A year ago, farmers in Banaskantha were praying to the rain gods. The South West monsoon had started to recede and the district had not received enough rainfall till September 18. The Met department had labelled the district yellow on its map as it had recorded a rainfall deficit of 48 per cent. The situation was same in neighbouring Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Anand, and parts of north Gujarat. This year, the farmers are in misery again. Their crops and homes washed away as incessant torrential rain hit the central and north Gujarat. Rivers swelled, dams overflowed, canals breached, and the downpour continued. By July 21, the state had received almost half (45.90 per cent) of the entire season’s average rainfall, and in the next seven days the state received a quarter of the season’s rainfall (26.57 per cent). The huge volume of downpour concentrated for a few days and in few districts took everyone by surprise, from ordinary citizens to those in the state administration.
Anuradha Mall, chief executive officer of Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA), the nodal authority to tackle such situation, described it like this. “Every one was well prepared in advance, but it (the rainfall) turned out to be more than expected. It was like the clouds were locked over Gujarat and therefore the rainfall was concentrated over a few districts.” It all began from Surendranagar district in Saurashtra or central Gujarat. Spread over 10,000 square km and with a predominantly rural population, the district was first hit by heavy downpour that started from July 14. Between July 21 and 22, the district received over 110 mm of rainfall —nearly 20 per cent of the district’s average rain in 24 hours. Several talukas of the district got inundated, death toll in rain-related incidents jumped to 65 and nearly 29 dams in Saurashtra started to overflow. As the state and district administration rushed to provide relief and rescue people, more ominous news awaited.
By July 23, rain had eased in Surendranagar, Morbi and Rajkot, but Met department warned of more rain in north Gujarat. By the time Chief Minister Vijay Rupani returned from Chotila town, the worst-hit by rain in Surendranagar, the headlines shifted to Sabarkantha and Banaskantha in north.
Between July 24 and 25, Banaskantha recorded a whopping 257 mm of rainfall, nearly 40 per cent of the entire monsoon rainfall in nearly 24 hours. Sabarkantha too faced flood-like situation. The district recorded 180 mm, nearly a quarter of season’s rain in one day. The same night, neighbouring Patan and Gandhinagar districts also recorded rainfall of over 100 mm. (See graph)
The downpour refused to abate as it continued for the next two days, with Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts receiving over 100 mm of rainfall.It worsened further. Rainfall in Aravallis in neighbouring Rajasthan led to swelling of Banas river, which flows through Banaskantha and Patan.
The flood situation compounded further with a major breach in the Narmada canal near Kankrej in Banaskantha. The canal supplies Narmamda water to Rajasthan. According to officials, the death toll would have been far less if the canal had not breached. “The death of 14 members of a family at Khariya village in Kankrej was because of the breach in the Narmada canal, otherwise the toll would have been much lesser,” Principal Secretary (Revenue Department) Pankaj Kumar, who has been overlooking the relief and rescue operations, told The Indian Express on Sunday.
“The breach occurred near Thara village in Banaskantha. We had to evacuate over 10,000 people from that area,” he added. By Sunday, the irrigation department said that Narmada, the largest reservoir in the state, was filled to 94 per cent of its capacity. Almost 35 dams were overflowing, and 49 others had been put on high alert.
The severity of the flood and the havoc it caused could be guaged not only from the death toll — 213 and counting — and damage done to roads, canals, houses and other infrastructure, but also from the expansive relief and rescue operations. As the flood situation started looking grim in the third week of July, the government had to rope in Navy, Air Force, Army, beside teams of National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and state police to carry out the relief operations. Till now, over 17,000 people have been rescued and nearly 1.13 lakh people evacuated, of which 59,189 from two districts of Banaskantha and Patan.
