Disaster Management

Panic, Pain, Empathy, Hope: The citizens’ view of the Maharashtra Floods 2019

“At first, all the weather reports showed signs of water scarcity. So, when the rains came toward the end of June and were consistent, we were pleasantly surprised. Panic only set in when the water level in the Krishna River exceeded 47 feet”, says Rajeshwari, a resident of Sangli.

July brought enough rain to offset the weak monsoon of India this year. The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala, all reeling under drought-like conditions until then, were suddenly facing the opposite disaster: floods. Sangli and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra, lying on the banks of the Krishna River, experienced torrential rainfall just as the water was released from the dams upstream. The resultant flooding has caused massive losses and a death toll of over 50 (source).

The statement at the beginning by Rajeshwari reflects the feelings of many affected people.

By 6th August, the water started entering her colony situated 3.5 km away from the River. “As the water level rose to above 12 inches, the lights were cut off and we immediately left for Miraj, a place located at a higher elevation 9 km from Sangli.” Most of the relief camps were located in Miraj and Vishrambagh. “We left our vehicles and everything inside our house, and carried only a few valuables. There was no point in staying. Almost everyone in the colony had evacuated.”

Manthan, living 2.5 km away from the River in Ichalkaranji, was most worried about the factory equipment and his house. “We started evacuation by 5 AM on 8th August. Water was increasing fast; approximately 3 inches every hour near our factory.”

Rajeshwari and Manthan, along with many others, managed to reach safe ground. There were people who weren’t so lucky. Swapnil, who lives on the first floor of his building, was trapped with his family for 4 days before they could be evacuated by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) on a motor boat. Without enough boats to cater to everyone, some made sacrifices. Sayali and her family decided to stay in their apartment building and move to higher floors to allow the boats to rescue people in greater need. “There were problems in electricity, water and food supply, and poor cellular network coverage. But we managed for 9 days”, she says.

Why did you choose to volunteer?

Both Rajeshwari and Manthan chose to volunteer at the relief camps because they could empathize with the struggles others were facing. They felt the pain of abandoning their homes. But they could not even begin to imagine the thoughts of the people who had seen their homes, businesses and assets completely destroyed. These people seemed to have nothing to go back to.

“About half the people I met were experiencing a disaster for the first time. We just wanted to help”, says Rajeshwari.

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Relief camps were set up in government schools and community halls. Rajeshwari was responsible for sorting and distributing clothing items wherever necessary. “We moved around the relief camp asking people what they needed; clothes, food, blankets or sanitary pads. We tried to make sure everything is reaching everyone.” Many in-kind donations had come in, which was heartening. “Some of the material was stored away for later use, when the people would be relocated after their floods.”

There were problems too. Mridul*, a volunteer in the camp, saw with anger as the refugees would fight for food and clothes even though there were plenty for everyone. Some hoarded more items than they needed in suitcases. Many people who weren’t affected by the floods had also reportedly turned up to access the free relief material. “It was difficult to keep emotions in check, but you can’t fight there”, he says.

Manthan worked with an evacuation team. “When I got to know that so many people were still stuck, I wanted to help.” Help reached most people only when the water level had risen to the highest mark. It wasn’t an easy job. “Many were reluctant to leave their homes and belongings. We had to go to each house and force people to evacuate.” Some youth considered this an opportunity for adventure (the video below was one of many forwards on WhatsApp).

Why do you think these floods happened?

While erratic and heavier-than-normal rainfall had a part to play (source), many on the ground believe that the management of water in the dams could have been better.

Reports corroborate this. If the three big dams upstream – Koyna, Radhanagari, and Warna – had started releasing water by 25th July instead of waiting to reach full capacity on 5th August, there would have been a better spread of the volume of water in the Krishna River (source). The uncertainty of future rainfall and the worrying drought-like conditions of the past months may have been a reason why dam operators felt the need to hold on to as much water as possible. A combination of heavy rainfall and the sudden release of water from the dams when they reached full capacity is widely being regarded as the cause for this flood. Water levels in the River rose from the normal 22-25 feet to more than 45 feet. “There were also many constructions in the red zone along the banks of Krishna where people were living or working, so even more were affected”, says Manthan.

How is the morale of the citizens?

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The situation looks bleak at present. Many people, in a weird mixture of opportunism and helplessness, left their cattle to die in the hope of receiving compensation from the government. Some, shockingly, were even heard of leaving the elders to die to receive the same compensation. When and how this compensation will come is anybody’s guess. The floods have thrown up debris and plastic waste collecting in the River for years. The longer the waste and the water stagnate, the greater is the danger of disease outbreaks. Trucks from as far as Mumbai have been brought to collect and clear the waste and stagnant water. This process, however, will take at least a couple of weeks.

“The elders are extremely worried about the economic losses”, says Rajeshwari. “Most of the children I saw in the relief camps are not able to comprehend what is happening, but they are affected by the mood of their parents.” Her family’s vehicles have suffered significant damage. “We hope we can recover our losses from the insurance”, she says, “but I don’t know if there is a flood clause in it”. Sayali and Swapnil also come from small business families; they are scared to think about the losses in their shops and godowns. Disaster insurance or catastrophic insurance is not common in India. With climate change-related disasters like floods and droughts increasing, this may become necessary in the future.

Many believe that the flood has taken them 10 years back, and it could take 3-4 years to recover. Manthan echoes this grim outlook. “Even after the water and debris clear, it may take more than a year to get back to normal. But we hope for the good.”

It is hard to comprehend the flood of emotions being felt by the citizens of Sangli and Kolhapur. Hope is all they can rely on.

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*Name changed on request.

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