Punjab continues to be in the grip of floods. In more than 1,400 villages in 19 districts of Punjab, water from the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, and Ghaggar rivers has caused heavy damage to crops, houses, and disrupted the people’s lives.

The state government has evacuated more than 25,000 people to safer places to avoid the flood. So far 38 people have died and three are still missing in the state, around 260 houses have been completely destroyed and hundreds of houses have been severely damaged. relief camps have been set up at 168 places and medical camps have been set up at 243 places.

The state government says that due to heavy rains, Punjab has come under the brunt of floods, while the India Meteorological Department says it is due to climate change. Flooding in Punjab is neither a new nor a unique phenomenon.

Punjab is a land of rivers and in the region where the rivers flow, floods are a common phenomenon during the rainy season. At present the reasons for flooding in 19 districts of Punjab is neither the rivers flowing here nor the heavy rain due to climate change.

All civilisations of the world thrive on the banks of rivers. If the water flowing in the rivers was deadly, then all the civilizations of the world would not have flourished on their banks.

Although heavy rain is considered a natural calamity, Punjab has not yet received so much rain that it is being hit by heavy floods. These floods in Punjab are not a natural phenomenon or a natural disaster, it is a man-made tragedy.

The main reasons for floods in the state is unplanned development including large dams on the rivers, constructions in the catchment areas of rivers, streams, seasonal streams and chow areas and neglect of water resources maintenance.

These days two-and-a-half rivers pass through Punjab: Sutlej, Beas, and some parts of Ravi. Bhakra, Pong, and Ranjit Sagar dams are built on the three rivers respectively.

Most of the water from the rivers is usually collected in these dams which is first used to generate hydroelectric power and later released into the canals for irrigation of crops, drinking water, and various needs in industrial units.

The dam authorities collect water from the rivers according to the capacity of the dams and release the remaining water into the rivers.

Negligence towards the maintenance of rivers, seasonal streams and drains have become a major reason for the recent floods. More than 100 villages of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Tarn Taran, and Ferozepur districts were inundated due to excess water in the Sutlej River and breaches in the Dhusshi bandhs (earthen embankment).

The urban areas of Patiala, on the embankments of Ghaggar and Badi Nadi inundated three days, with water from both rivers flowing above the danger mark. There were 100 breaches in the Ghaggar catchment area of which only 12 breaches have been filled so far.

Due to the negligence of the state government, dams, drains, rivers and seasonal-rivers, are not repaired regularly, due to the opening of the floodgates of the dams, when a lot of water suddenly enters them, then their weak banks are broken and the water takes the form of a flood.

Unplanned development starts from Bhakra Dam. The Sutlej river is the longest river among the five rivers of undivided Punjab, but much of its water is collected in the Bhakra Dam. Due to this, the river flows only with insignificant water for most of the year, due to which the river's catchment areas remain unoccupied.

People have occupied the river's catchment areas and started farming and at some places people have also built houses, huts etc. When the water storage capacity of the dam exceeds its capacity during rainy days, the authorities open the floodgates, causing rapid inundation of the river basin.

This resulted in flooding of crops, houses and other structures in catchment areas of rivers. encroachments on the catchment areas also obstruct the flow of river water, causing the water level in the river to rise further.

The water in the river should be 20 percent of its total capacity on normal days and 30 percent during the rainy season. Due to construction of Bhakra dam on the Satluj river, the existence of the river reaches the brink of extinction.

More than 1,400 villages in Punjab have been affected by floods and at many places villages have been evacuated and people have been sent to relief camps and safe places. Our elders were wise, they built houses on high places. At the time of rain, water would automatically flow from the higher areas and reach the lower areas, and would then form ponds.

People have built houses in low-lying places, due to which the size of the pond is reduced. Villages have also been flooded by the encroachment of ponds and low-lying areas, breaching of river embankments, and drains.

Another major cause of flooding is the paddy crop imposed on Punjab through Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy and its assured procurement. Paddy crop requires pond irrigation, while Punjab's agro-climatic suitable crops (maize, cotton, and some others) do not require much water. The planting of paddy based on pond irrigation turns the soil into a hard pan, which restricts the recharging of groundwater.

Due to excessive accumulation of silt, sand, stones in the floodplains of rivers, and streams, their capacity to carry water also decreases. According to a 2020 report by the Punjab Government's Mines and Geology Department, abundance of silt, sand and stones in rivers was also a reason for the 2019 floods in Punjab.

The water of Badi Nadi and Ghaggar (seasonal stream) has caused heavy damage in Urban Estate Phase-II, Hira Bagh, Tegh Bagh, Mathura Colony, Gobind Nagar, and other places of Patiala city. in some places the water rose up to six feet in about 10,000 houses.

Sadly, all phases of the urban estate are built in the ‘chow’ area which falls under the Punjab Urban Planning and Development Authority. Now if the planning and development authority of Punjab plans to build houses in the chow area, then it is difficult to say anything about the planning by the common people.

Constructions on the catchment areas of rivers, seasonal rivers and their tributaries also raise the water level during the rainy season. Due to years of lack of cleaning of rivers,seasonal rivers and their tributaries, their capacity to carry water has reduced as a result of the accumulation of sand,silt, and stones and various types of vegetation grown in them.

According to the Cross Dependency Initiative report,which was released on February 20 2023, Punjab is among the top 50 states or regions in the world where climate change is likely to cause the most damage to human-made infrastructure. According to this report, nine states of India are included in the danger zone.

The Central and State Governments should make advance arrangements to deal with natural calamities keeping in view such international and national reports. The Punjab Government should pay special attention to the regular cleaning and maintenance of rivers, streams, and drains. There should be a ban on any construction and farming in the floodplains.

If possible, old ponds should be revived. Recharging wells should be constructed at those places where excess water accumulates after rainfall in cities and villages so that the rainwater can be drained into these wells before it turns into a flood. Before any construction there should be provision of rainwater harvesting.

The Central Government should ensure procurement of agricultural commodities (maize, cotton etc.) suitable to Punjab's agro-climatic conditions in place of paddy crop by announcing remunerative Minimum Support Prices of these commodities.

DR. GURINDER KAUR is a former professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala. views expressed are the writer’s own.