A total of 32 NDRF teams, five columns of Army, 10 IAF helicopters, 11 SDRF teams, 18 BSF teams and other local teams took part in the relief operations that stretches from Saurashtra to north Gujarat. Describing the operations “an example of good flood management,” Pankaj Kumar said: “We had strategically deployed rescue teams before the flood-like situation emerged, so that we were able to make timely evacuation. In Banaskantha alone, we had stationed 10 NDRF teams before the flooding began. This resulted in very less number of loss of human life and cattle deaths (4,170 animals)… Only 63 people died due to flooding during the last one week in Banaskantha and Patan. If you have a five lakh population affected by flood, then these deaths are just 0.05 per cent of those evacuated. We saved 95.95 per cent of the vulnerable population… The death figure could have run into hundreds had it not been for the large-scale evacuation,” he said.
“This is a case where we had proper planning, good and accurate forecast, advance and timely action, regulating the flow of water from the dams, redeployment of rescue teams and evacuation,” Kumar said, adding that the state government also made use of social and traditional media platforms to successfully ward off rumours about the breach in Sipu and Macchu dams. “We tried to give real-time information about the flood situation on social media. This helped in warding off rumours,” he added.
Following the tragedy at Khariya village where houses were washed away by swelling river, the government undertook an aerial survey of the entire Narmada canal in both Banaskantha and Patan districts. The move, Kumar said, was largely meant to assess the damage done to the canal and the availability of drinking water in the region. “Pictures of the aerial survey show that the canal has been breached at several places within a one kilometre area. JCBs and other equipment have been deployed to repair the breached section of the canal,” he said. The government also conducted an aerial survey of the 200-km-long Banas river. “There is always a possibility that some bodies could be washed away and if you do not do this survey, you will find something here or there after 10 days,” Kumar said. The Banas river bank was videographed for two days and no bodies were found. Surveys are being carried out to assess the physical structure of dams like Sipu, Dantiwada and Macchu.
With the rain easing for now, the government is focusing on restoration of roads, power and providing relief. Of the 753 villages where power supply was cut off, power has been restored in 700 of them, said the government. Close to 1,500 sanitation workers have been deployed in Banaskantha and Patan for mop up operations to prevent out break of diseases.
The havoc created by the rainfall was the result of a “strange and unpredictable” phenomenon, according to weather scientists. “The heavy downpour in such a brief period over a small region was the result of a combination of two systems, both developed from Bay of Bengal branch of South West Monsoon,” said Ahmedabad region director of Meteorological Department Jayanta Sarkar.
The first system that developed on July 21 hit Morbi and Surendranagar districts and continued till 23. It was supposed to dry down and move and towards west within three days, but it could not move ahead because of the second system approaching from Madhya Pradesh. “The two combined, resulting in heavy rainfall again from July 25 till 27 in Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Patan and Gandhinagar,” he said.
In 2015, the state was facing deficit rainfall, but heavy rainfall for two to three days in July led to flood in four districts of Amreli, Kutch, Patan and Banaskantha. The vagaries in rainfall could be seen this year too. While some districts in north and central parts of the state have been hit by flood, south Gujarat districts of Tapi and Dangs have received only 50 per cent rainfall. Till July 28, the coastal district of Bhavnagar recorded only 46.84 per cent rainfall, while Vadodara and Chhota Udepur got only 43.55 and 44.25 per cent of total rainfall, respectively.
While one school of weather experts believe that this unpredictable and extreme weather condition is attributed to the “climate change”, the IMD regional director, however, disagrees. “We cannot directly link it to global warming, but then we also cannot rule out its possibility as such extreme weather conditions across the world are not a rare phenomenon now,” Sarkar added.
Last year, however, Sarkar had warned of such extreme rainfall in the future too. GSDMA CEO Anuradha Mall said that this phenomenon has not happened in last so many years. “As far as I remember, Gujarat had received such heavy rain in 1973-74. After that, I fail to remember when did this happen.” As per the Met department though a low pressure built over Gujarat has weakened, the cyclonic circulation still exists over eastern Rajasthan. “On Saturday, another system developed over Saurashtra-Kutch area, but it is not very strong. This will result in some rainfall over Saurashtra and Kutch, but will decrease from Sunday,” Sarkar said.