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The Perennial Problem Of Floods And Droughts In India – A Detailed Analysis

India essentially forms a separate geo-hydrological and climatic unit due to its isolation from the rest of the Eurasian landmass. Thus, the problems of floods and droughts in India form a distinct unit of study while studying global climatic and water regimes. However, in the age of humans, the anthropological factor has come to dominate discussions on disasters.

In the last two years, there have been devastating floods in the Kosi-Ganga plains in Bihar, Brahmaputra plains in Assam and West Bengal, urban flooding in Chennai and erratic flooding during monsoons in central India. On the other hand, drought to has persevered even in the absence of an El-Nino.

Failure of monsoons (both South-west and North-east) for four consecutive seasons in Tamil Nadu, southern Karnataka and parts of Kerala has resulted in severe drought conditions. The following is a detailed analysis of the same.


Floods in India

The above map shows the climatic disasters risk map of India. Note the areas marked in blue- these represent the flood-prone regions. Also, note the cyclone-prone regions, these are also liable to flooding especially due to storm surges along the coastline. Nearly 40 million hectares of India’s land is prone to floods.

Causes of Floods in India

The floods are caused by either one or multiple factors which may be climatological/meteorological, topological or manmade:

  1. Meteorological Factors: These include prolonged heavy rainfall which is usually common during the monsoon season. Cloudbursts are quite regular in the Himalayan region during monsoons as well. Tropical cyclones often cause flooding along the eastern coastline.
  2. Topological Factors: Lack of drainage from the area, saturated sub-soil, glacial lake outbursts due to the failure of outward debris dams.
  3. Human Factors: Encroachment of floodplains and wetlands, drying and sedimentation of natural drainage channels due to human activities, damming and diversion of rivers, destruction of natural barriers to flooding like forest and mangrove belts.
Impact of Floods
  1. Loss of lives and livelihoods of the people.
  2. Destruction of basic infrastructural capacities such as sanitation and transportation leading to isolation and risk of spread of diseases.
  3. Risk of violence against vulnerable sections, especially women.
  4. Destruction of ecology and biodiversity of an area that may take years and even decades to recuperate.

The scale and magnitude of the impact vary both spatially and temporally and this has been found to be increasing with the changes in global weather patterns.

Why are floods man-made?

Though the factors have been mentioned earlier, they need to be explained in detail as it is often said that flooding is a hazard but manmade activity makes it a disaster:

  1. Floodplains of several rivers, especially in the northern plains like Kosi, Ghaghra, Gandak, Sarayu etc are flooded every year. Yet, these areas have been settled by people, usually lying in the lower economic-strata. This has led to recurring losses in the face of floods, especially in the Assam and Bihar plains.
  2. The destruction of natural wetlands including marshes and lakes has led to blocking of areas that had earlier served as water sinks. This is the primary reason behind Chennai floods.
  3. Construction of houses in a haphazard manner without getting plans approved has led to washing away of several buildings during flash floods due to cloudbursts in the Himalayan region.
  4. With increasing deforestation especially along coastal areas and river banks, the first line of defence against floods has been removed. This is the reason that cyclone caused floods result in severe destruction along the coasts.
How can floods be mitigated?

Flood mitigation strategies involve the following components:

  1. Floodplain zoning by the respective state governments. Even after the recommendations of the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (RBA) in 1976, only three such states have passed these acts – Rajasthan, Manipur and Uttarakhand and even in these states, the implementation is lax.
  2. RBA’s recommendations on identification and assessment of flood-prone areas have been ignored to a large extent. These can be followed to allow for better flood forecasting
  3. Planting of the tree and mangrove belts along river banks and coastlines.
  4. Planned settlement growth and economic empowerment of the poor so that they can build back better structures. Housing for All scheme incorporates the disaster resilience component.
  5. Shared flood warning mechanisms with both upstream and downstream neighbours across international boundaries.
  6. Recharge and rejuvenation of wetlands and prevention of any encroachment upon their areas.

Thus, floods which are an age-old phenomenon, can be prevented from turning into a disaster.

Drought in India

Drought is termed as any lack of water to satisfy the normal needs of agriculture, livestock, industry or human population. It is shaded in red in the given map.

The main types of drought are as follows:

  1. Meteorological Drought: Reduction in rainfall for a specific period below a specific amount.
  2. Hydrological Drought: Drying up of water sources – both surface and ground water (together or individually)
  3. Soil Moisture Drought: Unavailability of adequate moisture to support the standing crop.
  4. Ecological Drought: Productivity of a natural eco-system falls significantly as a consequence of distress induced environmental damage.

In India, since 60% of the agriculture is still rainfed, meteorological drought is an important cause of drought conditions. Thus, any deficit in monsoon rains is felt to a large extent especially in areas that have large rain variability – leeward side of Western Ghats (Marathwada and Vidarbha) and North-west extremities of the country.

How is Drought man-made?

Though all reasons mentioned above seem to pertain to natural causes, yet drought is said to be a man-made disaster in the present context. This is due to:

  1. Faulty cropping systems that lead to excessive wastage of water like the flooding of fields during rice sowing.
  2. Growing crops that do not suit the agro-climatology of a particular region. India has been divided into several agro-climatic zones and it is recommended that crops that suit that region must be grown. For example, sugarcane in Maharashtra where the interiors face a shortage of water perennially. Also, rice in southern Karnataka and northern Tamil Nadu are other examples.
  3. Increasing urbanization has led to indiscriminate use of water by urban centres. This has led to water being pumped from hundreds of kilometers away leaving the sources dry and deficient in water.
  4. Lack of water storage structures that cause water that falls during the monsoons to just wash away. Also, destruction of natural water storage structures due to encroachment.

Today, this has led to an acute crisis with farmer suicides, loan build-ups and skewed prices in the markets. Also, the poor in the city and peri-urban areas have had to resort to polluted sources of water to meet their needs.

How can drought be mitigated?

Drought mitigation involves a comprehensive plan that not only covers water availability but its judicious use and re-use along with an overhaul of agricultural systems:

  1. Adoption of micro-irrigation techniques by farmers. However, such systems will need to be subsidised to be made competitive for a majority of farmers who are small and marginal farmers.
  2. Stringent application of water harvesting measures not only at the individual level but at community and village level too.
  3. Seechwal model can be implemented especially in acute water deficit areas. This model is currently being extended along the banks of the Ganga
  4. Wastewater recycling facilities in urban and industrial centres to allow for non-drinking uses.
  5. Agricultural practices should focus on more crop, per drop. Government support through Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), Soil Health Card scheme etc. must be extended to all gram panchayats.
  6. Agro-climatic basis for crop selection should be promoted. This can be done by adjusting MSP by the government.


Today, the country faces the twin challenges of floods and droughts that recur every year. Even when the country is poised to turn into a major power in the world, it has yet to shed its most basic problems. This not only requires a policy based top-down approach but a local government based push. The Panchayati Raj institutions and Urban local bodies have thus, been recognised in the National Disaster management plan (NDMP) as important stakeholders at all stages of a disaster.

India has committed itself to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, these are aligned with the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction to which India is a signatory. It is thus imperative that India synchronise its efforts so as to meet its targets under both by addressing all disasters – especially floods and droughts.

Key Terms - Floods and Droughts