Floods are a common occurrence in India. The heavy precipitation from the two monsoons and periodic cyclones along the coast are almost inevitably followed by floods. The fury and accompanying devastation have got worse with each year and, despite the several grandiose schemes announced in the aftermath of the flood, they remain unabated. This article explores the reasons for floods, how they can be reduced.

Floods occur due to cyclones or intense rainfall followed by inundation. They are a common climate-related disaster in India. It is sometimes due to inadequate drainage facilities and tidal waves induced by typhoons in coastal areas. A river floods its banks due to the incapacity to carry the increased volume of water in its course, causing inundation of surrounding areas. This happens because of a sudden and short period of very heavy rainfall or because of siltation due to deforestation in the upper course.

Floods are of different kinds:

  • flash floods due to accelerated runoff and dam failure
  • river floods that are slow to build up and are usually seasonal
  • Coastal floods are associated with tropical cyclones, waves and storm surges.

Degree of danger, depth of water, duration, velocity, rate of rise, frequency of occurrence and seasonality are the common factors of all floods.

The effect of floods is felt over a considerable area and by large numbers of common people. Due to its devastating effects, the study of floods is very important.

History of floods

The history of mankind is chequered with disasters, calamities and catastrophes. Some of these are natural and some are man-made. Natural calamities include floods, cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, etc. There are several references to floods as well as excessive rains in the Vedas, Upanishads, Jatakas, Brahmanas and other literary works of ancient India.1 Rig Vedic hymns concerning rains relate to excessive rains.2 In the Shatapatha Brahmana, a great flood is mentioned where the earth was completely submerged under the rising waters of the oceans and was reclaimed by the efforts of the Holy Fish, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.3

The Mahabharata refers to a great flood during the period of Nichakshu, which occurred in the Ganga and completely destroyed the capital Hastinapur, forcing its inhabitants to flee. Thereafter, Nicakshu had to establish a new capital called Kausambi. The Bible also refers to a great flood when Noah was asked to gather the male and female of each species in a huge boat, famously known as Noah’s Ark, to avoid being swallowed by the flood. The Ark rose up with the swelling waters and finally came to rest on Mount Sinai.

Heavy rains and floods are quite often recalled in the Jataka stories. Gahapati Jataka (No.199, para 135) refers to heavy rains in the region of Kasi, which carried away all the grain and brought famine. According to the Padakusala Manava Jataka (No.432, para 508) a heavy rain caused floods in Kasi.

Sravasti also suffered from flood havoc.4 Heavy rain in the upper reaches of the Achiravati river, caused a devastating flood in the Saraswati, leaving an everlasting memory which is recalled in many Buddhist stories.


Later Buddhist literature, which was composed in the early Christian era, refers to the river torrents that brought sorrow and devastation to the dams.5 Buddhist works like Milindapanho (II.1.10) and Mahavamsa (XXXI.25) also refer to floods.6

The Arthashastra, a classic treatise written in India over 2000 years ago by Kautilya on running a government, discusses floods and the destruction caused by them, and also suggests means to be free of them.7 According to Kautilya, calamities like fire, floods, epidemics and famine are acts of God.8 He also said floods and famine that affect agricultural production, the livelihood of the people and state revenue are more serious than other calamities.9 He recommends the following measures to control the damage caused by the flood:

  • During the rainy season, people living on riverbanks shall move to higher ground; they shall keep a collection of wooden planks, bamboo and boats.
  • Persons carried away by floods shall be rescued using gourds, skin bags, tree trunks, boats and thick ropes.
  • Owners of canoes shall be punished if they do not try to save someone in danger
  • Persons learned in the Vedas and experts in occult practices shall use prayers and incantations against rain.10

Thus, Kautilya makes the king or an administrator responsible for the protection of the people. Protection of life and livelihood constituted the elements of securing the welfare of the people. Kautilya recommends both scientific and superstitious means to fight the calamities.

