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Straitjacketing Kosi intensified the risk of flooding

Sep 15, 2008

The Kosi embankments are like a snake around our necks and therefore have to tolerate its occasional hissing, says water and disaster management expert Dinesh Kumar Mishra. He explains why no structural measures will provide a foolproof solution against floods.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra has worked extensively in rural Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Assam in the areas of sanitation, housing, irrigation, disaster management, and relief operations during emergencies like floods, drought, cyclones and tornadoes.

Mishra is currently documenting the major rivers of north Bihar, their history, cultural aspects of these rivers and their relationship with people who have settled along them. Also, the impact of modern flood control interventions on rivers and on society.

Mishra has written many articles and books on floods (mostly in Bihar); Boya Per Babool Ka was selected by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2002 as one of the best books written on the environment. He has also helped produce a documentary film on the Bihar floods called Dui Paatan Ke Beech Mein (Between the Devil and the Deep Sea). The film won a best non-feature film award in 1999.

Mishra, who has been studying the river Kosi from 1984, blames the Bihar government’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) for the present devastating floods in the state that have killed at least 50 people and displaced over 2 million.

Mishra speaks to senior journalist Rashme Sehgal and explains where the rot lies. Here are the excerpts:

The recent floods in Bihar have occurred on an unprecedented scale. Can you explain why?

The blame for this year’s unprecedented flooding in Bihar that has resulted in the displacement of over 2 million people must be placed squarely at the door of the Bihar government’s Department of Water Resources (DWR). The DWR is responsible for the maintenance of embankments on the Kosi river, both in Nepal and in Bihar. Birpur in Bihar is the headquarters of the Kosi project.

Members of the technical advisory committee of the DWR visit the project sites in mid-February, following which estimates are prepared and tenders floated to repair the embankments by June every year. Why was the repair work delayed until August?

There is no evidence to suggest that the engineers were roughed up, as has been reported in a few newspapers. There was some tension because the local Nepalis wanted employment in the project at their end, but that has always been the case.

If it was a law-and-order issue, what stopped the DWR from writing to the home ministry or the Ministry of External Affairs for the matter to be taken up with the Nepalese government?

If this has happened, the correspondence between the two countries must be made public. If the Nepalese government is to blame, corrective measures should be taken to ensure that such an incident is not repeated in the future. I also feel that the cost of repairs must be shared by both countries.

I would like to stress that the DWR had a full four months to strengthen the embankments, between March and July. The state government has a team of around 10,000 engineers working under it – that is not a small number!

Their callousness can be further gauged from the fact that the DWR knew that two spurs of the Kosi were directly under attack, on August 5. That was clear enough warning that the embankments were weak. But nothing was done for the next 13 days.

The actual breach occurred on August 18; it is just 12 km upstream of the India-Nepal border. It started out measuring 400 metres but is now almost 1.7 km long. Around 800 villages in Madhepura, Supaul and other districts have been affected.

The embankments have not been maintained properly for many years. I do not think it is a case of insufficient funding. The DWR was well aware of the risks involved. Unfortunately, we are now not in a position to gauge what was actually done because it will all have been washed away.

The Kosi river has been described as ‘the sorrow of Bihar’. How often has the river breached its embankments?

The expressions the ‘Kosi is the sorrow of Bihar’ and the ‘Damodar is the sorrow of Bengal’ were coined by the British who found it difficult to collect revenue from these basins. The local people still look upon the Kosi as their mother who gets angry sometimes.

I would like to point out that the Kosi has already breached its embankments seven times in the past; this is the eighth incident in the past 50 years. In 1963, its waters crossed the embankments in Dalwa, in Nepal, when the Congress Party was ruling the state.

In 1968, when Bihar was under President’s rule, the river breached its embankments in five places near Jamalpur village in Darbhanga district. When an inquiry was ordered, the blame was put on rats and foxes for causing the breaches! Although rats and foxes do burrow into the embankments, resulting in minor damage, they alone cannot be held responsible for such a situation.

In 1971, the Bhatania approach bund in Supaul district was washed away, submerging around eight villages. In 1980, the eastern Kosi embankment was eroded near Bahuarawa village, 121 km south of the Kosi barrage in Saharsa district.

In 1984, there was a breach in the same embankment near Hempur village, Nowhatta block, Saharsa district, 75 km below the barrage, which resulted in the displacement of half–a-million people. The last major breach took place in Joginia, in 1991, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was chief minister. His water resources minister took responsibility for the breach and offered to resign. His resignation was never accepted.

How much money has been spent on repairing the embankments?

