Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Perennial Misery

How can Bihar end the flood disaster that visits its people year after year?

Submerged railway tracks near Madhepura, 250 km from Patna. (Photo courtesy PTI)

The breaching of embankments in the upstream areas of the Kosi river, in Kusaha village in Nepal, has resulted in yet another round of floods in north Bihar, in the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Araria, Madhepura, Katihar and Purnia.

The disaster this time is much larger than usual. More than three million people have been affected and a million have been forced to seek higher ground.

The tragedy of floods ravaging this populous area is that the phenomenon is a regular occurrence. This time though, there is now enough information that the Kosi floods could have been avoided if there was coordinated action to prevent the breaching of the embankments. Yet this was not to be.

The Kosi is known to be a dynamic river that carries heavy sediment loads along with its flow. The river has therefore undergone several course changes in its history. The upstream management of embankments in the Kusaha area of Nepal was India’s responsibility (that of the government of Bihar to be specific). If the heavy silt load in the river and its meandering flow gnawing at the embankments had been monitored and acted upon, it would have been possible to prevent the breach that finally took place. Once the embankments were breached, then the Nepal police, fearing a greater inundation of living areas, cut a chasm in the path of the river to redirect the surging waters away from villages in the area. The result was that the Kosi began to flow through older stream-ways that it used to take in the past and this ended up in a flooding of vast tracts in and around north Bihar.

Negligence, lack of coordination between the government of India and Nepal, and sheer laxity of the state government in handling a perennial problem were the proximate causes of the Kosi catastrophe, which has been exacerbated by heavy rain in the region. Hundreds of thousands remain marooned in the area. The loss of property in the 16 affected districts includes destruction of 3,00,000 homes and of a swathe of crop area. Flooding by the Kosi is, at the time of writing (September 5), still under way and there is a danger of an epidemic of water-borne diseases. Quick evacuation, deployment of a larger number of boats for movement to higher ground, provision of relief (including medical supplies and food) and construction of facilities such as temporary homes are priority concerns for a state government that is struggling to cope with the enormity of the disaster. The National Disaster Management Authority should help to expedite relief efforts and coordinate work of the relief agencies along with the army. Yet, considering that the flood situation has been described as a national calamity by prime minister Manmohan Singh, relief efforts by the central and state agencies remain woefully inadequate.

Relief and rehabilitation after a disaster of this magnitude do pose a major challenge to state and society, but what of the future for the Kosi basin and other flood-prone areas of Bihar? The recurrence of the problem suggests that the strategy of controlling the flow of water through artificially constructed embankments and bunds is problematic, simply because their maintenance is too difficult a job to carry out with certainty. Frequent breaches have only made flooding even more disastrous than what the natural process of flooding would have entailed.

Much of the misery that visits the people of north Bihar every year could be mitigated if the strategy of dealing with floods was not merely reliant upon the “hold or break” approach of managing rivers. One school of thought feels it is necessary for the water resources ministry and the disaster management authorities in both the central and state governments to study the issue from a newer perspective that places much more emphasis on strategies such as proper flood plain zoning, retaining the natural drains of the river in its course-ways, constructing flood-proof facilities in the very vulnerable areas and disseminating information about flood management, sanitation, and water usage. In a nutshell, the prescription is for reducing the dependence upon culverts, embankments and other artificial structures to regulate the flow of the rivers through the region and to manage the natural outflows of the water, including by temporary cultivation on the flood plains.

Another school of thought suggests that flood avoidance is incumbent upon building high dams in Nepal to check the flow of the rivers in Bihar. But this remains a difficult task to undertake, for it would mean that Nepal would have to manage large volumes of water in reservoirs which would also be subjected to rapid silting. However, Nepal would be able to receive considerable income if the water in the reservoirs could be used to generate hydropower. The presence of a newly elected democratic government in Nepal should make it much easier for the governments of the two countries to negotiate a solution to the flooding problem.

In the end, disasters such as the floods in Bihar should not be considered as one-off incidents that are forgotten after the floods subside. A comprehensive change in perspective in viewing flood management is necessary to prevent recurrence of this tragedy that the people of Bihar have been experiencing for decades.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly


tirthankar said...

I think there are few more angles to what you have already said here. First and foremost the reason of flood is utter mismanagement of the current reservoirs. The Kosi reservior has a capacity of 9lakhs cusecs of water but during 18th September, when the flood occurred the water contained in the flood was only 1.44 lakhs cusecs. So one may ask why there is flood at all? The answer lies in the depleted conditions of maintainence of large reserviors. In India we only spent less than 5 percent of total expenditure ion maintainence of the dams and this has resulted in the siltation of the reserviors, resulting in erosion of capacity, resulting in such havoc when theoretically there would have been no such occurrence.
Secondly, the current systems of embankment based flood proofing has little respect for the traditional knowledge which has proved to be successful against these type of flooding earlier. So there is a need to utilise such knowledge for floodproofing exercises.

humanobserver said...

We must learn how other countries tackle such kind of disasters....