these reported cloudbursts in the entire basin. Analysis of data from 18 automatic weather stations in the valley and half a dozen of earth observation geostationary satellites does not give credence to any of these hearsay cloudbursts. As per the analysis of the archived meteorological data for the last 125 years for the Srinagar city, September is the least rainy month for the valley with the mean rainfall of 26.6 mm but the summer capital of the state recorded about 173 mm of rainfall in the first week of Sept., crossing its 25 year high of 151.9 mm preceding the 1992 floods. 7-day antecedent rainfall recorded at certain places in the south Kashmir like Qazigund crossed 617 mm of rain. From the analysis of the precipitation records from the Automatic Weather Stations, it is observed that South Kashmir, on an average, received rainfall almost twice to that of the central and north Kashmir that generated enormous surface runoff and baseflow leading to a deluge in the basin. It is pertinent to mention here that Kashmir valley has been receiving a good amount of snowfall since 2010, which is responsible for the higher snowmelt runoff observed in the Jhelum tributaries even in the month of September The Jhelum waters overflew the embankments for major part of its stretch from South Kashmir to the Srinagar city. The gauge reading at Sangam crossed 36 ft on 5 September 2014 with the floodwaters measuring about 1, 20, 000 cusecs and overflowing more than 1 m above the banks. Similarly, the gauge reading at Srinagar (Ram Munshibagh station) crossed 30 ft on 7 Sept., 2014 much above the danger mark of 22 ft discharging more than 70, 000 cusecs of floodwaters against the drainage capacity of about 35, 000 cusecs. The floodwaters entered the Srinagar city through several breaches along the weaker sections of its embankments and due to the overflowing of the Jhelum 3-5 ft. above its banks, as the recorded water levels in the river were exceptionally high and much above the drainage capacity of the river in Srinagar. The flood inundation levels recorded in the floodplains of the Jhelum were the highest in the archived hydrological history of Kashmir with vast areas in Kashmir valley inundated, many of these areas remained under floodwaters for more than a week. Some low lying areas in Srinagar city remained under floodwaters for more than 4 weeks. In south Kashmir, several villages and cultivated lands were washed away by the floodwaters of the turbulent mountainous tributaries of the Jhelum like Rambiara, Veshu and Romshi. The Jhelum was flowing almost 1m above its embankments in the stretch from Sangam to Kakapora for a distance of about 25 km on 6-7 September 2014. The river got swollen attaining a width of more than 2 km at certain places in South Kashmir. Out of the 1760 sq. km. of floodplains, 912 sq.km were flooded in the Jhelum basin during the 2014 flooding. The flood problem in the Kashmir valley is partly due to the inadequate carrying capacity of the river Jhelum in its length from Sangam to Khandanyar. Just upstream of Srinagar at Padshahibagh, a flood spill channel with the original capacity of 17,000 cusecs takes off to by-pass the Srinagar city. However, in spite of flood spill channel, whose capacity is now reduced to less than 5,000 cusecs due to the siltation, floods can be caused by Jhelum in the city (particularly south Srinagar), if and when, the discharge of river through the city exceeds 35,000 cusecs. The drainage capacity of the main Jhelum and the flood spill channel therefore proved inadequate to carrying the enormous discharge of floodwater measuring more than 120, 000 cusecs. I am of the opinion that the most important reasons for the high magnitude of the observed inundation and loss during the 2014 floods in Kashmir could be attributed to the cumulative effect of the heavy rainfall event, the massive reckless urbanization of the floodplains along both sides of the Jhelum since 1972, loss of wetlands, and the reduced drainage capacity of Jhelum due to the siltation from the catchment. Author is Head, Dept. of Earth Sciences, KU