Thousands of crores have been spent on building the embankments and then repairing breaches. But to little effect. Over 3,430 km of embankments have been built in Bihar since 1952, and more are in the offing. The business of embankment-building reflects the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus.

Breaches in themselves would not be catastrophic, but the increased height of the river causes them to become catastrophic. Instead of simply spreading out over the floodplain, the river cascades down carrying sand, gravel and stone. The accumulation of sand and gravel makes cultivation impossible. Between water logging and lands lost to sand and gravel deposits, the cultivators have lost over 8 lakh hectares of good agricultural land.

The figures for repair work were produced in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha and I am quoting them. The Dalwa repairs cost Rs 1.15 crore, repairs around Bhatania village cost around Rs 2.87 crore. The breach at Hempur was repaired at a cost of Rs 8.2 crore.

In 1984, Rs 51 lakh was released to contractors one day before the breach occurred. In 1991, the state government spent Rs 5.17 crore on repairs at the Joginia breach and ended up paying compensation of Rs 19.80 lakh to Nepal though I am not aware of the maintenance costs.

The amounts spent by the Centre are also huge. A June 2004 Government of India report states that Rs 818 million was allocated for flood relief, and the figure continues to rise.
Embankments increase siltation within the river and water logging of the countryside.

The Kosi has shifted westwards by nearly 165 km in the past 200 years. It used to flow east of Purnea; presently it is flowing west of Sahasra.

Is there no permanent solution to this problem?

There is no permanent solution to the perennial problem of flooding. Traditionally, the Kosi used to flow in 16 different channels with shifting emphasis, and that was the problem. People used to be inconvenienced during the monsoons but the floods were rarely fatal. The floods were moderated because of these channels and the vagaries of the river were kept in check naturally.

Straitjacketing the silt-laden Kosi and all the other rivers of north Bihar has actually caused flood-prone areas in the state to increase almost threefold since Independence, from a low of 25,00,000 hectares (1952) to a high of 68,80,000 hectares (1994) today. No less than 73% of the entire land mass of Bihar is flood-prone.

I propose that we go back to listening to the traditional wisdom of the people. We must allow them to live with the floods using traditional wisdom polished by modern science. No structural measures are going to offer us foolproof safety.

A lot of experts believe that building a dam will help harness the river water…

This debate has been raging for the last 71 years. The British proposed the building of a dam in Barahkshetra way back in 1937. In the last 71 years we have been negotiating the issue with the Nepalese government without any success. Besides, water engineers doubt whether the proposed dam will solve the problem as a sizeable portion of the river’s catchment area lies below the dam.

Why do you think a dam will not give us a final solution to the problem of flooding?

As I have already stated, the river’s flow will not be reduced by building a dam.

Why have embankments not worked?

The embankment technology for heavily silt-laden rivers is flawed. It causes river beds to rise and also massive water logging. The only people who have benefited from these embankments are the engineers, contractors and politicians who have consumed billions of rupees building them. More land has been lost to embankments and related processes than to over-cultivation. As a result, Bihar’s agricultural production is declining. Benefits accrued over many years are being washed away in a flash. One may know how to handle a cat, but one does not know how to handle a tiger...

How difficult is it for villagers who have lost their homes to return to them and pick up the threads of their old lives?

The villagers have a tremendous will to survive; that takes care of many of their problems. This is the first time that the flooding has received so much media attention though it takes place every year in Bihar. People are strong enough to muddle through the crisis. However, this does not dilute the suffering they have endured.

What does the state government do to help them restart their lives?

Distribute relief and forget the event. Last year, for the first time in the history of Bihar, the flood-stricken population received some assistance from the government. But that too was grossly insufficient. The endemic problems of overpopulation, landlessness, floods and water logging have kept a large section of north Bihar’s population completely disenfranchised.

What about other rivers in the state? Are they too subject to a lot of flooding?

All the other rivers pose the same problem as their basic character is the same – high sediment load. Last year there was no flooding in the Kosi but the Burhi Gandak and the Bagmati played havoc.

You maintain that the Kosi will continue to flood. What do the villagers living around the river tell you during the course of your interactions with them?

We have tied a snake around our neck in the form of the Kosi embankments. We have to tolerate its occasional hissing. That is what happened this year. The embankment may not be done away with, and that will mean that it is raised and strengthened at regular intervals. That will make the river more ferocious.

The villagers narrate their lives in the earlier days when the embankments were not built and life was not as tough as it is now. They knew what was going to happen and they took adequate precautions. That is not possible now as they do not know when and where the embankment will be breached.

Source : Infochange
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