Kalhana also describes a dreadful flood that ravaged the whole of Kashmir-valley. He gives many details of natural calamities that took place in the Kashmir Valley during the Mughal period. According to Kalhana, the Kashmir Valley has been devastated by floods many times when the people perished in large numbers and the river Jhelam and other streams were littered with corpses. The extreme scarcity of goods arose and there was not a tree, boundary, bridge or house that stood in the way of the inundation. The Indo-Gangetic plains were also susceptible to recurrent floods.11

Impact of floods

The severity of floods can be judged by the damage. Therefore, the damage is measured for assessing the magnitude of the flood. The flood damage may be direct or indirect damage. The direct damages are economic losses due to the destruction of crops, property and livestock. The indirect damage comes from interrupted economic activities such as loss in factories, disruption of rail and road transport, etc. Indirect damage also includes mental agony and anxiety, health hazards, suffering and ultimate loss of human lives.12

Adverse effect of floods may be classified into:

  • Physical damage: damage to buildings, roads, railways, electricity and communication towers; landslides arising from saturated soil.
  • Casualties and public health: death from drowning and serious injuries; outbreak of malaria, diarrhea and viral diseases.
  • Crops and food supplies: damage to harvest and food stocks, loss of seeds.
  • Water supply: contamination of wells and groundwater.


Flood problems

Problems due to floods differ from one river system to another. The Indian rivers are broadly divided into four regions: Brahmaputra region, Ganges region, North West region and Central India, and Deccan region. About 60% of the flooding is attributed to the two great river systems namely the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and most of the remaining is accounted for by cyclonic storms and depressions from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The most flood-prone states are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. In the early days of India’s Independence, on an average, 9 million hectares have been affected, but for the past two decades the land area prone to floods has increased from 20 million hectares to 40 million hectares. 13 It is slowly being realised that some of the most flood-prone rivers are the ones whose courses have been excessively engineered.

Forecasting and warning

Flood forecasting depends on seasonal patterns, the capacity of the drainage basin, flood plain mapping, surveys by air and land. Advance warning is possible for seasonal floods, but only minutes before in case of flash floods and storm surge.14 Flood forecasting and warning centres should be set up at the source of the most flood-prone river basins. Flood forecasting is possible by observing the discharge of water upstream and then making some intelligent extrapolations for downstream regions. Cyclones originating in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea can be located and tracked using radars. The meteorological department issues warnings about the probable area of the strike.

 Flood control measures

Possible risk reduction measures are the construction of channels, embankments, diversion channels, dams and storage reservoirs, preventing deforestation and implementing large-scale afforestation. Special attention is to be given to proper drainage and anti-water logging measures. Specific measures should be undertaken for early flood detection and warning, community participation and education and the development of a master plan for flood management.


  1. Mukherjee, R.K., Hindu Civilization, p. 74.
  2. Rig Veda: III. 8. 5-31.
  3. Shatapatha Brahmana, 1.8.1; Rapson, Cambridge History of India, Vol. I, p. 125.
  4. Champeya Jataka, No. 506; Dhammapada 3.338.
  5. Buddhacarita : IX : 15 : 94 : XIII: 6: 138.
  6. Biswas, A, 2000, Famines in Ancient India, p.82, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi.
  7. Kautilya, Arthashastra, Hindi tr. By Prof. Indu, pp. 116 – 19.
  8. Arthashastra, 4.3.
  9. Arthashastra, 8.4.3-8.
  10. Arthashastra, 2.28.
  11. Rajatarangini: The saga of the kings of Kashmir, tr., R.S.Pandit’s, Sahitya Academi, New Delhi, 1990.
  12. Monsoons, Floods and Cyclones in India, p. 43, 1992, Birla Economic Research Foundation, Radiant Publishers, New Delhi.
  13. India – 2001, Reference encyclopaedia, p. A2 -38.
  14. Encyclopaedia of disaster management, Vol. I., pp. 28 – 30, Ed., P.C. Sinha, 1998, Anmolk Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi.

Dr. M. Amirthalingam
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre

Source: Eco News, Vol.7, No.3 (October – December), 2001.

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