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Manoj Mishra, right, is one of the environment activists campaigning against the construction of flood plains of the Yamuna River.
Manoj Mishra, right, is one of the environment activists campaigning against the construction of flood plains of the Yamuna River.

New Delhi warned of a new river catastrophe

City official says there's 'no possibility' of it happening, but scientists fear the worst as major developments continue on flood plains.

New Delhi // Choked with raw sewage and pinched by construction on either side, the once-mighty Yamuna River flows feebly through New Delhi. But India's sacred river, spilling down nearly 1,400km from the Himalayas, can still roar. In fact, about every 25 years the Yamuna rises up to overwhelm embankments and wreak havoc on surrounding lands. The worry is the last major flood was in 1978.

"It is overdue," said Suresh Babu, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. Mr Babu joins a chorus of scientists and others warning that developing the traditional flood lands around the river will only increase the magnitude of any coming disaster. "The government feels the flood plains are there, the land is available so let us convert it to real estate," he said. "But we are not understanding that in the event of a flood, it is this area that acts as a cushion for the flood water.

"It's a very dangerous plan." After catastrophic floods in Bihar that drove 1.2 million people from their homes, environmentalists are keeping an anxious eye on the Yamuna. A court order forbids new developments along the river, but projects that have already begun, such as the mammoth Commonwealth Games Village and several multi-storey projects, will continue. Unlike the Kosi River, which exploded late last month, the Yamuna has its own grim distinction. It runs along a fault line.

With bedrock 200 metres below layers of sand and silt, even the smallest earthquake could devastate surrounding buildings. "They are raising a high-rise building here," said Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, an environmental NGO that has been spearheading the anti-development movement. "It will all come down. This is an earthquake fault line, for God's sake." There is another, less dramatic by-product of development: a thirsty city is likely to get even thirstier. New Delhi gets more than 60 per cent of its drinking water from groundwater resources. An uncluttered flood plain allows rain to penetrate the land and replenish underground water sources, called aquifers.

"If this flood plain is built up, God knows where the recharge will happen and what will happen to the city's water cycle," Mr Babu said. For its part, the government has studied the flood banks - and come up with an entirely different conclusion: that the land is safe and well suited for planned development. "We have taken a number of studies," said Neemo Dhar of the Delhi Development Authority. "They all checked the flow of water over the last 100 years. There's no possibility of flooding."

Overseeing the city's growth, the government agency also plans for a series of parks along the river bank. But the Yamuna remains a long way from gracing any postcards. For about nine months of the year, dams divert virtually all of the Yamuna's water to farmland in neighbouring states. Raw sewage, seeping into the river from 22 converted storm drains, keeps water levels high. Today, the Yamuna, considered sacred by Hindus, is one of the most polluted rivers on earth, a chemical stew of human waste and animal carcasses.

A mere two per cent of the Yamuna passes through New Delhi, but the capital contributes more than 70 per cent of its pollution, according to the Centre for Science and Environment. "There is no flowing water," Mr Mishra said. "When there is flowing water, it takes away all the pollution. But when there is no flowing water, then it is only pollution." The monsoon season, from late July to early October, briefly unshackles the Yamuna; dams are overwhelmed and the river flows freely through Delhi and Agra. Along the way, it carries vital silt down from the Himalayas, enriching the river banks with fertile earth for farming. But the farmers of old, who once grew grains and vegetables here, are long gone, replaced by the steel and sawdust of construction.

When the Yamuna flooded in 1978, it engulfed five colonies in East Delhi. This part of the capital, home to about five million people, is especially vulnerable to the Yamuna's watery whims because it lies at a lower elevation than the rest of the city. As a result, several colonies were completely submerged, resulting in 18 deaths with thousands more left homeless. The damage, according to Delhi's Irrigation and Flood Control Department, was estimated at one billion rupees (or 10 crore), a sum equivalent to at least three times that much now, or Dh237 million.

Today, the only hint of the old farming communities are a handful of men beneath a bamboo encampment at the river's edge. Over the years, the government has been terminating their 99-year land leases, without compensation, to make way for development. Overnight, generational farmers such as Mahaveer Singh, lost steady incomes from farming the flood lands to become sharecroppers dependant on the whims of landowners. Since Aug 2007, the farmers have been protesting in the shadow of the Commonwealth Games Village now under construction.

In clearing out the farmers, the city may have lost more than a storied element of its past. For centuries, farmers along its banks have heeded the river's clock, knowing when to abandon their crops to the river's swell. Small-scale floods occur every decade or so. More severe floods follow a more or less 25-year clock, with the most damaging deluges of all taking place every century. Farmers also knew that for all their destruction, floods leave precious new layers of fertile soil and silt for their next harvest.

"Since olden times people have been doing that," Mr Mishra explained. "But because now we think we have become educated, we are technically skilled, we are ingenious, we can do better. "If you can't treat a river flood as a natural thing, then you are inviting trouble. That was what has happened with the Kosi. That is what is happening here." ccotroneo@thenational.ae

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